Iran, Sanctions and the Memo

Sometime this spring, but still months later than President Obama predicted, Iran may finally face new United Nations sanctions for its illicit nuclear program.

Mr. Obama has done a lot to prepare the ground. He has bolstered American credibility with his — since rebuffed — offer to engage with Iran. He signed a new arms reduction treaty with Russia, improved relations with China and is personally lobbying other United Nations Security Council members to support stronger sanctions.

We are skeptical that even that will be enough to get Moscow and Beijing to sign on to anything with real bite. In the last four years, the Security Council has passed three far-too-modest sanctions resolutions. Tehran has shrugged them all off and kept churning out nuclear fuel.

The good news is that Mr. Obama is also hedging his bets, with an effort — first begun under President George W. Bush — to persuade an ever-widening circle of international corporate interests to eschew business in economically strapped Iran.

Total, the French energy company, and Eni of Italy claim they are planning to end new investments in Iran. Major international banks like Deutsche Bank and HSBC have said that they are withdrawing from Iran. Several oil companies have said they would no longer supply gasoline to Iran, including Royal Dutch Shell, Vitol, Russia’s Lukoil and India’s Reliance. Last week, Malaysia’s state oil firm, Petronas, said it was cutting off shipments. Its prime minister then denied it.

Promises are clearly cheap. The administration will have to keep pressing these companies to live up to their commitments. And it is time for Mr. Obama’s European partners to think about more formal ways to tighten their own sanctions on Iran.

None of this should let the Security Council off the hook. A new resolution would provide important cover for these parallel tracks. Iran is especially vulnerable now, both economically and politically. Its leaders will be watching carefully, especially to see what its longtime trading partners and enablers in Russia and China do.

There, the news is not good. While Russian and Chinese leaders told Mr. Obama that they will work seriously on new sanctions, diplomats say their representatives are already seeking ways to dilute any resolution. Brazil and Turkey, which currently sit on the Security Council and have a lot of international sway, also are resisting. Mr. Obama needs to keep pressing Moscow and Beijing hard. He and his European partners need to make clear that Brazil (which seeks permanent Security Council membership) and Turkey (a NATO member) must step up.

We don’t know if there is any mixture of pressure — or inducements — that will force Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. That’s what makes a memo written earlier this year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and reported by The Times on Sunday so important.

Looking beyond the current maneuvering, he raises some very disturbing and difficult questions that need to be addressed. How will the world contain Iran if it actually produces a weapon? What will Washington and its allies do if Iran acquires all of the parts but decides to stop just short of that?

The United States and its allies need to quietly discuss and prepare for those possibilities — without giving Russia, China and others any more excuses not to act.

As for the military options under review, we are sure that an attack would be a disaster. We urge anyone who has doubts to listen closely to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told reporters on Sunday that while military “options would cause delay” to Iran’s nuclear program, “that doesn’t mean the problem is going to go away.”

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