Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Sanctions Support Limiting U.S. Options

Last spring U.S. President George W. Bush's administration struck what looked like a diplomatic bargain with European governments, Russia and China on Iran. The Islamic regime would be offered a "clear choice" between a package of economic and political treats -- including the direct dialogue with the United States that Tehran has long craved -- and international sanctions, depending on whether it agreed to suspend its nuclear program. Bush administration officials said Germany, France, Russia and China all pledged that in the event of a negative answer from Iran, they would support sanctions.

Iran's answer is now in: It is unambiguously negative. The Bush administration has consequently turned to its partners and asked for the response to which they committed themselves. Their public reactions have been almost as dismaying as that of Iran's government.

"We cannot support ultimatums that lead everyone to a dead end," said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is selling Iran hundred of millions of dollars in nuclear materials that might be affected by the proposed sanctions.

"The parties involved should be cautious about moving toward sanctions," said Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, whose country imports almost 12 percent of its oil from Iran.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country is reluctantly deploying troops to Lebanon within range of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, cynically claimed the middle ground: "If the Americans want sanctions, and the Russians and Chinese don't, there will be no sanctions," he said last week.

Bush administration officials maintain they are not alarmed. They predict that a new UN resolution applying a first set of mild sanctions will be passed in the end -- though not before many weeks of negotiations among the allies.

Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear program will continue. UN inspectors reported last week that the uranium enrichment operation that began this year was proceeding more slowly than expected. At the same time, they came across new traces of bomb-grade uranium for which Iran provided no explanation -- just as it has refused to explain its president's public statement that work is proceeding on a new, advanced centrifuge that would greatly speed enrichment.

Russian and Chinese officials may fear that international sanctions are a prelude to more drastic measures, such as U.S. military action. In fact, their resistance to sanctions only raises the chances that Bush will see force as the only way to stop an Iranian bomb.

This comment was published as an editorial in The Washington Post.