Ahmadinejad can continue to smile while the world argues
The following statistics will help explain the difficulty in imposing economic sanctions on Iran: In the beginning of 2006 the total trade between it and China will reach some $8 billion, and by the end of 2006 it will rise to $10 billion; the gas pipeline between Iran and India will cost some $10 billion, and is meant to provide a significant portion of India's gas needs; and Russia is set to sign an agreement to sell Iran $1 billion in weapons.
Iran, which is becoming transformed by world oil prices into an ever wealthier state and one that can pay for its deals primarily in cash, is economically prosperous. It appears that its leadership thinks its in such a good position that it can reject a Russian compromise proposal on the nuclear issue, and that it can depend on China to veto any sanction the United Nations may decide to impose.
On the domestic front, too, the regime can enjoy freedom of action for the time being. The presidential elections only completed the process under way for three years, in which conservatives won a majority in the local authorities and in parliament - for which the reformists are partly to blame. And so Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can curse and swear at Israel and the United States, deny the Holocaust and suggest that the Jews return to Europe, without such a statement constituting a change in Iran's standing. However within the government, the Iranian president can reach only the line marked by spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who continues to control the important nuclear portfolio, but that's still a lot of leeway.
This standing of Iran, and particularly the dependence of Russia and China on Iran (along with other countries like Japan, India and Pakistan, which have no veto power in the UN Security Council), create the impression that the West does not have a real option in light of the threat of Iran's being armed with a nuclear weapon - whether that threat is true or false.
This impression is very close to reality, as long as international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council are bound by two fundamental understandings that accompany its treatment of Iranian nuclear power. The first is that at the moment there is no military option, certainly not while the war in Iraq teaches a daily lesson to those who support this option; and the second is that in light of Iran's strong economic standing and its special ties with China and Russia, it will be unrealistic to threaten it with economic sanctions.
It is not superfluous to add to these fundamental understandings the American attempt to get Iran involved in quieting Iraq so that it can finally begin to think about a time to withdraw. In the last two weeks, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been trying to find an Iranian interlocutor on the issue, so far unsuccessfully. These attempts further strengthen the feeling of Iranian power.
Moreover, an Iranian nuclear weapon is seen in Europe, Russia and China solely as breaching the world balance of power, but not as a direct threat to them. This is in utter opposition to the position of Israel, which is not particularly impressed by breaches of the world balance of power, as it doesn't protest the development of Indian or Pakistani nuclear power (and is itself not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Israel sees Iranian nuclear power as a direct threat to it, and only to it.
That's where another reason for the international shoulder-shrugging comes in: Iranian nuclear power is considered almost exclusively an Israeli problem, and this fact makes it even more difficult to get the world to act jointly against Iran. Meanwhile, it seems that the more Israel raises the Iranian issue, the more distant a solution seems. The double trap - that of the United States against its partners, Russia and China, and that of Israel, which seeks to convince others that Iran poses a world threat - plays well into the hands of Iran. Even if Iran does not end up producing a nuclear weapon, it will be able to continue holding the whip of the threat of producing it and rely on world disagreements to rescue it.