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John Bolton’s Reverence for the United Nations

John Bolton, the neoconservative former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has ironically criticized a provision of the Iran deal that recognizes U.S. veto power within the U.N. Security Council.

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As implacable opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran continue to scramble for any argument that has a chance of helping to shoot the deal down, a prize for originality ought to go to John Bolton for a new idea he tries out on us in an op-ed today. The idea involves sanctions, and it involves the United Nations. Bolton got a recess appointment in the George W. Bush administration as ambassador to the United Nations for a little more than a year, although it would be more accurate to describe his role then as ambassador against the United Nations. One of Bolton’s more notable comments about the global organization was that if ten stories were removed from the 38-story U.N. Secretariat building, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

It should not be surprising that the posture of Bolton, hard-core neocon that he is, regarding sanctions against Iran is that the more of them there are, and the longer they can be kept imposed on Iran, the better. And part of his opinion piece is about the possibility, as he sees it, that any lifted or suspended international sanctions would not be reimposed with sufficient certainty and swiftness in the event of any Iranian violation of the agreement. One could reasonably think that one aspect of the agreement about which Bolton would not be complaining is the procedure for dispute resolution whereby if any party to the agreement believes a violation has occurred and the matter has not been resolved at other levels, it would take a positive vote of the U.N. Security Council for any further lifting of sanctions. In other words, the bias is in favor of not lifting sanctions, and sanctions against Iran would stay in place as long as anyone who has the power to stop Council action wants them to stay in place. The subtext for the writing of this provision is that if the United States believes that Iranian behavior warrants a halt to sanctions relief, it will get its way even if Russia or China (or Europeans hungry for economic deals with Iran) want sanctions relief to continue.

But, says Bolton—and here is his original notion—there is a “hidden danger” in this for America. “By concocting a procedure that elides the Russian or Chinese vetoes,” Bolton writes, “Mr. Obama has surreptitiously accomplished a prized objective of the international left, which always disapproved on principle of the veto power. Through 70 years of United Nations history, one lodestar emerges clearly: Washington’s only immutable protection has been its Security Council veto. Mr. Obama’s end-run around the veto poses long-term risks that far outweigh whatever short-term gain is to be had from boxing in Russia and China now.”

Set aside any search for the “international left” that supposedly has been waging a 70-year campaign against Article 27 of the U.N. Charter and reflect on a couple of other things. One is that far from representing any weakening of “Washington’s only immutable protection,” the provision Bolton is criticizing is a recognition of, and bowing to, U.S. veto power. Even if the United States were to stand entirely alone in its interpretation of an alleged Iranian violation and everyone else on the Council wanted sanctions relief to continue, the United States could use its veto and sanctions would stay in place. If Bolton were to have his former job back, one could picture him, mustache twitching, in the Council chamber, casting his lonely “no” vote to stop giving any further sanctions relief to the perfidious Iranians.

In his op-ed Bolton is being more solicitous of Russian and Chinese veto power than U.S. veto power. It is odd for an American, and a neocon at that, to frame things that way. But we needn’t feel sorry for the Russians and Chinese; they were parties to the negotiation that produced the agreement with Iran. Far from being end-runned by President Obama, Russia and China participated in writing the very provision that Bolton is knocking.

Bolton then tries to make a comparison with the “Uniting for Peace” procedure during the Korean War, in which recourse was made to the General Assembly to get around a Soviet veto of any action on the subject by the Security Council. But the comparison isn’t valid at all. No one is talking about taking any compliance issues on the Iran agreement to the General Assembly. And what happened during the Korean War was, quite unlike the Iran agreement, very much an end run around the Soviets, who strenuously opposed both the procedure and any U.N. involvement in the war.

Perhaps there are three takeaways from this strange offering from Bolton. One is the comic relief we can get from such a bizarre argument. A second is validation of the wisdom of those in the U.S. Congress who opposed the confirmation of someone who doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about such distinctions as the one between positive and negative action by the Security Council, and who demonstrably was unfit to represent the United States before the preeminent global organization. The third is the conclusion that resort to sophistry such as this demonstrates that the die-hard opponents of the Iran agreement really are short on valid arguments.

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