In the past few weeks, Turkey and Brazil have elbowed their way to the Big Table of international diplomacy: first by negotiating a nuclear fuel swap agreement to try to push the US back towards diplomatic efforts to resolve its conflict with Iran, and then – in the case of Turkey – by its support of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla’s efforts to break the Israeli-Egyptian-US siege of Gaza’s civilian population – efforts that continue today as the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie proceeds towards Gaza, amid silence – not enough protest, apparently – from the Obama Administration.
But it appears that if Turkey and Brazil want to have effective input at the Big Table, they are going to have to play hardball effectively with the United States: they have to continue to show the U.S. that they have the power to obstruct the U.S. from getting what it wants if the US continues to ignore their concerns.
In particular: by now it should be obvious to even the most obtuse that in practice the issue of the siege on Gaza and the US drive for new sanctions against Iran are linked. Had it not been for the Israeli military assault on the Flotilla and the resulting deaths, the U.S. would be pushing this week in the Security Council for a new round of sanctions against Iran. Instead, the Security Council was talking about the Israeli attack on the Turks and the siege of Gaza, and Turkey was saying that it would keep coming back to the Security Council until it received satisfaction on both questions; and Turkey was strongly implying that until it received satisfaction on its grievances – including ending the siege on Gaza – it wasn’t interested in having any conversation about sanctions on Iran.
The US has placed an extremely high priority on achieving a new sanctions resolution as quickly as possible. Whether this policy is in the interests of the majority of Americans is another question; suppose that the Obama Administration remains committed to this policy at present.
In practice, therefore, anyone who is in a position to obstruct the US push for a new sanctions resolution has a tremendous degree of leverage over the United States right now. In particular, if Turkey can block or postpone a new UN sanctions resolution on Iran, then Turkey can end the siege, because without US support, there is no siege.
Now, as everyone knows, you can link two things without holding a press conference or sending out a press release saying, "hey everybody, from now on I am linking these two things." Indeed, when people accuse you of linking the two things, you can ostentatiously deny it. You just need to act as if the two things are linked, and allow your interlocutors to draw the necessary conclusion: until you get what you want, no-one else is going to get what they want.
Yesterday, US officials set a deadline of June 21 for Security Council action on a new sanctions resolution. Of course, it’s not up to the US to unilaterally set deadlines for Security Council action, but this deadline gives Turkey and Brazil an opening.
Suppose now Turkish and Brazilian diplomats were now to say: we demand effective Security Council action to end the siege on Gaza by June 20. Do you think U.S. diplomats would get the message? I think they would.
Now, of course this begs the question of whether Turkey and Brazil have the capacity to back up this implied threat: can Turkey and Brazil delay a sanctions resolution? The US has indicated that it is ready to move forward with a sanctions resolution without the support of Turkey and Brazil, who both oppose the US push for a new sanctions resolution because they want the US to pursue diplomacy, and because the US is dismissing the fuel swap deal and their efforts to mediate the conflict. Historically, the US has placed a high premium on unanimity. But now that it’s purportedly ready to throw that overboard, let’s suppose that the US is ready to go all the way in this direction, and content itself with a resolution that passes with the minimum nine yes votes from the fifteen members of the Council.
To delay a resolution supported by the five permanent members – it’s not 100% clear at this point that the US can totally count on support from Russia and China, but let’s suppose that it can – then Turkey and Brazil need five other members of the Security Council to be willing to threaten to vote no or abstain. Lebanon seemed like a safe bet for not voting yes, even before this week. Then, achieving a blocking coalition would require four of the following seven countries to threaten not to vote yes: Austria, Japan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Uganda, Mexico, Gabon, Nigeria.
Turkey and Brazil were opposed to the new sanctions resolution before Monday and they have no reason to support it now, even if the siege on Gaza were immediately lifted. But in trying to recruit other countries against the US push, in addition to arguing the direct merits of the case – that the Security Council should not consider a new sanctions resolution until after the US pursues diplomacy on the basis of the fuel swap agreement – Turkey and Brazil should argue that in any event, as a political matter the Security Council should resolve the question of the siege of Gaza before considering a new resolution on Iran, because it is objectively more urgent, because the time to address it is when world attention is focused on the issue, and because if the Obama Administration gets a new sanctions resolution on Iran, the international community is going to lose a lot of leverage on the Obama Administration.
And it should be easier to organize seven countries on the Security Council around this argument, at a time when the world’s attention has been focused on Gaza, then to organize seven countries against the US push on the basis of the fuel swap alone.
With the issue of Gaza introduced, the prospects for recruiting allies should improve. Bosnia is a plurality Muslim country and Nigeria is half-Muslim, so if it’s a referendum on Israel’s policies towards Gaza, then maybe Bosnia and Nigeria would at least threaten to abstain. Mexico has a government which is right-wing domestically but like all Mexican governments tends to more progressive on international questions – this week, Mexico demanded that the embargo be lifted, and Mexico has good relations with Brazil, so maybe Mexico would at least threaten to abstain. That would be three of the four needed to delay.
The goal here is not to win a vote – the US will almost certainly not push for a vote unless it is confident of at least nine yes votes. The goal is to block a vote, forcing the US to negotiate with Brazil and Turkey.
Underlying all this is an ugly but unavoidable reality. Because of the tremendous power imbalance, the U.S. is used to getting its way with small countries on the Security Council. Is it likely that, behind closed doors, US diplomats spend a lot of time talking to diplomats from small countries about their concerns about Iran? No, it is far more likely that behind closed doors they say things tantamount to, "This is very important to us, and if you cross us on this, we will squish you like a bug. Forget about US aid, or access to credit from the IMF or the World Bank or international markets, or access for your goods to the US market, if you cross us on sanctions against Iran."
That means, that if Turkey and Brazil are serious, they have to be ready to fight fire with water. If the US uses threats to secure votes, Turkey and Brazil – and their friends – have to be ready to counter the threats. The Latin American countries have recent experience with this: in recent years, they’ve protected each other from similar US and IMF threats.
During the Depression, my grandfather Max was a defense attorney for poor people in Chicago. I asked him once: did you ever bribe a judge? And he answered: in my time, in Chicago, a lawyer who refused to bribe a judge was a no-good lawyer. Because it was virtually guaranteed that the State would bribe the judge. So if you refused to bribe, your chances at getting a fair trial for your client were basically zero. But if you bribed the judge, and the State bribed the judge, and the two bribes were roughly equal – now you had a chance at a fair trial for your client.
Like it or not, the situation on the Security Council today is not so different from Depression-era Chicago. If Brazil and Turkey – and their friends – can counter the threats of the U.S., then maybe their arguments can get a fair hearing.
As President Lula tells Oliver Stone in the new movie, "South of the Border," Brazil wants to be treated as an equal. As a former trade union leader, Lula knows: power concedes nothing without a demand.