The Hidden Risks of S.Res.574

Over at The National Interest‘s Buzz blog, I discuss the implications of a newly-introduced piece of legislation that would call for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be indicted for inciting genocide. While Ahmadinejad certainly deserves scorn and isolation (and I expect his speech tomorrow at the General Assembly to remind us of that, although perhaps less than in prior years), all moves against Iran are not automatically smart moves. S.Res.574 is among the less-smart moves. There are issues beyond the ones I discuss in the Buzz post that I’d like to elaborate on more here.

Within Iran, the principlist faction (more or less Iran’s neoconservatives) won rhetorical battles with the reformist camp by arguing that reformist diplomatic initiatives had given the West concessions but yielded nothing–the Khatami Administration, for instance, offered the U.S. some cooperation in Afghanistan, voluntarily stopped elements of the nuclear program, and attempted to start a “dialogue between civilizations,” yet left office having been branded a member of the axis of evil and facing increased risk of international sanctions. If this is how the international community responds to concessions, say the principlists, why make them? Why negotiate when the conclusions of negotiation are predetermined and unfavorable? A key element of this rhetoric of late has been the “injustice” of the international system (Iranian leaders are eager to point out that the Security Council is structured on power, not democratic principles) and Iran as a primary victim of international injustice. Indicting Ahmadinejad would confirm this narrative and strengthen the hand of the most anti-diplomatic camps of the principlists; it would not help the reformists much, as many already regard Ahmadinejad as a criminal.

There is a second troubling matter–taking legal action against a foreign head of state. This is morally satisfying, but the world is full of unpleasant leaders, and sometimes America must work with them. Our dirtier allies will not appreciate a sudden American friendliness with international judicial regimes; dirty leaders on the fence about relations with America may see a moralistic foreign policy as a sign that they would be better off with American rivals like Russia or China that are more committed to a mind-your-own-business Westphalian international system.

Of course, as I suggest at TNI, S.Res.574 is not likely to have any serious impact–among other things, the Senate has not ratified the Rome Statute, which founded the same International Criminal Court that the Senate is calling on to try Ahmadinejad. The international community is likely to pay little attention to a nonbinding resolution in the Senate, which the same day began processing a resolution “congratulating the Nunaka Valley Little League Junior girls softball team on winning the 2012 Little League Junior Softball World Series” and two days later to congratulate itself for “the 50th anniversary of the signing of Public Law 87-788, an Act commonly known as the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Act.” S.Res.574 is little more than election year pablum.

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