An emboldened Iran will not quickly yield to Security Council demands

It takes few prophetic powers to predict that the UN Security Council’s new demands and sanctions on Iran will not have the desired effect.

Progress in ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program conforms to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to the monitoring and inspection requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is frustrated by seriously compromised non-proliferation norms, an unexpectedly emboldened Iran , and an ambiguous case.

A persistent double standard in nuclear non-proliferation means that what is being required of Iran – the immediate termination of all uranium enrichment and nuclear reactor fuel reprocessing – is not required of other non-nuclear weapon state signatories to the NPT. Furthermore, India, which is not an NPT signatory but which has used enrichment and reprocessing technologies to produce nuclear warheads, is in the process of being offered full civilian nuclear cooperation by the United States. From Tehran ‘s vantage, the issue seems to be not what you do but who’s friend you are.

In the meantime Iran has clearly become bolder and more influential. Even though President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s intemperate rhetoric on the state of Israel and his audacious anti-Semitism should strip his Government of all international credibility, the country’s oil wealth,[i] its influence in Iraq (in the context of growing American desperation and dependence on Iran’s help to quell the civil war now raging), and its proxy role in the Middle East via Hezbollah and Hamas forces, have given the Iranian regime unexpected, and unwelcome in most of the world, confidence as a regional player – and a disinclination to be compliant.

Added to that, the international community’s case against Iran is genuinely ambiguous. The only hard charge is a lack of transparency. The secrecy charge is a very serious one and there is no ambiguity about Iran being in violation of its safeguard obligations. The fact that for many years it kept nuclear programs hidden from the IAEA, along with a continuing refusal to cooperate fully in answering the IAEA investigators’ questions, means it cannot expect the international community to adopt a business-as-usual approach to its civilian nuclear efforts. But ambiguity does enter inasmuch as there is no direct evidence that Iran is in pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and Iran cites some credible reasons why its special circumstances prevent it from meeting the international community’s legitimate transparency demands at this time.

First, when Iran is asked why it initially conducted its nuclear enrichment program in secret if its only interest is the perfectly legal pursuit of nuclear power, it replies that it in fact tried to acquire the relevant technology in the open market but was persistently frustrated by US interference and pressure on other states not to cooperate with Iran. So, for Iran to acquire technology to which it should have been given open access, it had to turn to clandestine efforts to get around US obstruction.

Second, Iran is asked why it continues to refuse full disclose all of its nuclear activities and open all its relevant facilities for IAEA inspection if it has only peaceful purposes in mind? Iran replies that as long as the United States is still drawing up plans to attack and bomb its nuclear facilities it cannot disclose the location and depth of its facilities – for any disclosure to the IAEA will end up being known by the US. So disclosure now, it says, would only help the US refine its war plans.

And finally, in addition to the transparency question, Iran is legitimately challenged to explain why, if it is truly only interested in electricity generation by nuclear means, it cannot accept the offer from international negotiators of guarantees of all the enriched nuclear fuel it needs (removing the need for domestic uranium enrichment). Virtually no country just beginning to acquire nuclear power reactors relies on domestic fuel production, so why does Iran require its own production rather than rely on imports. Iran answers, with much less credibility since it has to rely on imports to build its domestic capacity, that as long as the US vendetta against Iran continues, e.g. its listing of Iran as part of the axis of evil, how can Iran be sure that pledges of access to fuel will be honored?

And so the stalemate will continue. It is likely that the international community will ultimately have to bend on two counts. On the matter of uranium enrichment, it may finally be necessary to accept Iran ‘s current level of enrichment (still at an experimental or research level, but with steadily growing capacity)[ii] under strict IAEA safeguards while the IAEA completes its work of confirming the legitimacy of the rest of the program.

The preferred option of course is that Iran suspends all enrichment activity, cooperates fully with the IAEA in clearing up all outstanding questions about Iran ‘s earlier clandestine efforts and current operations, and then resumes enrichment only under full inspections and in accordance with its rights under the NPT. But, despite some slim hopes that the indirect reproach that Iranian voters in local elections handed to Ahmadinejad and the extremists could yield a change of approach,[iii] there are few indications that Iran is in a mood to be cooperative and to give up uranium enrichment as a gesture of goodwill.

The complete termination of Iranian enrichment and reprocessing efforts will ultimately have to be linked to a wider international agreement to internationalize control over the civilian nuclear fuel cycle – and the success of the latter will be critical to the success of long term non-proliferation.

The international community, in this case primarily the United States, will also have to bend to provide Iran with a set of credible security assurances. Getting Iran into full compliance with IAEA safeguards will require the United States to make it demonstrably clear that regime change is off the table and that its sole objective is unambiguous compliance with non-proliferation standards (i.e. fullscope inspections and implementation of the additional protocol – an enhanced set of inspection arrangements with the IAEA). George Perkovich, a prominent US non-proliferation analyst, argues that the US has in fact largely abandoned regime change as a policy objective but that it will have to be diplomatically creative and persistent to persuade Iran and the rest of the world.[iv]

It is hard to believe that the United States, given the rate of its current descent into the Iraq quagmire and its spectacular failures in the rest of the Middle East, would actually contemplate adding to its failures with a military attack on Iran, but the depth of Washington’s folly has been underestimated before. Not only Iran, but many of America ‘s allies will have to see credible proof of the Bush Administration’s full commitment to non-proliferation diplomacy before they energetically promote the Security Council’s new formula.

[i] Iran’s oil revenue is expected to go into sharp decline over the next several years, due in part to growing (and subsidized) domestic consumption and a deteriorating oil industry infrastructure – a development that gives credence to Iran’s claim that it needs civilian nuclear power production to meet growing energy demand and that in turn suggests Iran’s current sense of invulnerability could be short-lived – perhaps making it more inclined to cooperate on non-proliferation standards. [“Iranian Oil Revenue Quickly Drying Up, Analysis Says,” WashingtonPost, Dec. 26/06.]

[ii]A recent report suggests that its uranium enrichment capacity has grown from two 164-centrifuge units to a total of 3,000 centrifuges (keeping in mind that industrial level production of low enriched uranium to fuel a reactor would require a complicated and integrated system of 54,000 centrifuges, but 3,000 such centrifuges clandestinely dedicated to producing highly enriched uranium could within a few years generate enough weapons grade uranium for one or two bombs per year). [“Iran may declare major enrichment feat,” Jerusalem Post Online Edition, Dec. 26/06, David Albright, “When could Iran get the Bomb?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2006.]

[iii]” Opponents of Iran’s ultra-conservative president won nationwide elections for local councils, final results confirmed Thursday, an embarrassing outcome for the hard-line leader that could force him to change his anti-Western tone and focus more on problems at home. Moderate conservatives critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a majority of seats in last week’s elections, followed by reformists who were suppressed by hard-liners two years ago. Analysts said the President’s allies won less than 20 per cent of local council seats across the country. The vote was widely seen as a sign of public discontent with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s stances, which have fuelled fights with the West and led Iran closer to UN sanctions. [Ali Akbar Dareini, “Local elections a blow to Iran ‘s Ahmadinejad,”, Dec. 21/06 (…).][iv] George Perkovich, Five Scenarios for the Iranian Crisis, Winter 2006 (Ifri: Paris and Brussels , 2006), p. 29.

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