The UN Security Council continues to insist that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment activity even though such activity does not violate any provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nor is enrichment in itself contrary to safeguards requirements under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It is not illegal for Iran to enrich uranium for civilian purposes.
But it is illegal to try to do it in secret – that is, outside of IAEA safeguards arrangements – which is what Iran in fact did for an extended period. The clandestine operation of any civilian nuclear facility, including civilian enrichment, without safeguards is illegal, so when Iran was caught doing just that it obviously raised suspicions that Iran ‘s real interest is in developing the capacity to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium. Hence, the Security Council made the eminently reasonable decision to require Iran to suspend all enrichment activity until such time as the IAEA has sufficient access to Iranian nuclear facilities to develop full confidence that all clandestine activities have ended and that enrichment is and will remain for civilian purposes only.
Iran has been notorious about dragging its feet on compliance with IAEA requirements, complaining that it is being asked to terminate just the kind of peaceful nuclear activity that is specifically allowed and even promoted under the NPT. In the standoff Iran continues to pursue enrichment and little progress is being made in clearing up outstanding questions related to the earlier secret operations.
In other words, the Security Council strategy – which seeks to isolate Iran by refusing all talks until enrichment is suspended – isn’t working, and calls for a new approach are growing.
Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group recently told a Harvard University conference that the world will finally have to accept Iran’s civilian enrichment program and take a principled position that is consistent with the Treaty – namely, insist on a safeguards arrangement that can verify that Iran never weaponizes its enrichment capability, and promise “all hell – including in an extreme case military action – if that line is crossed.”[i]
A similar approach has been argued here.[ii] If suspension of enrichment was taken off the table and replaced by a requirement that enrichment be confined to research levels until such time as all outstanding IAEA questions are resolved, the international community would be in a position to call Iran’s bluff‚Äîto see whether Iran, with the challenge to its right to enrichment technology removed, would indeed honour its obligation of full disclosure and unfettered IAEA access. Then, future industrial enrichment would be carried out under full IAEA safeguards. At the moment, however, the focus on a suspension of all enrichment activity provides Iran a cover under which it both accelerates enrichment activity and refuses full cooperation with the IAEA – and. as a consequence, frustrates the international community’s right to unambiguous confirmation that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.
The current Security Council strategy is driven by the US, but it is increasingly questioned at home. Three contenders to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president – Hilary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Barak Obama – have recently called for a new round of intensified diplomacy, including direct talks without preconditions.[iii]
With the IAEA’s Director, Mohamed ElBaradei, calling for the defusing of tension to prepare the way for a political solution, the US/Security Council approach is losing credibility. There is no doubt that American pressure for strengthened economic sanctions against Iran is having an impact, but it is the move toward talks to resolve the crisis, rather than talks as a reward for Iran agreeing to all demands in advance, that is now opening up new possibilities. Last week Iran and the IAEA agreed to “develop an action plan for resolving outstanding issues.”[iv]
One new pledge to talk does not qualify as a major breakthrough, but combined with the growing criticism of the current no negotiations stance from Washington , we may be seeing a new opportunity. It is an opportunity that needs to be developed into a three-pronged approach: a new commitment to talking and sustained diplomacy; recognition that countries like Iran cannot be prevented from developing civilian nuclear technology; and the strengthening of the IAEA, backed by tough international resolve, to give it the technical tools and the political backing it needs to apply the kinds of comprehensive safeguards needed to assure that there is no diversion of civilian technology to weapons purposes.
[iii] The Associated Press reports on the Clinton and Richardson comments: “Clinton, Richardson urge Bush administration to continue talking to Iran,” Associated Press, June 27/07 (http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/06/27/america/NA-POL-US-Democrats-Foreign-Policy.php); Barak Obama writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that “our first measure must be sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy – the kind that the Bush administration has been unable and unwilling to use,” Barak Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs July/August 2007 (http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html).
[iv] ” Iran , IAEA to Discuss Better Nuclear Cooperation,: Global Security Newswire, June 26, 2007 (http://www.nti.org/d_newswire/issues/2007/6/26/ADE5FA01-715B-4BA6-AE9B-1453E164C409.html).