Shifting the focus on Iran’s nuclear program

Rumors of an American war on Iran continue unabated,[i] even while any case for such a war grows progressively weaker, and as a result US Vice President Dick Cheney has been making what is for him a familiar move.

Mr. Cheney is reportedly putting pressure on intelligence analysts to modify their reporting on Iran’s nuclear program to better serve the attack scenarios of Administration hawks. The refusal by some in the intelligence community to sign on to a national intelligence assessment claiming an imminent Iranian nuclear weapons capacity has held up a key intelligence report, and it may also have contributed to the removal of John Negroponte as director of national intelligence.[ii]

Obviously the international community, including Iran’s neighbors, still harbors a deep concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions, but the urgency of that concern is clearly mitigated by the conclusion of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is now providing sufficient reporting, as well as allowing sufficient access by IAEA inspectors, to enable the IAEA “to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.”[iii]

That assurance doesn’t address the possibility of undeclared or clandestine programs, but here too the IAEA is making progress on a work plan[iv] that was put in place in August to resolve all the outstanding verification issues by April 2008, with a progress report due from the IAEA Director General to the IAEA Board next week.

The Bush Administration has thus been increasingly de-linking its war plans from Iran’s nuclear program, focusing instead on Iran’s alleged support for groups fighting the Americans in Iraq, a move that is making others in the Security Council more reluctant to pursue aggressive sanctions for fear of conflating the two issues (nuclear and Iraq).[v]

That reluctance is reinforced by the inescapable ambiguity of the one major Iranian nuclear controversy that remains, And it is an ambiguity that will remain even after a satisfactory completion of the Iran/IAEA work plan – namely, the uncertain legality of Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium.

Iran’s uranium enrichment program is no longer clandestine, it is open to inspection and verification, and it is legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its related verification requirements, but it does violate UN Security Council Resolution 1737 of December 23, 2006,[vi] which requires, among other things, the suspension of “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development.”

Suspension is not itself the ultimate objective of the Security Council and Iran rightly argues that it has a right to pursue any nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The suspension demand is put forward as a confidence-showing measure – that is, through the suspension Iran would demonstrate its goodwill and willingness to help the IAEA establish that there are no ongoing clandestine nuclear programs in Iran and that all declared programs are for peaceful purposes.

While the Security Council agreed on the demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, the international community broadly and the six states[vii] giving leadership on the Iran issues in particular are not of a single mind on what the ultimate objective should be. President George Bush is unequivocal: “Listen, the first thing that has to happen diplomatically for anything to be effective is that we all agree on the goal. And we’ve agreed on the goal, and that is the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, or the knowledge as to how to make a nuclear weapon.”[viii]

But the American attempt to deny Iran the knowledge or even the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, rather than to ensure its full compliance with the inspections regime to confirm that Iran is not actually building a nuclear weapon, makes it easy for Iran to claim that its rights under the NPT are being violated. President Bush in the meantime repeatedly conflates the “knowledge” needed to build a nuclear weapon with the possession of one: “If you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”[ix]

In fact, there is no reasonable prospect over the long term of preventing Iran from gaining such knowledge, and there are indications that Washington’s European and Security Council partners in dealing with Iran may now be moving on to focus on the real issue – preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon through a meticulously applied inspections program, rather than trying to restrict the knowledge.

That change was implied earlier this fall when the Security Council refused to authorize more sanctions in the face of Iran’s continuing uranium enrichment. Instead, the European focus was on monitoring progress in Iranian cooperation with the IAEA on clearing up questions related to its past clandestine work.[x] If the IAEA report due next week is positive and shows Iran to be genuinely cooperating on the core issue of full transparency, the uranium enrichment issue will continue to decline in importance as long as the IAEA is given access to inspect the process and confirm that it is producing only low enriched uranium for civilian reactors, and not high enriched uranium suitable for weapons production.


[i] See “War With Iran?” in this space (warwithi). Time Magazine’s October 26, 2007 issue declared, “Iran War Drumbeat Grows Louder” (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1676826,00.html).

[ii] Gareth Porter, “Cheney Tried to Stifle Dissent in Iran NIE,” Interpress Service, November 9, 2007 (http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=39978).

[iii] Statement by IAYA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei to the 62 nd Regular Session of the UN General Assembly, October 29, 2007 (http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Statements/2007/ebsp2007n018.html).

[iv] The work plan is available at the IAEA website (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/2007/infcirc711.pdf), and Sharon Squassoni of the Carnegie Endowment has provided a graphic depiction of the timeline for resolving outstanding issues that grew out of Iran’s clandestine nuclear activities (http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19553&prog=zgp&proj=znpp).

[v] Robin Wright, “Divisions in Europe May Thwart U.S. Objectives on Iran,” Washington Post, October 18, 2007 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/17/AR2007101702211.html).

[vi] http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/681/42/PDF/N0668142.pdf?OpenElement.

[vii] The Permanent Five of the Security Council plus Germany.

[viii] President George W. Bush, “Iran’s Nuclear Activities,”The White House, Washington, DC, April 28, 2006 (http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rm/2006/65479.htm).

[ix] Paul Koring, Bush steps up rhetoric on Iran: Warns of possible ‘World War III’, The Globe and Mail, October 18, 2007 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20071018.BUSH18/TPStory/TPInternational/America/).

[x] Sophie Walker, “World powers push ahead with Iran sanctions,” Reuters, November 2, 2007 (http://ca.today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=topNews&storyID=2007-11-02T203718Z_01_L30131658_RTRIDST_0_NEWS-IRAN-NUCLEAR-COL.XML).

This entry was posted in Nuclear Disarmament and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *