After years of diplomatic foot-dragging, procrastination, and wishful thinking, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board finally is slated to vote this week on whether to refer Iran’s suspicious nuclear activities to the UN Security Council for possible action.
Iran, as usual, is trying to delay a diplomatic confrontation by dividing key nations with empty promises and further negotiation. Its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has even resorted to blackmail: "If we are referred to the Security Council, problems might occur for others as well as us," he said on March 5. "We would not like to use our oil as a weapon. We would not like to make other countries suffer."
The United States and its allies must rebuff this ploy and reject any last-minute diplomatic smokescreens that Iran may try to use to derail action by the IAEA. The U.S. should push for a prompt IAEA referral and confront Iran’s violations of its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the UN Security Council.
For now, Tehran is flirting with a Russian proposal that would give it access to uranium enrichment facilities in Russia, but it still clings to its demand for the right to enrich uranium on its own soil, which would increase the risk that uranium could be diverted into a nuclear weapons program. That outcome is unacceptable.
A Slow-Motion Crisis
The current crisis has its roots in the August 2002 discovery of an Iranian uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak, both of which Iran had hidden for many years, in violation of its NPT obligations.
To avoid referral to the UN Security Council, Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment efforts in October 2003. Tehran undoubtedly was influenced by the successful military campaigns by U.S.-led coalitions that toppled neighboring regimes in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Iran engaged Britain, France, and Germany (the EU3) in diplomatic negotiations and made tactical concessions to defuse the crisis and stave off international sanctions. But Iran never backed away from its stated goal of acquiring a full nuclear fuel cycle, which could be used to produce fuel for nuclear reactors as well as fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The installation of new hard-line Iranian government led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the summer of 2005 led to a more confrontational strategy. The new government, which criticized the diplomatic concessions made by former President Mohammed Khatami, apparently concluded that Iran’s diplomatic position had been bolstered by rising oil prices, the cultivation of diplomatic support from Russia and China, and the perception that the U.S. was bogged down in Iraq and so no longer posed an immediate military threat.
In August 2005, Iran resumed converting yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride, a preliminary step before uranium enrichment, at its nuclear facility in Isfahan. It removed IAEA seals from three of its nuclear facilities on January 10, 2006, and announced the resumption its uranium enrichment activities at Natanz. This ended the partial freeze of its nuclear program, violated scores of IAEA resolutions, and revealed Iran’s bad faith in its diplomatic dialogue with the EU3.
The IAEA responded with a weak resolution on February 4 that reported Iran’s activities to the Security Council. However, Security Council action was delayed until IAEA Director General Mohammed El-Baradei briefed the IAEA Board on March 6 about his official report on Iran’s nuclear activities. The IAEA Board now is expected to review the report and vote on referring Iran to the Security Council by the end of this week.
Still, this leaves Iran another opportunity to defuse the crisis and avert concerted international action. It could suddenly reverse course and embrace the Russian proposal in a last-ditch attempt to avert an IAEA referral. Or it could hold fast to its provocative policy, counting on Russia and China to intercede on its behalf in the Security Council.
President Ahmadinejad is a true believer in Khomeini’s 1979 revolution and is inclined to confrontation. Unlike his predecessor, President Khatami, who advocated a "Dialogue of Civilizations," Ahmadinejad advocates a clash of civilizations, with Iran leading the Islamic world against the United States and Israel.
Ahmadinejad will likely continue his defiant rejection of demands that Iran abandon its nuclear ambitions.Already he has ordered "full scale enrichment" of uranium and ended Iranian cooperation with surprise inspections under the additional protocol of the NPT. Moreover, Ahmadinejad has threatened to withdraw from the NPT altogether.
But cooler heads may yet prevail. Former President Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad defeated in last year’s elections, has called for prudence and may be able to convince others. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Guide, is the ultimate arbiter of Iran’s foreign policy and may seek to sidestep international sanctions with easily revocable diplomatic promises.
But Iran appears willing to take its chances in the Security Council. Tehran calculates that Russia and China, both of which have aided Iran’s civilian nuclear program and sold it weapons, have a vested economic and strategic interest in maintaining good relations with Iran. In the past, Russia and China have acted as Iran’s protectors, and they could use their influence and the threat of a veto to delay, dilute, or block effective sanctions in the Security Council.
Looking beyond the UN
If Russia and China continue to shield Iran, the best that can be expected from the Security Council is a symbolic slap on the wrist through limited diplomatic or economic sanctions. The U.S. therefore must make contingency plans to work with Britain, France, Germany, the EU, Japan, and other interested nations to impose targeted economic sanctions outside the UN framework.
The U.S. already has strong unilateral sanctions in place, but it can tighten them still further. For instance, it could ban the importation of Iranian pistachios and oriental rugs, both of which were exempted from sanctions by the Clinton Administration in a failed effort to launch a diplomatic dialogue with Tehran. The U.S should also rigorously enforce the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which penalizes non-Iranian companies that invest in Iran’s oil industry.
Despite the UN’s weakness in confronting Iran, the Bush Administration must press the diplomatic case at the Security Council to isolate Iran and set the stage for further sanctions, increased international cooperation in containing Iran, and possible military action as a last resort.