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    Middle East
     Aug 10, 2005
Miscues set up nuclear crisis
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

SAN FRANCISCO - Iran's resumption of uranium-processing activities and the EU-US warning of sanctions in response to Iran's rejection of the latest European proposal have set the stage for a full-scale international crisis engulfing the United Nations at a time the world organization can ill-afford the entanglement of this crisis.

Already, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in a recent interview of a Security Council deadlock, given the potential Russia and China veto of any proposed Western sanctions against Iran. This would paralyze the UN at a sensitive time when the burning issues of UN reform could easily be made more complicated as a result of confluence with the Iran crisis.

Annan's latest statement, calling on Iran to show "nuclear restraint", should be heeded by the Iranian policymakers as they need to seriously explore the idea of self-restraint, even in the absence of external or internal limits to their nuclear program, whereby, for example, Iran would refrain from fuel fabrication, at least for a while, even after rescinding the suspension of its enrichment programs.

And even if the Security Council does adopt sanctions, "the implementation of economic sanctions against Iran is not such an easy thing", to quote Annan, given the rather poor history of UN-imposed sanctions. But the main worry is less the long-term effect of sanctions and more the immediate prospect of a showdown at the Security Council, where the complaining party, namely, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)and its backers in Western capitals, have the burden of establishing that Iran is in material breach of its obligations toward the non-proliferation regime.

Certainly, the US and its European allies can cite the past history of the Islamic Republic of Iran in concealing some of its nuclear activities and in it resuming nuclear fuel-related activities not in line with the Iran-EU Paris Agreement of November, 2004. But, by the same token, Iran's hand is stoked with the optimism that the more recent past - that is, the past two years of steady cooperation with the IAEA, culminating in the satisfactory resolution of most if not all the outstanding issues of material concern by the atomic agency, such as the foreign sources of contamination by HEU (highly enriched uranium) - can somehow trump the more distant past rife with lack of transparency and full cooperation with the IAEA.

Indeed, as the US and the EU-3 (France, Britain and Germany) meet IAEA officials to chart a map of action in response to Iran's enrichment activities, deemed as perfectly legal from the Iranian prism, the question arises as to the grounds on which the UN could penalize Iran for engaging in a legal activity? This, in fact, forms the nub of the Iranian defense, in light of the IAEA chief's admission, in an interview with Der Spiegel, dated February 21, that "we at the IAEA lack conclusive evidence. We have yet to see a smoking gun that would convict Tehran. I can make assumptions about intentions, but I cannot verify intentions, just facts."

And what exactly are the disputed facts on the table? Mohammad ElBaradei in the same interview stated, "I am certainly proud of what we have accomplished in Iran. Eighteen months ago the country was more of a black hole for us." Rightly so, as the IAEA has conducted numerous comprehensive inspections, some on short notice, since October 2003, the time when Iran pledged to increase its cooperation with the IAEA.

Hence, in light of Iran's fulfillment of its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations and the legality of its uranium conversion program currently pursued under full IAEA monitoring, one wonders why the EU-3 are so adamant about referring Iran to the Security Council and risking their rather lucrative trade relations with Iran? Have they really thought through the various, multiple side effects of their threats? Probably not.

The IAEA's governing board, meeting in emergency session to discuss the Iran issue, has a recent record of (a) acknowledging "good progress" in terms of Iran's "voluntary confidence-building measures" and (b) deferring to the director general reporting "if and when he deems it necessary" to raise concerns about Iran. Yet, currently the EU-3 and the White House have seemingly decided to supplant the IAEA's director general and impose a harsh IAEA agenda vis-a-vis Iran. But for the most part this would not wash, as seen from the vantage point of international treaty obligations of IAEA member states, including Iran.

The new Iranian policy has not emerged in a vacuum; rather it can best be accounted for by a constructivist approach that would interpret the policy changes as an outgrowth of evolution in the country's identity and the need for creative policy adjustments thereto.

Iran is concerned by the unreasonable demand of the EU-3 that it should make a "binding commitment" to forego its "inalienable right" to peaceful nuclear technology, including the centrifuge enrichment program allowed by article IV of the NPT, in exchange for guarantee of a foreign supply of nuclear fuel and certain other economic and security incentives.

Concerning the latter, the latest European proposal is a giant step backward compared to the Paris Agreement, which stipulated that Europe would provide "firm commitments" on economic, nuclear and security issues pending Iran's "objective guarantees" regarding its nuclear program. The new proposal, named "Framework for a Long-Term Agreement", bypasses both issues deemed central in the Paris Agreement, by giving broadly vague and insufficiently firm "incentives" tantamount to pseudo-incentives. A close scrutiny of this proposal is called for, deconstructing its legal basis:
The proposal, items 2(e) and 14, repeatedly pays lip-service to Article IV of the NPT as well as to "rules of international law" and, yet, explicitly requests Iran to exclude fuel-cycle related activity from the purview of its nuclear program. Aside from the fact that all the three European states are themselves fully engaged in nuclear fuel production, and two of them, namely France and Britain, are also procuring nuclear fuel for the international market, the other interesting fact is that the EU-3's demand does not even conform with the IAEA's own demand that Iran suspends its enrichment activities as a temporary "confidence-building" measure.

The same sentiment was reflected in the Paris Agreement, and yet the new proposal openly seeks to make permanent a transitional arrangement, irrespective of Iran's offer of objective guarantees and the IAEA experts' own admission that Iran's low-grade enrichment can be verified.

Also, the EU-3 proposal, item 36(c), calls on Iran to allow, pursuant to the Additional Protocol, the IAEA "inspectors to visit any site or interview any person they deem relevant to their monitoring of nuclear activity in Iran". This goes beyond the scope of the Additional Protocol, which expands the right of access to IAEA inspectors without, however, making this a limitless right as demanded by the EU-3.

Thus the million-dollar question: why shouldn't Iran pursue its fuel fabrication when it has the technology, when it costs less, when it is environmentally more safe, and when it can be tightly monitored by the IAEA, through its inspectors, surveillance cameras, etc? The EU-3 proposal (item 25) deals with nuclear fuel for Iran by outsiders. It reads:
Any fuel provided would be under normal market conditions and commercial contracts and subject to proliferation-proof arrangements being agreed for safety, transport and security of the fuel, including the return of all spent fuel.
Unfortunately, until now the US and the EU-3 have failed to seriously consider the viability of similar proliferation-proof arrangements for Iran's home production of nuclear fuel, whereas what is needed is a rational framework for verification and safeguard that would put to rest the existing worries of a potential diversion to military purposes. Such a framework can be set up and the IAEA officials this author has talked to have invariably been on the side of an objectively verifiable system to monitor the Iranian nuclear program.

A major problem with the Iran-EU nuclear talks since 2003 has been the conflation of nuclear and economic and security issues, whereas what is needed, as aptly put by an Iranian official in a recent interview, is to disentangle the nuclear issue from these other issues, eg terrorism, Iran's accession to the World Trade Organization, drug trafficking, and so on, which are complicating the picture. What is needed is a straightforward discussion of purely nuclear issues, centered on objective guarantees, without any suggestion that somehow Iran can be persuaded to trade it nuclear fuel rights for some (vague) incentives. One such incentive is Europe's pledge of support for Iran's role in regional security, which is totally meaningless without an explicit American endorsement. But Iran-US relations at the moment are too hostile and too distrusting to allow for such a crucial development in the near future. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that the Bush administration's support of the European initiative has remained at the abstract level, without touching the specifics.

In conclusion, tackling this crisis requires much more prudent European diplomacy than reflected in their latest proposal evincing the latent inclination toward the use of coercive, hard power with sanctions and other related punishment under the guise of a framework for cooperation. More appropriately, this is a framework for diplomatic nihilism, sinking the ship of an independent European diplomacy in the sea of American unilateralism.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-authored "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume X11, issue 1, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu.

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