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    Middle East
     Mar 25, 2006
Iran: Nuke treaty mess reaches critical mass
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

After nearly two weeks of intense debates, the United Nations Security Council has yet to reach a decision on the Iran nuclear issue, and already dire warnings about the adverse impact of this crisis on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) can be heard aplenty.

This rising chorus of concerns now includes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has suggested that the NPT could fall apart as a result of the Iran crisis. Lavrov's statement that "the NPT should remain intact" is a diplomatic way of conveying the concerns of not just Russia but also of many other states party to the NPT about the potential of the row over Iran's nuclear program

to trigger a systemic breakdown of what has until now been a relatively successful regime, irrespective of its shortcomings.

In turn, this calls for a serious scrutiny of the US and European approach toward the Iran issue, which is habitually justified in the name and interest of the non-proliferation regime, yet may well have the unintended opposite consequence of harming and eroding the pillars of this regime.

At last year's NPT Review Conference in New York, the US representative, Stephen Rademaker, articulated the US-European approach by stating that they "are seeking to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, a solution that, given the history of clandestine nuclear-weapons work in that country, must include permanent cessation of Iran's enrichment and reprocessing efforts, as well as dismantlement of equipment and facilities related to such activity".

Calling the United States' demands "arbitrary" and based on "self-serving criteria", Iran's then foreign minister, Kemal Kharrazi, rebutted Rademaker's demand at the same conference and declared that Iran "is determined to pursue all legal areas of nuclear technology, including enrichment, exclusively for peaceful purposes".

One year later, Iran's position remains the same despite the escalation of pressures now channeled through the Security Council and, with the growing warnings of military strikes against Iran by both the US and Israel, the larger issue of the non-proliferation regime's viability and relevance has been cast under a thickening cloud of suspense.

The deficits of the non-proliferation regime
For 36 years, the non-proliferation regime has been a cornerstone of global stability. Centered on the NPT and encompassing complex norms and institutions, such as the implementation arm of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which operates through a whole array of bilateral safeguards and verification agreements with the member states, the non-proliferation regime is today experiencing a pile-up of deficits or shortcomings sliding it toward crisis.

Various experts have attributed three types of interrelated problems to this regime: lack of universality, in light of the de facto nuclear states of India, Pakistan and Israel; insufficient disarmament pertaining to Article VI of the NPT; and lack of adequate nuclear cooperation among the nuclear haves and have-nots.

Often referred to as "managed proliferation" rather than non-proliferation pure and simple, this regime has been a byproduct of a relatively stable bipolar Cold War order now impacted by the tumults and turmoil of the post-Cold War era, the salient feature of which is US unilateralism and hegemony increasingly challenged by a variety of state and non-state contestants.

The chief deficits of this international regime relate to the lack of commitment by some states to their respective treaty obligations, not to mention defection from the regime by North Korea and/or the more sedimented legitimacy deficit stemming from the "exclusive club" of nuclear-weapon states; Article IX of the NPT strictly restricts nuclear-weapons-state status to those states that manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon prior to June 1, 1967.

Thus the rather (Orwellian) hilarious nature of the congressional move in the US to approve the controversial US-India nuclear deal, citing nuclear India as a "non-nuclear state". The gap between the legal approach and the objective reality has grown so wide as to undermine the longevity of the non-proliferation regime's legal framework.

As William Potter, director of the Center on Non-Proliferation Education in California, has rightly noted, in signing the "nuclear sharing" deal with India, the administration of US President George W Bush has subordinated the non-proliferation considerations to "other US foreign-policy considerations". According to Potter and echoed by a host of other nuclear experts, this deal in effect means that "technology control is no longer the cornerstone of US nuclear export and non-proliferation policy".

A fundamental problem of the non-proliferation regime is, to quote Hans Blix, that "many of the non-nuclear-weapons states feel cheated by the nuclear-weapons states for going back on their commitments ... notably on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty". Blix, who headed the UN inspection of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) before the US invasion of that country, has raised questions about the real purpose of discussing Iran's case at the Security Council, stating in his recent interview in Fletcher Forum, "I am a little curious as to what would be the purpose of taking the Iran issue to the Security Council. It may be a basis for a claim that it should be handled by forceful unilateral measures."

The US national-security doctrine of preemption was reiterated this month by the Bush administration, even though it is clearly outside the UN norms and simply augments the security vulnerabilities of states that dare to challenge the present global imbalance of power. The United States' singular emphasis on nuclear superiority, its nuclear-weapons modernization plans, and its reliance on tactical nuclear weapons for use in conventional theaters affect the overall non-proliferation calculus of those states, at least in the long run.

Clearly, the non-proliferation regime, to the extent that it operates within the global hierarchy of power, is adversely impacted by the power competitions pitting the US power against certain regional powers. Short of a paradigm shift in world power, the non-proliferation regime remains in a state of starvation vis-a-vis its lofty objectives obviated by the world powers; the latter have yet to adopt the fissile-material cutoff treaty championed by the UN secretary general.

Yet another major deficit of the non-proliferation regime is caused by so-called "Israeli exceptionalism", in light of the fact that Israel is the only Middle East state that is not a party to the NPT and has reportedly amassed some 200 nuclear bombs. Giant steps by Israel with respect to entering safeguard and monitoring relations with the IAEA are needed if Israel is serious about Middle East non-proliferation.

As a regime erecting legal barriers to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the non-proliferation regime has been a candidate for rewriting, so far without much success, thus prompting the US and Europe to pursue the more de facto methods of coercive counter-proliferation reflected in the punitive measures loudly talked about against Iran. If followed by action, this course may have the opposite effect on the de jure revisionism of the NPT, by weakening the Third World states' loyalty to non-proliferation principles and norms.

Strengthening the NPT via the Iran crisis
In light of the coming US-Iran talks on Iraq, which has been blessed by both President Bush and Iran's spiritual leader, there is a ray of hope for a successful resolution of the nuclear crisis. While both sides are adamant that the talks will focus exclusively on Iraq, there is ample reason to believe otherwise, particularly if the talks prove productive, in which case they can be telescoped to other outstanding US-Iran issues.

Assuming for a moment that Iran and the US reach some understanding on how to forge a partnership for peace and stability in the region, then there is no doubt that this will have a positive impact on the nuclear talks currently happening at the Security Council (without direct Iranian input so far).

A second draft statement has been circulating at the Security Council that represents a minor improvement over the initial draft by citing the "inalienable right" of nations to pursue peaceful nuclear technology. This right, pertaining to Article IV of the NPT, has been called an unfortunate "loophole" by the US president, claiming that it allows the would-be proliferators such as Iran to take advantage of it. This draft "recalls the right of states party to the NPT, in conformity with Articles I and II of the treaty, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination".

But there is no such loophole if the US and Europe place enough faith in the IAEA and its robust inspection regime.

On the other hand, the US-Iran talks on Iraq could well extend to the issue of regional security and include discussion of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Persian Gulf, as well as the Middle East. Iran is reportedly now willing to discuss such a weapons-free zone in the Gulf, and this is a welcome step, representing a break with the past antipathy to this idea, which was disfavored because of exclusion of Israel. Yet many experts are convinced that the adoption of the Persian Gulf as a nuclear-weapons-free zone is bound to have direct ramifications for the entire Middle East, including by forcing Israel to take concrete steps toward compliance with the norms of the non-proliferation regime.

Clearly the Iran nuclear crisis carries both positive and negative potential with respect to the non-proliferation regime, and its eventual outcome is not pre-fixed; rather, it depends on the will and acumen of leaders and decision-makers who are involved in this crisis threatening the world peace.

Any false first steps at the Security Council can have disastrous results down the road, which explains why some permanent members are disinclined to appease the Iran-bashing US envoy, John Bolton, who has declared: "I'm not in the carrot business." Maybe Bolton is in the wrong business, since the UN business is the business of crisis prevention and not escalation.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of http://www.booksurge.com/product.php3?bookID=GPUB05984-00001 Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

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