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    Middle East
     May 2, 2006

The case against sanctions on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

As expected, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, has issued a report citing Iran's non-compliance with the requests of both the IAEA's board of governors and the United Nations Security Council, and this has been widely interpreted as paving the way to UN sanctions on Iran in the near future. But has it?

Sanctions can be resorted to under Chapter VII of the UN Charter when considered by the Security Council to be absolutely necessary. To do so, the council would have to determine, under Article 39 of Chapter VII, the existence of any "threat to the

peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" caused by Iran's nuclear activities.

Yet, per the admission of ElBaradei in his report, all of Iran's nuclear activities "are covered by Agency Safeguard containment and surveillance measures". This, together with the important finding that all nuclear material has been accounted for, raises a serious questions from the prism of international law: On what basis can the Security Council invoke Chapter VII against Iran?

Surely, the IAEA's complaint of Iran's non-cooperation with its requests for "confidence-building measures" that are voluntary and non-legally binding cannot possibly suffice to grant the United States' wish for invoking Chapter VII, for to do so is to substitute superpower exigencies for international law.

Put simply, there is insufficient and/or non-existing evidence, the calculated disinformation aside, to support Western allegations of an Iranian weapons build up; these allegations, initially claiming clandestine activities, have now almost entirely focused on Iran's transparent nuclear activities without, however, being able to pin-point any discernable signs of military use via those activities.

The Israelis, however, are the sole exception. They told the London Sunday Times that they had evidence of hidden Iranian centrifuge facilities working overtime to cut the timeline for nuclear bombs shorter. Such alarmist news from Israel has been heard before aplenty, and distinctly reminds one of Israel's similar gambit with regard to Iraq in 2002-2003.

Here is the nub of the IAEA/Security Council dilemma: they have both called for "re-establishing full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development". And yet, in light of the absence of any "smoking gun" lending validity to the allegations of Iran's nuclear-weapon "ambitions", as well as some 2,000 man-day inspections of civil and nuclear facilities during the past three years, the legal justification for a permanent suspension of Iran's enrichment-related activities under the terms of the non-proliferation regime is simply absent.

To insist on this demand based on hitherto unfounded fears of Iran's misuse of dual-purpose technology is to set up arbitrary red lines that would be tantamount to legal nihilism.

Ironically, ElBaradei writes that "transparency measures are not yet forthcoming", this when his own report contains Iran's April 27 letter to the IAEA pledging to set up a timetable within three weeks to resolve all outstanding questions. Either ElBaradei is interested in procuring more and more cooperation with Iran or he is not, for obvious political reasons, and if he is, then his claim that Iran's transparency measures are not forthcoming must be revised.

To open a parenthesis here, whereas ElBaradei's report confirms Iran's recent claim of having successfully enriched uranium, various Washington pundits such as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies have dismissed Iran's claim as "vacuous political posturing". Clearly, Cordesman and other policy pundits listened to attentively by the US government and the big media need to check their sources before leveling such stupefying allegations against Iran.

The mere fact that, by ElBaradei's own admission, most of the outstanding questions, such as regarding the (foreign) sources of contamination of Iranian equipment with HEU (highly enriched uranium), have been successfully resolved in Iran's favor represents yet more cold water on the furnace of sanctions on Iran.

Indeed, the existence of small "gaps" in knowledge mentioned in ElBaradei's report hardly reinforces the momentum toward sanctions, in view of the fact that Iran is not alone and the IAEA's annual reports are filled with complaints of non-compliance by dozens of member states.

The issue is that Iran should not be subjected to punitive sanctions for exercising the same rights enjoyed by the Permanent Five members of the Security Council as well as Germany, Brazil and Japan. To do so would be to undermine the very legitimacy of the UN and its most powerful organ, which has yet to recover fully from the United States' Machiavellian manipulations with regard to Iraq three years ago.

Mindful of such a distinct possibility, Kofi Annan, the UN's secretary general, has on more than one occasion warned that the Iran crisis could be detrimental for the United Nations and that the issue should remain within the IAEA. Similarly, Russian officials have warned that the Security Council should not try to replace the IAEA.

Also, within the General Assembly, there is considerable opposition to the ill-advised recommendations for sanctions on Iran which, if implemented by the Security Council, may in effect negatively affect the UN's global image, as a surrogate of US power, and its ability to perform its functions with respect to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond. 

Yet, US officials have yet to show any signs of grasping the potentially adverse consequences, for the UN as well as the future of the Middle East, if their meritless push for UN sanctions is adopted. Their current drive needs to be rethought in the light of a more sound grasp of the existing alternatives.

But assuming for a moment that the US and its European allies somehow manage to get Chapter VII invoked at the Security Council, which is bound to cause further ire in Iran and, indeed, the entire Muslim world and most if not all of the Non-Aligned Movement, then Iran's non-compliance with the initial token sanctions will put the council in serious jeopardy.

Either it will not escalate the pressure with tougher sanctions, in which case Iran's case will be yet another example of the council's impotence, or it will seek Iran's compliance by imposing more and more "smart" sanctions that will be, in effect, legally dumb and, as a result, accentuate the UN's perception as a superpower pawn. The members of the Permanent Five (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Germany are due to meet this week to discuss what action to take.

Iran's enrichment knowledge is a fait accompli and Iranian centrifuges are spinning irrespective of the United States' wish to "stop even one centrifuge from rotating", to echo a US official at last year's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference in New York. Henceforth, the world should accept to live with Iran's nuclear capability and do what is necessary to make sure that Iran's pledge of non-military diversion of its peaceful program is verified through the IAEA's instruments. It is noteworthy that last spring, French President Jacques Chirac, in his meeting with Iran's chief negotiator, fleetingly consented to Iran's enrichment right, only to buckle under external pressure.

Of course, the weaknesses of the US-EU's legal hand at the Security Council is the main reason there is a growing talk of sanctions "outside the UN" by a so-called "coalition of the willing". Again, any such sanctions would be contrary to international law and, most likely, incapable of garnering Iran's forfeiture of its NPT-based right to an independent fuel cycle, only causing commercial and financial setbacks for any country lured or coerced into this coalition.

The possibility that any of Iran's neighbors, including Turkey, which has burgeoning economic relations with Iran and cooperates with it within the multilateral framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization, would join such a coalition is rather remote.

As a result, the US and its European Union allies are about to take the "unnecessary" Iran crisis to the next level, portending first and foremost a diplomatic disaster for them, and for the well-spring of international laws and regimes.

A more prudent approach would be to use persuasive diplomacy with Iran, to put Iran's security anxieties to rest and induce greater and greater nuclear transparency in an atmosphere devoid of military threats. Only then can the outside world feel reasonably secure that Iran's nuclear-weapon potential will remain latent; otherwise, if the pattern of escalating pressures continues, then the most likely scenario will be one of "self-fulfilling prophecy" wherein a potential nuclear state sets aside its own declared antipathy to nuclear weapons and embraces them under unreasonable external pressures.

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", the Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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