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    Middle East
     Aug 31, 2006
Iran's time to talk is over
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

With the United Nations deadline for Iran to comply with its demand to halt the nuclear fuel cycle or face punitive measures due to expire on Thursday, Iran's nuclear row has reached a critical threshold, given Tehran's comprehensive and conciliatory response to the package of incentives by the UN's five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany.

Calling Iran's right to produce nuclear fuel one of the country's



"strategic objectives", chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani has at the same time gone out of his way to reassure the international community that his country's willingness to negotiate is serious and nothing, not even the issue of suspension of nuclear activities, is off the table.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has challenged US President George W Bush to a televised debate on world issues, at the same time signaling that Iran would ignore the UN deadline.

Iran's response has so far elicited diametrically opposed receptions, with China and Russia embracing Iran's invitation for a meaningful negotiation, in rather sharp contrast to the United States, whose UN ambassador, John Bolton, has castigated Iran for failing to heed the Security Council's demands and has called for swift sanctions by the UN.

But at present, Bolton cannot even count on sound support by the European Union, whose foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, has evinced a more studied reaction to Iran's proposal, implicitly warning not to dismiss it out of hand, but rather to "carefully study its details".

Solana and high officials from the so-called EU-3 (Germany, France and Britain) are trying to embark on a historic trip to Iran in a last-minute diplomatic effort to persuade Tehran's leadership to abide by the dictates of Security Council and to halt enrichment-related activities by Thursday.

It is unclear whether the US sanctions such a trip or, on the other hand, is gearing up for a showdown at the Security Council in September.

Amid reports of an inter-governmental rift over Iran, principally between the State Department and the Pentagon, a number of US lawmakers, such as ranking Senator Richard Lugar, have gone on record advising the necessity of taking up Iran's offer for talks instead of a straightforward march toward sanctions.

What is universally missed by the US media and political pundits, however, is that Security Council Resolution 1696 tacitly obligates such talk by virtue of endorsing the package of incentives by the permanent five (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia) and Germany.

The resolution "endorses" their proposal "for a long-term comprehensive agreement". Thus, given Iran's serious consideration of this proposal and its submission of a detailed response, the US and its allies would be in disregard, if not outright violation, of 1696 if they rejected Iran's offer for serious negotiation without any precondition. Iran's response, in part, seeks clarification on some specifics, such as whether or not the US is willing to lift its 27-year-old sanctions against Iran to allow the sale of modern nuclear technology, as promised in the package.

This is not a far-fetched interpretation, but rather a realistic one borne by the recognition that Resolution 1696 embodies a double obligation, one explicit, the other implicit - the explicit from Iran to stop enrichment and the construction of a heavy-water reactor, and to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), among other things, and the implicit obligation from the authors of the incentive package to live up to their promises and deal directly with Iran on the implementation of the package's content.

Indeed, a close reading of Resolution 1696 shows that while the two types of obligations are not predicated on one another, they are internally related, and it would be a theoretical and conceptual mistake to ignore the latent aspect or dimension pertaining to the international incentive package. A US failure to heed this latent demand, ramified by the Security Council's endorsement of the incentive package, would then partially justify Iran's non-compliance with the rest of the resolution's demands from Iran.

Meanwhile, Iran's line of reasoning, that the Security Council's action is "illegal", cannot be easily defended from the prism of international law, in light of the primacy of the UN Charter and the powers vested in the Security Council.

At the heart of the nuclear standoff with Iran is a conflict touching on the rights and obligations of a state with respect to both the UN, subsidiary UN organizations such as the IAEA, and other international regimes.

It is ironic that a number of nuclear experts who previously accused Iran of skirting its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are now putting the emphasis on the UN's priority over those obligations, which Iran insists it has respected.

Yet no matter how justified Iran feels with respect to its grievances against the Security Council, it must be careful not put itself in direct violation of the UN resolution come Thursday, whereby it would be labeled as a "rogue state" primed for a gradually intensifying regime of sanctions.

The central principle of international law, expressed in the maxim pacta sunt servand ("pacts must be respected"), applies first and foremost to the UN. And as a member state, the Islamic Republic should not slight the importance of the legal consequences of being found in violation of a UN Security Council request. Obligation is, after all, a legal duty whose bearer - in this case Iran - is answerable before the international community, should there be no multilateral agreement to abstain from sanctions after Thursday by pursuing the path of negotiation.

In conclusion, Iran has two distinct choices, of an interim suspension and the standby option. It could resort to the latter to give a time-specific negotiation a decent chance to protect its NPT right to peaceful nuclear technology.

The mere legal consequences of rejecting the Security Council's demands, let alone subsequent graduated sanctions, are potentially so severe as to prompt preemptive damage control by Iran.

This is precisely what Iran has put on the table in the name of its response to the incentive package, and it is hoped that the other side does not ignore its own obligations and the need for a negotiated solution to this dangerous crisis.

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 also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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