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.
Iran's right to produce nuclear fuel one of the
"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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.