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    Middle East
     Jan 25, 2013


US think tank fuels Iran nuclear crisis
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - Several years ago, when a US Congressional report erroneously caused false alarms about Iran's "weapons-grade" uranium enrichment, it was publicly rebuffed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and a top IAEA official criticized the report's authors for making statements that showed "they are interested in fueling the crisis, not solving it".

Today, the same criticism is warranted against a new report, entitled US Nonproliferation Strategy for The Changing Middle East, which recommends increased US sanctions and "credible military threats" against Iran in order to halt its march toward nuclear weapons.

Published by a US think tank, the Institute For Science and International Security, this report states unequivocally that Iran will reach the "critical" threshold of producing weapons-grade

 
uranium for one or more bombs by the middle of 2014. In no uncertain terms, the authors endorse the military option and state that the US president "should explicitly declare that he will use military force to destroy Iran's nuclear program if Iran takes additional decisive steps toward producing a bomb."

A close scrutiny of this report reveals, however, the existence of several problems that undermine its value and reveal its authors's political bias.

First, even David Albright, a co-chair of the report, in his interview with Reuters, dated January 14, 2013, has admitted: "We don't think there is any secret enrichment plant making significant secret uranium enrichment right now." [1]

Absent evidence of an undeclared, secret enrichment activity by Iran, and given the IAEA's repeated confirmation of the absence of any evidence of diversion of declared nuclear material, this obviously begs the question of whether the report raises a false alarm.

Second, all of Iran's uranium enrichment activities at the Natanz and Fordo nuclear plants are covered by the IAEA's safeguard and verifications standards, including surveillance cameras at the enrichment halls, regular as well as (dozens of) short-notice inspections, and this simply means that the agency is in a position to detect any illicit diversion shortly after it transpires.

Third, this report collides with earlier output from the think tank. Case in point, Albright himself has repeatedly admitted (for example in a 2006 report entitled "The Clock Is Ticking, But How Fast?", that "there is no evidence of any decision by Iran to build a nuclear arsenal". In that report, Albright calculated that with 1,500 centrifuges Iran "could produce as much as 28 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium per year".

He estimated that 15-20 kg of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) was needed to build a nuclear weapon and that if Iran had "produced a stock of LEU (low-enriched uranium) and used this stock as the initial feed stock, it could produce 20 kg in about one to two months". What then explains the newest report's more conservative estimate that gives a grace period of roughly one-and-a-half years?

Should Iran choose, it can use its LEU to produce several bombs by summer 2013, so there is actually no question about Iran's potential capability. But, the real question is whether or not Iran is marching down this path at all - that would warrant the report's hawkish and thoroughly coercive recommendations vis-a-vis Iran?

Indeed, this is the key question that determines the justification for sanctions and, worse, military threats against Iran. After all, Iran's right to possess a civilian nuclear fuel cycle is protected under the NPT articles and to this date there is no evidence that Iran has breached its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations that would warrant a UN Security Council's quest to deprive Iran of this "inalienable" right, in light of Iran's "corrective steps" that have resolved all the initial "six outstanding questions" per the 2007 Iran-IAEA Workplan.

Instead of "normalizing" Iran's nuclear dossier, as called for by that Workplan's concluding paragraph, the IAEA since then has been obsessive regarding "the possible military dimension" of Iran's nuclear program, citing "credible" intelligence, such as with respect to the suspected buildings at Parchin Military complex, a site visited twice in 2005 without finding anything suspicious. Yet, Albright and his colleagues have seized on Parchin as if a veritable "smoking gun" has at long last been discovered that substantiates the suspicions of weaponization.

Thus, they have repeatedly cited the Institute's acquisition of satellite imagery showing the removal of dirt around the suspected building, allegedly containing a steel container for high atmospheric explosive tests with nuclear weapons applications. Yet, no one has ever suggested that these tests involve any nuclear material, which renders meaningless the quest for environmental sampling (to confirm if Iran conducted such tests a decade ago). In a word, the obsession with Parchin has camouflaged the real absence of any tangible evidence of weaponization on Iran's part.

Consequently, there is no viable, and legally defensible, rationale for sanctions on Iran, which has been singled out while other countries also found in serious violation of their safeguard agreements (South Korea and Egypt, for example) have gone unpunished for known political reasons.

Unfortunately, Albright and his co-authors fail to pay attention to the question of legality of unilateral sanctions on Iran, notwithstanding the UN Security Council's triggering Chapter VII and thus seizing control of the subject following the principles of necessity and proportionality. As nuclear experts, these authors have thus stretched beyond their areas of expertise by making policy recommendations that directly implicate international law.

Rogue experts
In fact, worse, these authors have turned completely rogue by prescribing outright US military action against Iran "if it takes additional decisive steps toward producing a bomb". Even in the unlikely scenario of Iran taking these steps, the US has no legal right to attack Iran and would be in serious violation of international law if it does. This would require explicit UN Security Council authorization, which cannot be foreseen since the Council cannot operate in a legal vacuum and the UN's article 51, on preemption, applies only if an armed attack by Iran ever materializes.

The UN Charter, Article 2 (4) states: "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purpose of the UN."

Even, assuming en argumendo that Iran ends up possessing nuclear weapon capability, this does not constitute an unlawful threat to use force, let alone an armed attack, in light of a 1996 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice on Legality of the Threat Or Use of Nuclear Weapons, which held that mere possession of nuclear weapons is not necessarily unlawful under international law.

In conclusion, an apt counter-proliferation strategy in the Middle East cannot be constructed on the basis of hypothetical future scenarios that are largely if not entirely precluded by the objective present guarantees as well as subjective, namely, counter-proliferation pronouncements such as the Supreme Leader's binding edict, fatwa, that together meet the standards of international law regarding "wrongful acts". [2]

Consequently, the report is a poor substitute for enlightened decisions on this important subject, principally as a result of its main defects that bespeak of false alarms and innocence regarding the dictates of international law.

What is needed instead is a rational, rule-based US policy that recognizes Iran's nuclear rights, pushes for enhanced transparency and Iran's adoption of the Additional Protocol of the NPT, while adhering to the norms of reciprocity via mutual efforts at confidence-building and reciprocal relaxation of sanctions in return for certain Iranian concessions on a low enrichment ceiling, or the conversion of enriched uranium to fuel rods, for example.

Only then we may begin to see the beginning of the end of a nuclear crisis that is a crisis of choice, not necessity.

Notes:
1. See here.
2. For more on this see Afrasiabi here.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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