A Curate’s Egg (Good in Parts)

by Peter Jenkins

Last week, while visiting Israel and Jordan, President Barak Obama publicly emphasised that there is still time to resolve the nuclear dispute without resorting to force and that this is his preference. For peaceniks everywhere, those were encouraging words.

But, advertently or not, the President’s words also revealed two of the most perplexing aspects of his administration’s Iran policy: their insistence on making unique demands of Iran, and their reluctance to give weight to US intelligence findings.

Let me try first to explain what I mean by “unique demands”.

In Jordan the President said: “Now if in fact what the Supreme Leader has said is the case, which is that developing a nuclear weapon would be un-Islamic and that Iran has no interest in developing nuclear weapons, then there should be a practical, verifiable way to assure the international community that it’s not doing so”.

Since 1970 there has been an almost universally accepted “practical, verifiable way” of providing such an assurance. It is to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), submit all nuclear material to international monitoring, and convince international inspectors that nuclear material is not being diverted to non-peaceful purposes.

Since the late ‘90s, a supplementary measure, known as the Additional Protocol, has also gained acceptance. It enables international inspectors to satisfy themselves that a given state has placed all the material in its possession, and not just a part of it, under safeguards.

As it happens, Iran has been a party to the NPT since 1970, and for all but the years between 1991 and 2003 it has satisfied the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the nuclear material in its possession has been in peaceful use.

For two years (late 2003 to the end of 2005) Iran also applied the Additional Protocol; and since 2005 it has reiterated a readiness to re-apply this instrument if sanctions introduced to coerce Iran into giving up the dual-use technology of uranium enrichment are lifted.

So there is no reason to think that Iran is unready to do what other states do to provide practical, verifiable grounds that they are not developing nuclear weapons. When, therefore, President Obama implies that this would not be enough, he also implies that a unique standard of confidence-provision is being set for Iran.

Some would say that this is reasonable. Iran’s failure to declare to the IAEA small quantities of nuclear material over a 12-year period, and their use in research apparently related to nuclear weapons acquisition, rightly provoked suspicions about Iranian intentions.

But neither the NPT nor IAEA rules provide for the imposition of unique standards on states that have been in non-compliance with their IAEA obligations; they simply require correction of the failures that gave rise to a non-compliance finding. For other states returning to conformity, by making the necessary corrections, has been enough.

Furthermore — to come to the second perplexity — since late 2007 the justification for suspecting that Iran has weaponization intentions has dwindled, thanks to the effectiveness of US intelligence operations. On several occasions, the Director of National Intelligence has reported a high probability that Iran has not decided to acquire nuclear weapons although it seeks the option to produce them (which it can be dissuaded from doing through intelligent diplomacy).

In other words, Iran is no longer suspected, by those whose job it is to know best, of being engaged in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Additionally, Iran is ready to provide ongoing assurances to that effect in the same way that other states do. Yet the President of the United States is asking for more.

What form might “more” take? The President gave a hint when he alluded, in Israel, to Iran needing to meet its “international obligations”. In the past that phrase encompassed not just NPT and IAEA obligations, which Iran assumed voluntarily, but also the obligations imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council since 2006.

This is controversial because those obligations were imposed to force Iran into abandoning uranium enrichment at a time when suspicions about Iran’s nuclear intentions were still acute. Once the US intelligence community reported “with high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, to what extent has it been just or reasonable to demand that Iran meet these “obligations”?

A past head of US Strategic Command once remarked that when a threat assessment changes, the strategic posture should also change. This wise observation seems to have passed over the heads of those who are responsible for formulating US (and EU) policy towards Iran. The risk remains that one day most of us will come to regret that.

Photo: President Barack Obama waves to the audience after delivering remarks at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.