President Obama’s re-election last month raised hopes that the US government would at last be in a position, politically, to work with Iran towards a negotiated settlement centred on confidence-building and the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This was the basis of the understanding reached this April in Istanbul. It was therefore a little puzzling that during the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting on 29 November, the US representative was once more engaging in a diplomacy of threats and ultimata.
The issue under discussion was the absence of progress in relation to clarifying concerns about past, but also possibly ongoing, Iranian activities of a non-peaceful nuclear nature, often referred to as a “possible military dimension” (PMD). The US representative asserted that Iran could not be allowed indefinitely to ignore “its obligations” and implied that in the event of a continuing absence of progress when the Board meets in March, the US will argue for Iran to be found in non-compliance with those obligations.
This raises two questions. To what extent is Iran in non-compliance with its IAEA obligations in failing to cooperate to resolve these concerns? And, is Iran likely to become more cooperative as a result of this threat?
It is widely accepted that Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA entitles the agency secretariat to verify not only that all nuclear material declared by Iran remains in peaceful use, but also that such declarations are correct and (most importantly) complete.
Notably, paragraph 73 of the standard NPT safeguards agreement (to which Iran is subject) states that the IAEA may request a special inspection if it deems information made available by a state inadequate for the Agency to fulfil its official responsibilities.
So, insofar as Iran is failing to cooperate to resolve concerns which may reasonably imply the existence of undeclared nuclear material, there is a case for saying that Iran is in breach of its obligation to cooperate.
However, in this instance it’s questionable whether all the activities for which Iranian cooperation has been sought imply with adequate credibility the possibility of undeclared nuclear material. These activities were described in the annex to GOV/2011/65 of 8 November 2011 (the IAEA report used to build support for further sanctions at the turn of the year). A careful reading of that annex suggests that several of these activities, maybe even the majority of them, would not have involved nuclear material.
Of course it could be argued that PMD activities not involving nuclear material, such as missile warhead design work, can imply that at some future stage a state intends to acquire nuclear material which it does not intend to declare. That, however, seems a very tenuous basis on which to base an IAEA non-compliance finding. Moreover, it would also imply that all states that have engaged, even as a precautionary measure, in research into any aspect of the design or construction of nuclear devices should be found non-compliant.
So, my first conclusion is that if the US decides in March to accuse Iran of fresh non-compliance, it should take care to focus the accusation on activities that can reasonably be suspected of involving the use of nuclear material and are manifestly not the figment of some other state’s imagination.
However, to come to my second question, is proceeding in that way likely to be productive? The experience of the last seven years suggests not. Each time the West has resorted to punitive or coercive measures to influence Iranian behaviour, the results have been either unproductive or, worse, counterproductive. Iran was far more cooperative when, between October 2003 and April 2005, a less aggressive diplomacy was used to influence Iran’s leaders.
Furthermore, for some time there have been hints that Iran’s failure to cooperate in resolving PMD concerns is not its last word. On the contrary, cooperation can be expected in return for Western flexibility on sanctions and certain assurances in the context of an overall settlement based on the provisions of a treaty to which Iran insists it’s committed to, the NPT.
Moreover, if Iranian suspicion of Western good faith is one of the greatest obstacles to achieving an agreement, then the priority in the coming months should be to overcome that suspicion. This will not be achieved by seeking yet again to unite the IAEA Board in a humiliating condemnation of Iran, least of all if the legal grounds for that condemnation are not watertight. On the contrary, securing a further IAEA non-compliance finding would be a rum way to go about convincing Iran’s Supreme Leader that the US should no longer be seen as the Great Satan.
If, nonetheless, the US persists on the non-compliance course and succeeds, what then? Will Russia and China allow Iran to be penalized in the absence of evidence that it has decided to make nuclear weapons and therefore constitutes a genuine threat to international peace and security? If they do, will Iran pay any more heed to such a resolution than it has to the five previous Chapter VII resolutions of dubious legitimacy?
It’s certainly desirable that light be shed on suspected research into nuclear warhead construction and delivery, especially if it involved or involves undeclared nuclear material. But at last US voters have created political space for the West to revert to less aggressive, less confrontational tactics. At last the West can afford to experiment with a more exploratory, empathetic approach. It would be a pity to squander that opportunity.