Tale of a Missed Opportunity

by Peter Jenkins

When two or more aficionados of the Iranian nuclear controversy are gathered together, the conversation will turn at some point to whether opportunities for resolving the issue peacefully have been missed.

Some see a missed opportunity in the first George W. Bush administration’s refusal to countenance an Iranian negotiating proposal transmitted by Switzerland in May 2003. Others lament the inability of France, Germany and the United Kingdom to accept the limited resumption of uranium enrichment in Iran, in 2005, in return for a range of confidence-building measures and safeguards against the diversion of nuclear material to military purposes.

I regret that it occurred to no one in the autumn of 2003 to link Iran’s voluntary suspension of work on the development of an enrichment capacity to completion of International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verification under the Additional Protocol, a voluntary but advanced nuclear safeguards standard introduced in the mid-1990s.

On 16 October 2003, the then Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, flew to Tehran to discuss with the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, the contours of a deal with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK. The proposal, in essence, was that if Iran suspended its nuclear fuel cycle activities, allowed IAEA inspectors the access and cooperation envisaged in the Additional Protocol, and entered into talks with the three European powers (the E3) about the future of its nuclear programme, the E3 would ensure that the IAEA board of governors refrained both from declaring that Iran had been in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations and from reporting that non-compliance to the United Nations Security Council, where the Bush administration was waiting to pounce like a tiger on its prey.

The flaw in the agreement with the E3, as discovered five days later, was the absence of timelines. The Iranians were reluctant to commit themselves to suspension for a particular length of time, because they were hoping to resume the development of an enrichment capacity as soon as the risk of a referral to the Security Council had passed. The E3 were reluctant to press Iran to make such a commitment because they wanted Iran’s suspension to last indefinitely. And the IAEA, if asked, would have declined to say how many years would be needed to complete Additional Protocol verification, because they were conscious of many uncertainties.

Yet had Dr. ElBaradei tried and succeeded in persuading a vulnerable Iran to maintain its voluntary suspension until the completion of Additional Protocol verification, the risk of another war in the Gulf, which the world faces today, would be far less acute.

At the conclusion of an Additional Protocol investigation the IAEA secretariat reports to the board of governors that it is in a position to provide a credible assurance about “the absence of undeclared nuclear activities or material” in the country in question. Had these words been pronounced in relation to Iran at any time since 2003, even the most hawkish of Western adversaries would have found it hard to argue that Iran’s nuclear activities posed a threat to international peace and had to be curtailed. Instead, Iran renounced suspension after two years; the E3 retaliated by engineering a non-compliance report to the Security Council; Iran counter-retaliated by ceasing to allow the IAEA to undertake Additional Protocol verification; the IAEA secretariat has had no option since but to report that it is not in a position to provide Protocol non-proliferation assurances; an alleged proliferation threat has been used to justify a steady multiplication of sanctions; and demands for an (unlawful) act of aggression to destroy Iran’s nuclear plants have grown ever more frequent.

All this begs two questions: why did Iran cease applying the Additional Protocol in 2006 and why have they not voluntarily reapplied it since? Nothing forced Iran to reduce cooperation with the IAEA to the legal minimum in 2006. They could have resumed enrichment work but continued to grant Protocol access. And since 2006 they could have wrong-footed their adversaries by reapplying the Protocol and winning the best guarantee the IAEA can give: “no undeclared nuclear activities or material”.

I don’t know the answers. It’s a puzzle. Is this simply a case of reluctance to lose face by reversing an unwise decision? Are the Iranians worried that granting Protocol access would enable the IAEA to discover undeclared activities and/or material, aggravating Iran’s Security Council predicament? Has Iran lost all confidence in the impartiality and professionalism of the IAEA secretariat, which was accused last year of taking instructions from Iran’s Western adversaries?

One thing, however, is certain: if Iran wants to put an end to repeated Western calls for it to prove that its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful, reapplying the Additional Protocol is the solution. The one and only proof of a peaceful programme that the non-proliferation community cannot contest are the assurances that can result from the IAEA’s Protocol investigations: “no undeclared nuclear activities or material”. Those words are the key to demonstrating to the world that there is no nuclear proliferation justification for sanctioning Iran or threatening her with devastation.

Photo: IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran before the start of the AEOI press conference. Tehran, Iran, 4 October 2009. Credit: IAEA

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.



  1. Sensible recommendation, but I doubt it would do the trick. This exaggerates the potential influence of IAEA assurances on policy makers and pundits in the West, Israel and the Gulf that are, for ideological and/or pragmatic reasons, committed to rivalry or regime change in Tehran.

  2. Why Iran ended its adherence to AP (additional protocol)? Simply because there was no gain for them to proceed, they simply got nothing back by the western powers. Its like saying why havent west absolved all the sanctions on Iran to prove they are sincere to solve the conflict?

    Its a rather naive view to think that the conflict will end if Iran only adhered to the AP. The problem is the foreign policy on Iran or its power hubs/connections throughout the middle east. WMD is used as a way to weaken a adversary to american and israeli interests.

    The solution is a middle free zone. Thats nothing impossible about it, however there is no courage by western states to pressure Israel.

  3. Unfortunately a single and most important piece of this puzzle is missed in almost all such discussions particularly in the Western press and that is regional Israeli supremacy and the US hegemony in the ME region.

    Watching the Iranian nuclear tension over the years, I am convinced that short of a total control of Iran would not satisfy the US and it’s so called ally Israel.

    The issue with Iran is very little to do with possible nuclear proliferation than losing the traditional sphere of influence by the US driven by Israel through its staunch supporters as Jewish law makers and AIPAC in Washington D.C. Washington’s fortunes have been all but wasted by G. Bush and in this environment Israel’s days of freedom for pre-emptive attacks are numbered.

    The nuclear shield for Iran, Whether real or not, gives a sense of protection to Iranians in an environment where not only they have been constantly threatened with conventional attacks but also on numerous occasions threatened with nuclear attacks by both the US and Israel.

    Iran is a target for a total capitulation in the world power game. In US and Israeli eyes, Iran must become much like a Jordan, UAE or Saudi Arabia in terms of its foreign policy posture. Iran is fully aware that even if Iran stops all its nuclear activities, the threat of military attacks or internal flash points instigated and fully supported by outsiders in the name of Freedom and Democracy, such as we have observed in Libya and Syria, will continue.

    I am afraid, short of a genuine and frank approach by the West (hopefully led by Europe) we shall see war that this time will expand across the globe with its devastating human and economic toll. It will be too late then ,especially for comfortable countries, to rethink what mistakes they could have avoided to prevent the disaster.

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