Tuesday, September 21, 2004

IAEA Ultimatum to Iran Suits All Parties to the Row

IAEA Ultimatum to Iran Suits All Parties to the Row: "IAEA Ultimatum to Iran Suits All Parties to the Row
Amir Taheri, Arab News

A Persian proverb says: “From this signpost on the road to the next, there is hope!” And it was in that spirit that the International Atomic Energy Agency decided last Saturday to give Iran until Nov. 25 to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The resolution passed by the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors criticizes Iran for “lack of candor” over its nuclear program and calls on Tehran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities that could contribute to producing fuel for a nuclear bomb.

The resolution warns that the agency “considers it necessary” that Iran halt its uranium enrichment programs, and meet all of the agency’s demands within the next eight weeks.

But is this an ultimatum?

Hardly. This is, in fact, the third time in two years that the IAEA has fixed “a signpost” for Iran before moving to the next with no more than some timid huffing and puffing. IAEA spokesmen have made it clear that, come Nov. 25, they would simply “review the situation” once again. The new “signpost” suits all sides of this bizarre dispute.

The Iranian leadership will get two more months in which to hasten whatever it is that they are doing. The Bush administration, which has been making loud noises about the threat of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic, is happy because the potentially explosive issue is postponed until after the US presidential election in November.

The Europeans, who have already burned their fingers by trying to coax Iran into a diplomatic solution, have their own reason to be happy: The IAEA’s decision gives them time to see who will be the next US president. If Bush is re-elected, the European Union would find it hard to continue their diplomacy with the Iranian leadership. If Sen. John Kerry is the winner, however, new horizons could open for deal-making with Iran.

It is important to understand what this dispute is really about. On the surface it is about uranium enrichment. The process, in which uranium is converted into a gas and spun in centrifuges to concentrate more fissile isotopes, is used to produce fuel for nuclear reactors, but it can also produce material for making nuclear weapons. Signatories to the NPT are allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, provided the IAEA is allowed to keep an eye on the operation to make sure it will not be used for weapon-making.

Iran had a uranium enrichment program in 1978. At the time Iran was also a shareholder in Eurodif, a company formed to mine uranium in Gabon and enrich it in France, Spain and Iran. No one objected to the Iranian program because Iran, one of the 11 countries that had originally sponsored the NPT, was not suspected of seeking nuclear weapons.

There is no doubt that Iran has the scientific, technological and industrial base to produce weapons’ grade uranium. But this is also true of almost all other signatories of the NPT, including those that do not belong to the so-called “ nuclear weapons club”. The real question, therefore, is this: Does the IAEA trust Iran’s present leadership?

The present Iranian leadership has never committed itself to foreswearing nuclear weapons forever, and cannot do that for at least two reasons.

The first is that no regime worth its salt will voluntarily limit its options when it comes to national defense, especially when none of its neighbors are asked to do the same. Iran is at the center of a region with the largest number of nuclear powers: Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and the United States, thanks to the NATO presence in Turkey. Ali Khamenei has issued a statement forbidding the use of nuclear weapons, but not manufacturing them.

The second reason is that the present Iranian government is in conflict not only with the regional status quo, which it sees as a threat, but also against the so-called global system dominated by the Islamic Republic’s archfoe, the United States.

Iran’s national defense doctrine, as developed since 1989, is based on the so-called “pre-emptive defense” concept.

The assumption is that the enemies of the Islamic Republic will, at some point, use military threat and/or action to check the spread of its influence, especially in its “natural habitat” of the Middle East, the Caspian Basis and the Gulf.

To meet those threats the Islamic Republic needs three assets: A capacity to sustain large casualties in long wars, a massive arsenal of medium and long-range missiles to compensate for the weakness of its air force, and a nuclear arsenal to deter the “big powers”, meaning the United States, that wish to curb Tehran’s regional ambitions.

Without its nuclear component, the Iranian national defense doctrine would have little value beyond diplomatic gesticulations.

The question therefore is not to persuade Iran to abandon the nuclear component of its doctrine but to revise its regional and global ambitions.

An Iran that does not want to “export” its ideology or reshape the map of the region will not be a threat even if it has nuclear weapons. One question that is often asked is why should Iran be singled out while others, notably India, Pakistan and Israel, are allowed to do as they please? The answer is that India, Pakistan and Israel are not signatories of the NPT and have no obligation to act in accordance with the rules of the IAEA.

Developing and deploying nuclear weapons is not illegal. The Islamic Republic is not the victim of any conspiracy. It could withdraw from the NPT, and do as it pleases. The problem is that the Iranian leadership wants to stay in the NPT so as to benefit from legal access to technology, equipment and material. If they withdraw from the IAEA whatever they buy would be regarded as illegal and banned by the signatories of the NPT.

The problem, as stated above, is one of trust. The IAEA’s chief, Mohamed El-Baradei, made that point abundantly clear when he said Iran needed to suspend its enrichment activities “in order to restore confidence”.

In July, Iran resumed the manufacture of centrifuge parts and the assembly of centrifuge units, while pledging not to use those to enrich uranium.

Trust and confidence, of course, are subjective notions. There is no way for IAEA ever to find out exactly what Iran is up to without sincere cooperation from the Tehran leadership.

The IAEA was able to close down the nuclear programs of Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and South Africa because it was invited by the governments of those countries to do so. The most recent example of voluntary nuclear disarmament came from Libya which transferred the material and the equipment it had assembled to the United States.

The real question is whether or not the major powers are prepared to accept the Islamic Republic on its own terms, which includes a capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons, or will be able to persuade Tehran to abandon its revolutionary ambitions and seek a normal place within the global system? And this, as all those involved know without saying so, is a geo-strategic problem, not a technical one about uranium enrichment and centrifuges."

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