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Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006

Defuse crisis by letting Tehran save face on nuclear issue


NEW DELHI -- With Iran rebuffing the United Nations Security Council, yet another global hot spot is emerging in the vast but volatile region between India and Israel. This arc of volatility between the only two democracies in the region has been made worse by the developments in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now U.S. President George W. Bush is itching for a showdown over Tehran's defiant refusal to bow to the Security Council demand that it immediately suspend uranium enrichment. Eager to divert attention from his failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush has pursued an approach on Iran in which carrots have been dangled merely to legitimize his first choice to use sticks. If Bush were to use the sticks against Iran -- either by imposing new sanctions or carrying out punishing airstrikes -- a bad situation would become worse in an arc already bristling with failed or failing states.

In its long-delayed response to the package of incentives offered by the five permanent Security Council members and Germany, Tehran has refused to suspend enrichment as demanded by the recent Security Council Resolution 1696. Instead it has shrewdly proposed immediate talks on finding a compromise settlement, tantalizingly leaving open the possibility that it might suspend enrichment as part of a negotiated bargain. Not surprisingly, this offer has been rejected by the Bush team.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a technical organization whose governing board has increasingly been politicized over the Iran issue. In its assessments, the IAEA still insists it has neither seen any "indications of diversion" of nuclear materials for non-peaceful purposes nor found any "conclusive evidence" that Iran is attempting to produce nuclear weapons. Yet, such is the politics waged through the IAEA's governing board and the Security Council that Iran has been commanded to accept standards not applicable to other nonnuclear states in the world.

For example, the IAEA board resolution of Feb. 4 seeks to hold Iran to a much higher standard. It demands that Iran commit itself to "implement transparency measures . . . which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol." More explicitly, Iran has been asked by the IAEA board and the U.N. Security Council to forgo its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue work on a nuclear fuel cycle even under stringent international monitoring.

While Iran is being put in the international penalty box before clinching evidence against it has been found, Pakistan has been allowed to go scot-free despite having been caught red-handed running the world's biggest illicit nuclear-exports ring through its military and scientific establishments. Worse, the IAEA board has not empowered the IAEA's inspectors to probe the Pakistani supply network even to find answers to the outstanding issues relating to Iran's past unlawful imports.

Instead, a single individual, A.Q. Khan, was conveniently made the scapegoat for a far-reaching Pakistani proliferation ring involving admitted transfers of prohibited nuclear items and blueprints to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Contrast also the diametrically opposite ways the Security Council has been used to deal with the Iran and Pakistan cases. Following the uncovering of the Pakistani proliferation ring, the Security Council passed Resolution 1540, which made no reference to Pakistan or any of its citizens but instead urged the entire world to share the responsibility. The resolution obligated all states to establish domestic controls to ensure that terrorists and other non-state actors do not get hold of materials related to weapons of mass destruction.

The United States invaded Iraq to eliminate WMD that were not there, but has allowed terrorist-haven Pakistan, with real WMD, to escape international scrutiny and censure for selling nuclear secrets to other states.

On the other hand, the U.S. succeeded last month in getting the Security Council to pass Resolution 1696 against Iran with harsh, intimidating language. The resolution, with its deadline of Aug. 31, demands that "Iran shall suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development" and threatens "appropriate measures under Article 41 of Chapter VII" of the U.N. charter.

There can be little doubt that Iran has engaged in illicit actions and provocative rhetoric. It was not until an Iranian dissident group blew the whistle in 2002 that Tehran admitted it had built secret facilities in Natanz and Arak. Nothing better illustrates Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's irresponsible rhetoric than his threat to "wipe out Israel."

Yet, with Tehran turning down the core demand of Resolution 1696, it will not be easy for the U.S. to keep Russia and China on its side as it attempts to take out the sticks against Iran. Moscow and Beijing voted for Resolution 1696 only after eliminating language that could have been used to justify punitive action against Iran. The resolution merely says "further decisions will be required" in case of Iranian noncompliance. The U.S. says Tehran cannot be trusted with fuel-cycle technologies and insists on an immediate cessation of Iranian enrichment work -- a demand it can enforce only by militarily taking out the concerned Iranian facilities.

Rather than be a precondition to negotiations with Tehran, the demand for the sustained suspension of Iranian enrichment activity should have been pursued as part of a negotiated deal. Iran, which has always insisted on the legal right to enrich uranium, is being asked to concede the main point of negotiations before the talks have started. Had Iran been allowed to save face in public, it could have conceded the same demand as part of a negotiated bargain. Indeed, Iran so far has enriched only a minute amount of uranium -- to less than 4 percent, well below the weapons-usable level.

The U.S.-encouraged referral of the Iran case to the Security Council only weakened the bargaining capacity of Washington and its three European partners, with Tehran responding by resuming low-level enrichment. Now the U.S. is dependent on securing the backing of Russia and China for any move.

The U.S. and Iran have both made a major strategic error in the current standoff. Had Tehran not agreed following the November 2004 Paris agreement to a voluntary but temporary halt to all enrichment and reprocessing activity, it would not have come under swirling international pressure to maintain such a moratorium. What Iran accepted of its own accord has become the very benchmark that the Security Council is now seeking to apply.

For its part, the U.S. has seriously erred in seeking to enforce an enrichment moratorium when a better way to choke Iran's nuclear ambitions would have been to pressure it to ratify the Additional Protocol it already has signed. The Additional Protocol would give the IAEA enduring legal powers to subject Iran to stringent, challenging inspections. Now the current face-off has prompted Tehran not only to suspend its implementation of the Additional Protocol but also to hold out the threat to withdraw from the NPT and kick out IAEA inspectors -- the route North Korea chose.

Despite Bush's desire for punitive action against Iran, the wise way to tackle Iran is through sustained international pressure. Any penal steps against a theocratic state that has already faced assorted sanctions for more than a quarter-century would only play into the hands of the Iranian clergy and its political deputies led by Ahmadinejad. It should not be forgotten that Iran's stance on the nuclear issue enjoys broad political support at home, including from moderates and those opposed to the clerical regime.

A confrontational approach indeed is likely to prove counterproductive, adding to the list of Western blunders on Iran, including the 1953 externally scripted overthrow of nationalist Mohammed Mossadeq and the 1980 U.S.-encouraged Iraqi aggression under Saddam Hussein against postrevolution Iran.

Today, historical sensitivity and prudent diplomacy are necessary to help steer Iran in the right direction. Diplomacy is clearly a much better option for several reasons.

First, there is no real military option against Iran. With U.S. troops already stretched thin in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating and the recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon not helping matters, Bush can only think of unleashing U.S. air power against Iran. Airstrikes, however, will only drive home the message that building nuclear bombs offers Iran the best line of defense.

Second, the world has already seen the larger consequences when the U.S. and Israel have embraced military options to complicated regional problems. Not only will airstrikes on Iran compound the security situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, but also tie down the U.S. military in the arc of states between Israel and India.

Third, the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran, especially in the energy realm, would only constrict the already-tight world oil supplies and further drive up prices, affecting the global economy. Penal measures against Iran (the second-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) would surely have a greater impact on world oil supplies and prices than the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Unlike in 2003, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other OPEC producers do not have the spare capacity to make up a supply deficit.

Fourth, a military or sanctions approach, and the likely Iranian reaction to it, will only fuel the turbulence, violence and extremism in the arc of volatility. The greater upheaval would mean that free, secular, pluralistic societies would become an even more likely target of international terrorism. The international emphasis should be on stabilizing this zone, not on adding fuel to the fires raging there.

Fifth, despite the justifiability of the efforts to make Iran fully comply with its international obligations and to ensure that it does not pursue a nuclear-weapons program, the nonproliferation challenge posed by the Iran issue should not be exaggerated. Iran is years away from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons. And it is unlikely to attain such capability as long as the IAEA is tightly monitoring its nuclear program, as it has been ever since it discovered undeclared Iranian nuclear activity.

Sixth, the attempt to single out Iran and enforce unique standards carries the risks of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of international institutions. When a Security Council resolution does not have even the pretense of equity, how can the target country be made to accept flagrantly discriminatory standards? By challenging the overt effort to divide nonnuclear states into two categories -- those that can and cannot pursue nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities -- Iran is determined to bring matters to a head in the crisis-torn NPT regime. Rather than arbitrarily fashion a double-layered regime of fuel-cycle possessors and fuel-cycle abstainers, a new global consensus on standards governing fissile materials should be sought.

Seventh, with the security scenarios in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan getting very difficult, Iran realizes the West needs its help to stabilize the situation in those countries. Tehran, therefore, is likely to insist, more than ever before, on getting tangible diplomatic, economic and security benefits from the West before it makes nuclear concessions.

At issue today are Iran's intentions, not actual capabilities. The intentions can be effectively monitored and checkmated through stepped-up IAEA inspections and by greater multilateral cooperation on export controls to ensure that no sensitive items or designs reach Iran, especially from China, Russia and Pakistan.

Tehran may still be willing to halt enrichment as an outcome of a successful bargaining process. For that to happen, it needs to be offered a face-saving formula. One way would be to allow Iran to pursue largely symbolic, research-related enrichment activity on a tiny scale under very tight IAEA monitoring. A variant of that could be to let Tehran do pre-enrichment activity -- process natural uranium into uranium hexafluoride, to be shipped to Russia for enrichment and returned to Iran as finished fuel assemblies. A third way would be to try and reach agreement to halt national fuel-cycle activities across the Middle East.

Washington, for its part, can help strengthen the hands of moderates in Iran -- the only Islamic state other than Turkey with a well-developed civil society -- by agreeing to discuss the restoration of diplomatic relations with Tehran and the de-freezing of Iranian assets in the U.S. Given that Iran remains a part of Bush's "axis of evil," Tehran would surely seek credible security assurances from the U.S.

Prudent diplomacy backed by stringent IAEA safeguards can ensure that Iran never develops nuclear weapons. But there can be no effective diplomacy without a constructive atmosphere. This means no preconditions, no artificial deadlines to negotiations, and no threats by any side.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.


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