Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Irritating Iran

The nuclear deal that wasn’t
Middle East International 6 November 2009

From Ian Williams

Iran often seems to confuse causing exasperation with diplomacy. It certainly manages to irritate those who try to arrange a graceful climbdown, whether it is the EU states which tried to head off what looked like George W Bush’s rush to war or, now, the IAEA.

The IAEA’s recent compromise proposal in the ongoing dispute about Iran’s nuclear programme suggests that Iran transfer some three-quarters of its declared 1.5 tons of low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment by the end of this year. The uranium would then go to France for conversion into fuel plates for a Tehran reactor that produces medical radio-isotopes for cancer treatment. Just as the negotiators thought they were on the verge of a deal, the Iranians have seemingly asked for incoming shipments of uranium to match those they would send out.

This might seem bloody-minded, but the Iranians have a point. For decades other states, including Russia and China, have taken Iranian money and refused to deliver nuclear technology and materials. On the other hand, it is understandable that few if any other countries really applaud even the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

The Iranians also have a point that their case should not be before the Security Council. But that point has been somewhat obscured by their inept diplomacy and occasional tendency to be economical with the truth. What they are doing in the way of refinement of nuclear fuel does not breach their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. They are allowing inspections by the IAEA, and they have not processed the fuel to weapons standard. Their processing can, of course, be a step in the development of bomb-grade material, but that is true of all countries.

Getting Iran onto the agenda of the Security Council needed a referral by the IAEA for which nuclear-armed Israel, a non-signatory of the NPT, agitated. The arm-twisting and cajoling that brought about that result was actively supported by India, also a non-signatory and a possessor of nuclear weapons, in expectation of a deal with the US that would in effect legitimise its driving a juggernaut through the treaty. Iran refuses to accept the legality of the Security Council referral. Its resentments are certainly fuelled by memories of the Iraq-Iran war when the Council refused to act over what the UN later determined was an act of aggression by Iraq, not to mention Saddam’s use of missiles an d poison gas. By getting Iran on the agenda, the US and its allies pre-empted Iran’s ace – which would have been to follow North Korea in leaving the NPT.

There is an element of irrationality in the behaviour of many parties to this controversy. For example, in Israel the issue is what pretext can be used to hit Iran – but even then one suspects that this is more to fan the siege mentality than because of any real perception of threat.

It is ironic that the Iran’s diversion of efforts and resources into promoting its nuclear-based energy independence undermines the development of the oil-refining capacity it desperately lacks, in turn making it more vulnerable to proposed sanctions against imports of gasoline and other refined petroleum products. But seemingly opposition and government alike have now taken up the nuclear cause as a symbol of national pride.

The Security Council is a diplomatic and political body, not a tribunal of law or equity. But under the UN Charter, as the International Court of Justice ruled in the case of Libya over Lockerbie, its decisions are binding in international law. In the past, Iran had the excuse that North Korea had shown that a whiff of uranium could get the US taking notice and talking. The Obama administration is prepared to talk and there are interlocutors, like IAEA head Muhammad ElBaradei prepared to mediate. Iran needs to examine ways to secure the refined fuel supplies it needs – for its pride as much as anything else. It could compromise over uranium enrichment – maybe with an escrow account in third hands in case any of the suppliers default. As Iran has already shown, it can always make more uranium.

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