Thursday, May 18, 2006

Iran and the Security Council (E)

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Iran’s nuclear ambitions : fissile matter

Ever since Dr. Mohammad El Baradei and his team of IAEA inspectors visited Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz in February 2003 and laid bare an atomic program that had been kept secret for 18 years, the debate over the true nature of the country’s nuclear ambitions has taken center stage within the international community.
Iranian authorities maintain that their intentions are peaceful and aimed at reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. The United States, Russia, Japan, China and the European Union however, dispute the sincerity of this claim, as the country is home to some of the largest known oil reserves. They suspect Iran must be working to develop the Bomb.
A history of defiance, secrecy and manipulative diplomatic moves on the part of Iran has not exactly helped build mutual trust. Strong ties to the black market network of Pakistan’s nuclear hero Abdul Qadeer Khan; only partially explained traces of highly enriched uranium on equipment found within Iran ; as well as erratic behavior in its nuclear cooperation with Russia, have tainted Iran’s reputation even further.
In the three years since 2003, the situation has gradually acquired a feverish quality. Joint diplomatic efforts by France, UK and Germany, offering economic bennies in return for good behavior, have dead-ended. Russia’s proposal to enrich uranium on Iran’s behalf so far returned nothing but a blank. And all parties involved have intensified their rhetoric. Upholding the legitimacy of his country’s atomic program, Iranian president Ahmadinejad also calls for the annihilation of Israel; Israel in turn declares it will not shy away from targeted strikes should push come to shove; and within the US rumors have surfaced in the press about contingency plans for military action.
Today, the matter is before the United Nation’s Security Council, following referral by the International Atomic Agency. Failure of various initiatives to have Tehran comply with UN/IAEA demands has pushed the drive for a so-called ‘chapter 7’ resolution which can open the door to sanctions or even military action. This is where the crux of the problem lies at present. Permanent members France, Britain and the United States would like the Council to adopt a chapter 7 resolution, while Russia and China - equally veto-wielding powers – consider such a move to be premature. Given the estimate of another five to ten years before Iran has the capacity to produce its first nuclear bomb, they maintain ample time remains for diplomacy to bring the Iranians back on board. First and foremost then, the case of Iran is not about mushroom armageddon, but about the worth and power of the Security Council as a multilateral security instrument.

Chapter VII : The Unravelling

The gist of the text that is put forward by Britain, France, the United States and Germany as the Security Council’s proposed response to Iran’s nuclear program, is understood to urge Iran to comply with IAEA regulations and safeguard measures; trading states are invited to remain alert and restrict their nuclear dealings with Iran; and most significantly, Tehran is required to halt enriching uranium or face ‘further measures’.
Most of the debate between the permanent members ties back to these two words : ‘further measures’. Despite explicit qualification by US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, that the current resolution will not deal with sanctions, Russia’s ambassador Vitaly Churkin has expressed strong reservations about the unspecified nature of such wording, fearing it could be used as a pretext for military action. In support of Russia’s reluctance to endorse the proposal, China has voiced doubts that this draft will produce good results.
Scepticism from America’s peers may be understandable, but is it warranted ? Let’s take a closer look at the text. Under clause 7 the draft states that the Security Council “expresses its intention to consider such further measures as may be necessary to ensure compliance with this resolution and decides that further examination will be required should such additional steps be necessary” . Many minds may attribute many different meanings to the same text, but what stands out from this passage is not so much its vagueness – it rather sounds like diplomatic discourse as usual – but the fact that it provides for built-in controls in the event of further necessities. Any next step will have to be preceded by further investigation, the approval of which would require further institutional consultation. Contrary to reporting by the Iranian news agency Irna, stating that the draft resolution invokes articles 40, 41 and 42 of Chapter 7 , the current text draws upon articles 39 and 40 only, not implementing sanctions but advocating vigilance . As it stands, the current proposal seems to implement Chapter 7 in its weakest form only. Whence then the Russian and Chinese reservations ?
First of all, the repeated affirmation by Mr. Bolton (and other officials) that the US will not exclude any option, including military action regardless of Security Council approval, arouses suspicion. Haunted by the specter of the Iraq debacle surrounding the acceptance of resolution 1441 in 2003, some members on the Security Council probably prefer to weed out risky ambiguities beforehand, in order to prevent the hijacking of the body’s legitimacy for unilateralist purposes afterwards. For the sake of nuance, it should be noted that France, a staunch objector of the US agenda at the time, co-sponsors the current draft proposal on Iran, suggesting that historical precedents hardly serve linear reasoning.
Secondly, some on the board remain unconvinced that Iran poses a real threat and maintain that Tehran has a legal right to develop nuclear energy facilities. That right it may have indeed, but dual technologies such as those in development at Natanz, Arak and Isfahan can easily change face and represent a problem to the region and the world. The deposition of Saddam Hussein on one side of Iran’s borders, and the Taliban on the other, simultaneously lifted important checks on Iran’s aspirations to power. And until the hardline regime recasts it posture on Israel, it is probably wisest to think twice before granting Tehran the benefit of the doubt.
Most crucially, those advocating patience and continued diplomatic effort, are seen by some to nurture other ambitions. China is scrounging resources at impressive speeds and is in urgent need of diversifiying its energy input. Its current reliance on coal is starting to reveal itself as untenable, both in terms of efficiency (risky and ill-maintained infrastructure) and sustainability (pollution & environmental degradation). The instabilities inherent in its current energy policy represent strong reasons for China to avoid antagonising Iran. Both countries have much to gain from deepening bi-lateral relations in the future. Russia too will benefit from good relations with its southern neighbour. Pipelines from the Caspian Sea straight through to the Persian Gulf could boost Russia’s position on the international stage as a pivotal energy player. Talking tough but acting friendly could very well be a self-serving tactic in view of energy deals that might help shift power back east, to the detriment of a resource dependent Europe.
Overall, the different positions within the Security Council could be summarized into three groups. First, continuing to support the diplomatic effort for now, the US keeps all options – including unilateral military action – on the table. Less outspoken about Tehran’s right to nuclear energy, the Americans (and with them the Israelis) are most adamant about prohibiting Iran’s access to the Bomb. To them a nuclear Iran would not only redraw the regional power map, but launch a new arms race at the same time. Coupled with growing anti-western fundamentalism, American hegemony in the region and its unhindered access to oil could come under severe threat. Then, the EU-three (France, UK, Germany) – frantically experimenting with all sorts of beta versions of carrot-and-stick scenarios – pronounce themselves supportive of a civilian nuclear program provided Iran agrees to work in compliance with international regulations. The EU hopes to pro-actively engage Iran and simultaneously demonstrate to the world that the Union and its tactic of multilaterial diplomacy is incontournable. In fact, since its internal falling out over the Iraq war, or the ‘no’ to a Constitutional Treaty, the EU has some brass of its own to polish and this seems to be the perfect occasion for it... Thirdly, Russia and China seem to go for energy contracts before anything else, worrying least about Iran having the Bomb and most about keeping all channels with Tehran open. If Iran manages to exploit the member’s differences effectively and the post-WWII multilateral security regime ends up being hollowed out, global political stability will be up for grabs.

Action delayed...

For now the crisis seems to have been averted. On May 12th, all Security Council members agreed to give negotiations another chance before tightening the screws on the regime in Iran. This apparent consensus however may turn out to be somewhat like breaking the sound barrier, where the loud bang comes long after hitting the wall. One may wonder if our security bubble hasn’t burst a while ago, with just the loud shatter postponed.
Despite the reopening of the diplomatic track, Tehran happily continues to defy the west, both with strong language against Israel (as was again the case upon Ahmadinejad’s visit to Indonesia in mid-May) and strong demands towards the EU (any European package deal should contain explicit statements on Iran’s right to nuclear energy for instance). The situation may soon lead back to the point where it stalled today : action yes, but how ?
At least three things are important to prevent further disintegration of the international community. One, the US should take president’s Ahmadinejad’s recent letter serious and accept it as a starting point for bi-lateral discussions. The meandering style of Persian sophistication may not be much appreciated by the White House, but clear reciprocation of Tehran’s gesture at the very least puts the ball back in the camp of Iran. (And additionally, a display of goodwill on the part of the US will reap some public relations benefits in the muslim world).
Secondly, it is fundamental that the Security Council understand Iran’s tactics as serving domestic purposes as much as (or even more than) global ones. Iran’s population is predominantly young, unemployed and restless. Youth and women want reform, and they tend to be pro-western (in varying degrees). Averting attention from these explosive issues by conjuring up the demon of western imperialism. Tehran’s international brinkmanship should be seen as an effort to consolidate a domestic power base that would otherwise sink away in the demographic and economic quicksands of the country. To budge is to bolster. Accomodating the diversionary tactics of Iran only strenghtens the regime at home.
Thirdly, the international community should work on inverting Tehran’s strategic use of time. At present, Iran gains most from delaying decisions and acts with such delays in mind. This should be wheeled around to where the Security Council sets the timetables and correspondingly intensifying embargoes, which in turn should serve as the hourglass for Iran to measure its options by. In order to bring the international community in line on this, please refer back to the first step to be taken : direct negotiations between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran are essential. The US agreeing to such negotiations within the timeframe of tightening impositions, should serve as a guarantee that Washington will not resort to unilateral action before the final deadline expires.
For now, the EU has the initiative. Its diplomatic efforts should help bring the US and Iran around the table. And perhaps, that way, Europe will reveal itself as the true communicator it professes to be !


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merci pour ton article, c'est vrai que cette histoire du nucléaire iranien continue de faire couler beaucoup d'encre.
Le sujet est vaste et complexe! De nouveau, il y a moyen d'en discuter pendant des heures.
Ce qui est une certitude, c'est la volonté de l'Iran pour s'affirmer comme la puissance militaire et idéologique (islamique) de la région.
En fait, l'Iran n'est plus la puissance qu'il a été juste avant la révolution de 1979. Pour se rendre compte de cela, il suffit de voir les chiffres militaires iraniens :

- Armée de terre :
soldats : 350.000
réserviste : 350.000
paramilitaires : 40.000
chars d'assaut : 1693

- Armée de l'air :
soldats : 52000
avion de combat* : 281
missiles : sol-air : 225 + missiles balistiques, air-sol et air-mer...

- Marine:
soldats : 18000
sous-marins: 3
frégates: 3
corvettes: 2

* : une partie des avions américains sont cloués au sol faute de pièces de rechanges, à cause de l'embargo.
Ces chiffres viennent d'un article du magazine "Le Vif" (Le Vif l'Express, 24éme année, N° 16 l'express, N° 2859, 21 au 27 Avril 2006)
Donc, le nucléaire leur permettra de faire un grand pas en avant au niveau civil et au niveau militaire par la suite (ils ne l'avouent pas encore).

Le sujet est très vaste...

9:20 AM  

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