Iran’s recent deal with the IAEA provides the best path out from diplomatic deadlock. Washington, however, seems set to miss another opportunity.
Following intense negotiations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced in late August a new work plan reached with Iran, aimed at resolving all outstanding issues in Iran’s nuclear file by the end of the year.
The agreement was branded as “a significant step forward” by the Agency’s Director General, Dr Mohamed El-Baradei. It was also hailed as a move in the right direction by most of the 118 nations of the Non-Aligned Movement who have consistently recognised Iran’s right to a nuclear energy program.
Western countries – the United States and the “EU3” of Germany, France and the United Kingdom in particular – were less impressed. Done without their consent or advice, the deal angered many western diplomats, who suggested that El-Baradei’s IAEA was “over-stepping” its role. Most galling for the west was how the deal left Iran’s enrichment program wholly intact, dealing a blow to American and European efforts to force a suspension of such enrichment.
Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities were concealed for nearly two decades partly out of fear of bombardment and sabotage during the war with Iraq, in which the US maintained active intelligence cooperation with Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, Iran is not obliged to declare the existence of these facilities to the IAEA until six months before any nuclear material is introduced to the centrifuges. Iran did little wrong in hiding such facilities in the past, but their legitimate concealment was still considered by the United States as indicative of the alleged war-like aims of Iran’s nuclear activities.
Sitting on a bayonet?
The recent agreement between Iran and the IAEA has already gone a long way to confirming the peaceful nature of significant parts of Iran’s nuclear program. On plutonium experiments – one of the key US concerns – the agreement stresses: “…earlier statements made by Iran are consistent with the Agency’s findings, and thus this matter is resolved.”
And on enrichment activities: “The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of the declared nuclear materials at the enrichment facilities in Iran and has therefore concluded that it remains in peaceful use”.
Such revelations come after two sets of American-initiated United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran which demand a complete halt to Iran’s enrichment activities. Iran has rejected the sanctions resolutions as illegitimate and unjust, as they contradict Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which grants all member states the inalienable right “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination”. This includes enrichment at low grades used as fuel in nuclear reactors which is what Iran currently produces at Natanz and Isfahan under the supervision of the IAEA.
Back in 2003, Iran voluntarily suspended its enrichment activities, while it was negotiating with the EU3 on a comprehensive package of security guarantees and incentives. The talks, however, led nowhere. The European diplomats later admitted that the package was and that “there is nothing else we can offer … the Americans simply wouldn’t let us.”
In the same year, the Bush administration rejected a secret proposal from Iran which outlined significant compromises and the resolution of all outstanding issues between the two countries. Had the US taken up Iran’s offer at the time and more recently in the bilateral meetings in Iraq, we would have a win-win situation where Iran could successfully use its influence in the political spectrum of post-invasion Iraq to prevent bloodshed.
With the US failing to provide any tangible incentives or even security guarantees for Iran to continue its temporary suspension of uranium enrichment, the negotiations broke down in September 2005. Ever since, Iran has routinely rejected any suggestion of stopping its enrichment activities again.
Tehran, nevertheless, tried to reach a species of compromise. After the resumption of enrichment in late 2005, Washington dismissed an Iranian proposal for the US and other countries to join a consortium that would develop Iran’s enrichment industry. By actively participating in such a consortium, US officials would have seen first-hand that the program is not geared towards military purposes.
The recently concluded IAEA deal with Iran has also failed to make an impression on American diplomatic intransigence. Not only has Washington refused to support the agreement, which would render Iran’s nuclear activities more transparent, but in the first few days after the deal’s announcement, the Bush administration launched a smear campaign against the IAEA and its officials as having exceeded their mandate” .
By belligerently branding Iran as its number one enemy, and by ignoring Iran’s positive gestures, the US is losing an opportunity for rapprochement with a country that has mutual interests in regional stability and could help secure American energy needs.
Such wilful errors suggest that the Bush administration is less concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons as it is with isolating and demonising Iran.
It is of little coincidence that since news of Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA emerged, the Bush administration has increasingly issued wild and dubious accusations about alleged Iranian involvement in the violence in Iraq. The recent detention in northern Iraq of an Iranian businessman – which has even been protested by Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani, a staunch American ally – is symptomatic of the White House’s patchy and erratic efforts to open up another front of pressure against Iran.
Iran is a poor choice for a scapegoat in Iraq. Having issued to Iraqi security forces since 2003, US forces should not be surprised to find themselves engaged in an open-ended fight with insurgents while basic security remains a distant prospect in many Iraqi towns.
While the US has closed its eyes to the realities of Iran, other major powers are using this situation to their own benefit. Only last month, China surpassed Germany as Iran’s top trade partner. Negotiations continue on a groundbreaking Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. As European politicians try to find a role to play between Iran and the US, Iran’s lucrative market and its energy reaches are being steered towards future superpowers who share Iran’s economic interests.
Lessons of recent history
The recent agreement between Iran and the IAEA provides a major opportunity for the US to clear up its genuine concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran has warned that this agreement will be jeopardised should a fresh round of sanctions be imposed on Iran. Yet, the Bush administration continues to pressure its European allies to impose unilateral sanctions against Iran through the EU.
This approach harms American, European and Iranian interests at the same time; but more importantly, it will undoubtedly make it more difficult for the IAEA to conduct its inspections not only in Iran but also in all the other 46 (including 14 western European) countries that, according to the IAEA, are in the same situation as Iran.
The history of the relationship between the IAEA and the US in the run up to the invasion of Iraq serves as a warning for all those who blindly support the US position on Iran. Three days before the attack on Iraq, Vice President Cheney famously claimed that the IAEA was simply “wrong.”
How many more innocent lives does it take for us to understand who is wrong?
Mohammad Kamaali is a UK board member of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII)