Tension grows over Iran’s opaque nuclear intentions

James Best examines the global implications of Iran’s nuclear weapons policy

On the 2nd of February, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will convene to discuss the implementation of safeguards with respect to Iran’s nuclear energy programme, as requested by the permanent missions of France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
On the 12th of January, British, German and French Foreign Ministers announced the end of negotiations over Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme and that Iran would be brought before the UN Security Council. The decision was supported in an address by Condoleeza Rice, in which the US Secretary of State said that Iran’s “rejection of diplomatic initiatives offered by the EU and Russia” and “its dangerous defiance of the entire international community” had brought international condemnation upon the government in Tehran and the necessity of UN action.

The present situation dates back to September 2002 when Iran informed the IAEA that it was building new facilities in a move towards developing the nuclear fuel cycle. This was followed by a visit from IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei who was “taken aback” by Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran, in a join statement with the UK, France and Germany, agreed to cooperate with the IAEA. This began the long series of negotiations, restrictions, political wrangling and evasions that culminated with the removal of IAEA seals at Narantz on 10th January 2006 and the resulting international protestations and appeals to adhere to the agreements made with the IAEA, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

Iran’s Deputy Secretary for International Security Javad Vaidi claims that Iran wants “reasonable, constructive and bilateral negotiations” but that this is jeopardised by Europe “threatening to refer [Iran] to the Security Council which [Europeans] think hangs over Iran like a sword of Damocles”. He goes further to threaten the termination of all voluntary measures agreed with the IAEA and begin enriching uranium, the process needed for both nuclear energy and weapons, immediately should they be referred to the UN Security Council.

Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is thus under an obligation to make its nuclear programme transparent to external independent observers. In September last year the IAEA concluded that Iran had not complied over issues of transparency and that therefore they could not conclude that Iran’s nuclear programme was for solely peaceful purposes.

In an interview on the 12th of January, Mohammed ElBaradei points out that Iran has “a right under the treaty to enrich uranium” and is not in fact in breach of the treaty. However, he claims that, “if they [Iran] have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far – a few months – from a weapon”. Furthermore he says that the IEAE have “information about some modification of their missiles that could have some relationship to the nuclear programme”.

Critics of the moves to bring Iran before the Security Council have pointed out that sanctions were neither threatened nor imposed upon India or Pakistan, both of which have declared the possession of nuclear weapons. Also Israel does not confirm nor deny the existence of its nuclear weapons, despite allegations made to the Sunday Times by Mordechai Vanunuan, an Israeli nuclear technician. None of these countries are members of the NPT and Pakistan was involved in the sale of black market nuclear technology to North Korea and Iran.

There are many possible outcomes of this situation. Initially sanctions are most likely and would probably start small, such as travel bans for government leaders and Iranian sports teams. This could escalate to economic sanctions, but this would be difficult as Iran has important energy contracts with Russia, China, Japan, India, South Korea and others. With a large amount of money in the bank from recently high oil prices Iran may be able to afford sanctions more easily than those countries involved in the decision to impose them. This was illustrated by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comment that “You [the west] need us more than we need you”.

If these were the only considerations then the situation would be less explosive but they are not, for President Ahmadinejad threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”, predictably provoking an equally confrontational response, not just from Israel but also from President Bush and others within the US. Mr Bush announced that the US will not be “blackmailed” by an Iranian nuclear weapon and that the US is “committed to the safety of Israel”. Israel’s response has been to threaten military action and the use of bunker busting bombs, supplied by the US, to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Middle East has not been this unstable in a long time and the outcome of this conflict is anything but certain. The effects of a conflict, violent or peaceful, will be felt across the globe. The direction will be clearer after the 2nd of February but the end is a long way from sight.

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