Last Friday I was at a fascinating conference at RUSI in London (highly recommended), at which they had a panel discussion on Iran. At the end I approached a Professor from the panel and we continued the discussion. It got me thinking a lot about the basis for sanctions on Iran.
Most recently, on 9th June 2010, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1929 with 12 votes for, two against (Brazil and Turkey) and one abstention (Lebanon). This is the sixth resolution the Council has adopted on Iran and the fourth round of sanctions, which have been growing ever tighter, but have failed and continue to fail, to produce any meaningful change in Iran’s behaviour.
The document that kicked this whole process off in the Council was Resolution 1696 of 2006 (14-1-0 Qatar against). This was a response to a resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency from earlier that year which had requested the Security Council to take up the issue of Iranian nuclear safeguards violations. This is the heart of the matter that needs some examination – Iran has never been found in material breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty or of Security Council Resolutions (as, for comparison’s sake, Iraq had been found in 2003). Nor has it come close to conducting a nuclear test as, for example, North Korea has on several occasions. Yet Iran is getting similar treatment by the Security Council as two countries which have acted in ways that are far more hostile towards the architecture of international peace and security, whether the Security Council or the NPT in either case. The Islamic Republic may not be a model international citizen, but there is a serious question of why it is being treated so harshly, and so what is the basis for the Security Council to take Chapter VII action against the country?
Throughout the entire history of Iranian nuclear ambitions, the official policy of Iran is that the country has no ambitions to create nuclear weapons and that their programme is purely for peaceful energy generation and research purposes. In most public discourse in the West this is ignored, or at best assumed to be a blatant lie that we should all be too mature to fall for now.
However, why should we not apply the maxim of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on the international stage when we argue for it so strenuously domestically? What is the real nature of Iran’s nuclear programme?
The best knowledge that we have comes from the IAEA, and that’s not bad – Iran has said on a number of occasions that they are the most heavily inspected country in the history of the NPT, and they’re probably right. The aforementioned Professor is an expert on this process, and spends several months a year in Iran, sometimes in Natanz, sometimes in Isfahan. He anecdotally observed how the hotels by the nuclear sites have to be booked far in advance as the IAEA fill them up so much of the time. The numbers show this too – as of 2006 over 2000 person days of inspector time had been spent on Iran.
The IAEA rigorously inspected Iranian sites and documentation, and concluded that the main suspicions came from LEU and HEU contamination of P-1 and P-2 centrifuges, a metallurgy document about the casting of hemispherical uranium (the only purpose of hemispherical uranium is nuclear weapons), questions about the role of the military (nuclear programmes are meant to be civilian run), and some issues about delivery systems.
The Iranian government has provided answers to all of these. The HEU contamination of centrifuges and the document on hemispherical uranium, which both constituted the main suspicions, were explained by the fact that much of the material in Iran’s nuclear programme comes originally from the A.Q Khan network. In other words, the centrifuges were contaminated when delivered and the metallurgy document was one of many documents that were disorganised and ended up in the country from A.Q Khan. On these matters the IAEA has accepted Iran’s answers, though has been reluctant to close the book on them.
It’s worth taking a quick digression to look at A.Q Khan and Iran. When Iran originally decided to develop a nuclear programme, it was before the 1979 revolution and it was encouraged by the United States (The Bushehr Reactor that will soon be functional was built by the Germans in 1975 with the blessing of the US). Following the revolution and the hostage crisis, Iran became an international persona non grata and Washington withdrew its support for the nuclear reactor. After 1979, the new Islamic Republic tried to continue work on the nuclear reactors by soliciting help internationally, but the US succeeded in blocking them at almost every stage. This ultimately forced them reluctantly to seek help from the illicit network developed out of Pakistan, and A.Q Khan did not abide by many safeguards agreements.
So the picture throughout between Iran and the IAEA has been one where Iran has been guilty of safeguards violations, but these have been in the past. Since 2003 Iran has made a concerted, and successful, effort to remedy its safeguards violations, and yet the IAEA is still not ready to close the book on them. This is because they are not able to reconstruct Iran’s full nuclear history, and they are not able to be 100% certain that in the parts that are hazy, Iran was not pursuing weapons.
The IAEA Governing Council, which is a body of member states, voted then at the urging of the US to invoke Article XII of the Statute and refer Iran to the Security Council. The Council took this forward, ultimately invoking Chapter VII and imposing sanctions.
This is where the complex relationship between international civil servants (such as IAEA inspectors) and states becomes the key issue. The inspectors reported a complex and nuanced set of safeguards violations which in a normal case would probably not warrant sanctions, and it was taken forward by member states – a political process, not a legal or scientific one. Nothing was done in an incorrect or illegal fashion, but it shows that the system allows for a degree of unhealthy politicisation that can prevent a proportional and measured response to a complex issue.
Iran has been subjected to international punishment not much less severe than that which North Korea and (formerly) Libya were under, and Iran’s crime by any objective measure doesn’t come close to the severity of theirs. Looking at it from the other way, Iran’s safeguards violations are worse than those by Brazil several decades ago, but not so much worse that we shouldn’t expect them to be treated similarly, and yet Brazil was never close to being referred to the Security Council.
For the sake of balance, it is worth saying that the IAEA is still concerned about the possibility of covert nuclear activities by Iran, there are still unanswered questions, and there are a lot of people out there who believe that this is a carefully constructed smokescreen by Iran designed to cheat the system… but to go back to what I said earlier, this is about applying the principal of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ properly. Iran may be difficult, their President may be pugnacious, but according to the best information we have, from the system that we created, we definitely don’t have the certainty that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme we should have to justify the response we’ve made.