How Can We Break The Iranian Nuclear Deadlock? (June, 2011)

Richard Dalton (United Kingdom),  Steen Hohwü-Christensen (Sweden), Paul von Maltzahn (Germany),  Guillaume Metten (Belgium), François Nicoullaud (France), Roberto Toscano (Italy),
former ambassadors to Tehran

We have been ambassadors from various European countries in Iran during the past decade. We have followed closely the development of the nuclear crisis between Iran and the international community. It is unacceptable that the talks have been in deadlock for such a long time.

The Arab world and the Middle East are entering a new epoch. No country is immune from change. The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing the disaffection of a significant part of its population. Everywhere, new perspectives are emerging. Such a period of uncertainty offers opportunities for reconsidering established positions. The time has come to do so on the Iranian nuclear question.

In terms of international law, the position of Europe and the United States is perhaps less assured than is generally believed. Basically, it is embodied in a set of resolutions adopted by the Security Council referring to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes coercive measures in case of “threats to the peace”.

But what constitutes the threat ? Is it the enrichment of uranium in Iranian centrifuges?  This is certainly a sensitive activity, by a sensitive country, in a highly sensitive region. The concerns expressed by the international community are legitimate and Iran has a moral duty, as well as a political necessity, to answer them. But in principle, nothing in international law, nothing in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbids the enrichment of uranium. Besides Iran, several other countries, parties or not to NPT, enrich uranium without being accused of “threatening the peace”. And this activity is submitted in Iran to the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). True, these inspections are constrained by a Safeguards Agreement dating from the seventies. But it is true also, that the IAEA has never uncovered in Iran any attempted diversion of nuclear material to military use.

Is the threat to the peace contained in an active clandestine program to build a nuclear weapon? For at least three years, the United States Intelligence Community has put aside this hypothesis. Its director, James Clapper, testified last February to Congress : “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons… We continue to judge that Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran”. Today, a majority of experts, including in Israel, seems to view Iran as striving to become a “threshold country”, technically able to produce a nuclear weapon but abstaining from doing so for the present. Again we may regret it, but nothing in international law or in the NPT forbids such an ambition. Several countries besides Iran, committed not to acquire nuclear weapons, have already reached such a threshold or are on their way to reach it. Nobody seems to bother them.

We often hear that Iran’s ill-will, its refusal to negotiate seriously, left our countries no other choice but to drag it in 2006 to the Security Council. Here also, things are not that clear. Let us remember that in 2005 Iran was ready to discuss a ceiling limit for the number of its centrifuges and to maintain its rate of enrichment way below the high levels of military interest. And most of all, it expressed its readiness to put into force the Additional Protocol that it had already signed with the IAEA, allowing intrusive inspections, even in non-declared sites, on its whole territory. But at this time, the Europeans and the Americans wanted to compel Iran to forsake its enrichment program. And at least in the Iranians’ minds, the same aim still looms behind the insistence of the Security Council on suspension of all Iranian enrichment activities. Before accusing Iran of stalling the negotiation, one should then admit that “zero centrifuges operating in Iran, permanently or temporarily”, is an unrealistic goal, which has heavily contributed to the present standoff.

Of course, a dilemma lingers in the minds of most of our leaders. Why offer the Iranian regime an opening which could help it restore its internal and international legitimacy? Should not we wait for a more palatable successor? This is a serious question. But we should not overestimate the influence of a nuclear negotiation on internal developments that lie deeper. Ronald Reagan used to call the USSR the “Evil Empire”. That did not stop him negotiating intensely with Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament. Should we blame him for having slowed down the course of History? Countries interested in Iran should certainly keep the focus on matters of political and human rights, but also try harder to solve a frustrating and still urgent proliferation problem. By doing so, we would reduce a serious source of tension in a region that longs more than ever for tranquility.

The failure of the last round of negotiation in Istanbul at the end of January and the last disappointing exchange of letters between the two parties show only too well that the current deadlock will be difficult to break. On the process, the more discreet and technical the negotiation will be, the better chance it will have to progress. And on the substance, we already know that any solution will have to build upon the quality of the inspection system of the IAEA.

Either we trust IAEA’s ability to supervise all its member States, including Iran. Or we do not, and one can ask why we should maintain an Organization efficient only with its most virtuous members. In fact, the first step could be for the two parties to ask the IAEA what precisely are the additional tools that it would consider necessary to monitor the Iranian nuclear program fully and to provide credible assurances that all the activities connected with it are purely peaceful in intent. On the basis of its answer, a pragmatic negotiation could get started.

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