Taking Iran to the UN: A dangerous game

Posted in Iran | 04-Aug-05 | Author: Ian Davis| Source: International Herald Tribune

Technicians work at a uranium processing site in Isfahan 340km (211 miles) south of Iran's capital.
LONDON In principle the United Nations Security Council is the right forum for resolving international security disputes. But in the case of Iran's nuclear program, the looming threat by Britain, France and Germany (known as the EU-3), to refer the issue to the UN could seriously backfire.

The Iranians insist they want to build a modern nuclear energy industry, including the capacity to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel. The EU-3, fully aware that this technology can also be used to develop nuclear weapons and concerned by Iran's extensive record of concealing nuclear activities, is demanding that Iran permanently shut down key elements of its nuclear program.

Hopes were raised last November when the EU-3 and Iran arrived at the so-called Paris Agreement, which saw Iran agree to suspend enrichment as "a voluntary confidence-building measure" while the EU-3 offered to negotiate financial, political and security incentives to make the arrangement permanent.

Nine months later the talks are nearing crunch point. The Europeans have said that by Sunday they will present a detailed proposal to try to persuade Iran to abandon high-risk nuclear activities. But Iran has told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it will resume enrichment anyway, and there is little optimism that a deal will stick.

The elephant on the sofa is the U.S. government. Washington claims to support the EU-3 talks, but U.S. insistence on the complete and total end to enrichment activities leaves little room for compromise. George W. Bush's refusal to rule out military action hinders progress, and the Iranians see double standards in his recent agreement to assist nuclear-armed India. As a consequence of U.S. pressure, the EU-3 decided earlier this year to threaten to refer Iran to the Security Council if it resumes uranium enrichment activities. But if this threat is applied, it could lead to dramatic and dangerous escalation.

First, it is the IAEA's responsibility to refer Iran to the council. But without conclusive evidence of a nuclear weapons program, it is doubtful the IAEA board will support referral. Claims by the Americans that enrichment activities are "forbidden" and by Tony Blair that Iran would be in breach of its "obligations and undertakings" should it end its voluntary suspension are a legal nonsense.

But more importantly, even if the EU-3 and the United States can engineer a referral by the IAEA and a successful resolution at the Security Council, they will almost certainly be unable to get Russia and China to agree to the biting sanctions needed to force rapid Iranian concessions. Russia is actually building Iran's Bushehr light-water nuclear power plant, and energy-hungry China last year signed a $70 billion oil and gas deal with Tehran.

The risk of referral is that it will lead to stalemate at the UN, provoke the Iranians into blocking international nuclear inspections, and ultimately strengthen the hand of U.S. hardliners who are pushing for the bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities. Faced with this prospect, the EU-3 should drop their UN threats at the same time as they offer their incentives, and for the time being accept some limited enrichment by Iran subject to tough IAEA inspections.

Short of military action, which would be a disaster, the best leverage the EU has over Iran are time and trade. Iran's young population is demanding economic reform, which requires export growth and investment.

This dynamic hints at a solution. If Tehran can be persuaded to go slow on its nuclear work under heavy and intrusive IAEA inspection, the lure of further EU economic ties may in time lead to a lasting agreement. Indeed, the EU should look to the six-nation partnership on development of technologies for clean energy that the United States concluded in the Asia-Pacific region last week as a possible model for Iran and the wider Middle East. However flawed a response this might be to the problem of climate change, if properly resourced and managed, an EU-led technology transfer partnership of this nature could help accelerate much-needed energy diversification away from oil.

This may never result in the total capitulation that the Bush administration appears to be seeking from Tehran and carries risks that Iran could pursue nuclear weapons in secret. But with U.S. intelligence now putting the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb a decade away, it is a far better option to keep talking than to start down a path toward military confrontation: That would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable.

(Ian Davis is the director of the British American Security Information Council)