Juan Cole: IAEA Condemnation of Iran: An Omen of New Sanctions or a Symbolic Slap on the Wrist?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

The board of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency on Friday condemned Iran for secretly building a new nuclear enrichment facility at Fordo near Qom, and called on it to mothball the new site. The resolution was backed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, as well as Germany.

Fully 25 of the 35 nations on the nuclear board voted for the resolution, India joined the consensus condemning Iran, though New Delhi issued a statement saying its vote did not signal openness to the imposition of further sanctions on Iran. Only Cuba, Venezuela and Malaysia voted against the text, with 6 others abstaining and one absent. Brazil was among those abstaining. And its abstention spells future trouble for US policy toward Iran, since President Lula da Silva appears to fear that if Iran's right to enrich is withdrawn, it could have implications for countries such as Brazil. Iran has been wooing Brazil and other Latin American countries, with some success, on anti-imperialist grounds, as WaPo rightly says.

The text (see below) affirmed Iran's right to enrich uranium for fuel under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but nevertheless insisted that it cease its enrichment activities. The position of the IAEA and the UN Security Council that Iran's secret experiments before early 2003 and its refusal to be bound by the safeguards provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty have the effect of making its enrichment activities illicit. The UNSC demands that they cease until Iran allows full and completely transparent inspections. The document also said that the secret nature of the Fordo plant raised questions about whether there were other concealed sites. (In fact, outgoing IAEA head Mohammed Elbaradei confirmed that all inspectors found at Fordo was 'a hole in the ground,' not a real facility.)

Iran replies that its preference for working in secrecy was the result of military threats against its right to enrich, as enshrined in the NPT. It has allowed UN inspections, and these have never found a weapons program. Moreover, the text of the NPT (Article IV, Para. 1) explicitly says, "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty."

Even the safeguards system, the more recent and robust version of which Iran's parliament declined to ratify, specifies inspections of fissile material, whereas Iran does not appear even to have any of the latter or to be capable of producing it for a decade or more.

Iranian leaders say that nuclear weapons are contrary to the Islamic law of war, that they do not want them and could not legally deploy them. They hold that the enrichment facilities are intended to produce fuel for a string of nuclear reactors that will keep Iran from having to use its precious petroleum, a key earner of foreign exchange and guarantor of national independence, for domestic power generation. Russia is building nuclear plants for Iran at Bushehr.

My own position is that, in addition, Iran's leadership is seeking whatis sometimes called the "Japan option" or a "rapid breakout capability." Unlike North Korea, India and Pakistan, I think Tehran genuinely does not want to actually construct and detonate a nuclear device. India and Pakistan are such large and important countries that they defied the First World nuclear club successfully and so joined it. North Korea, much smaller, weaker and poorer, has made itself an international pariah in this way, and is suffering more and more severe UN sanctions. I think most senior Iranian leaders wish to avoid those heavy sanctions, having seen what they did to Iraq.

But having a rapid breakout capability-- being able to make a bomb in short order if it is felt absolutely necessary to forestall a foreign attack-- has a deterrent effect. So Iran would have the advantages of deterrence without the disadvantages of a bomb if it could get to the rapid breakout stage.

My theory has the advantage of explaining everything about Iran's behavior-- its condemnation of the Bomb as incompatible with Islamic law, its willingness to offer fair cooperation with UN inspectors, the repeated inability of US intelligence and of the IAEA to find any trace of a weapons program, and yet Iran's frustrating lack of complete transparency and its penchant for building secret enrichment sites. You can't retain a credible rapid breakout capability, or "nuclear latency," if your enrichment facility can be destroyed by air strikes. Repeated Cheneyite and Israeli threats to attack the enrichment plant at Natanz near Isfahan are what I believe drove Iran to construct the Fordo site inside a mountain, in hopes that this step would make it impossible for an outside power to use military might to wipe out Iran's nuclear latency.

The US and Western Europe and Israel interpret Iran's secrecy as a sign that nefarious secret weapons programs are being pursued. But this conclusion is riddled with difficulties. A weapons program uses enormous amounts of water and electricity and would be very difficult to conceal nowadays from US satellite and electronic surveillance. The US knew about Fordo as soon as work began on it.

A desire on the part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commanders to retain the soft deterrence of a rapid breakout capability probably explains Iran's waffling on the deal tentatively adopted at Geneva on October 1. That agreement would have had Iran send 2600 pounds of its 3200 pounds of low enriched uranium (enriched to less than 5 percent) to Russia for processing, so that it could be used in Iran's small medical research reactor, and used to produce medical isotopes. In this way, the LEU, the seed stock for any potential bomb, would get used up. It would have taken Iran a couple of years to replace that LEU, reassuring Western hawks in the meantime that Iran's weapons-making capability had been temporarily blunted. But when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative brought this deal back to Tehran, I believe that the IRGC commanders vetoed it because they want to retain a rapid break out potential and did not want the LEU seed stock to be lost.

That the hawks were able to veto the representative of Supreme Leader Khamenei lends credence to Gary Sick's argument that the Revolutionary Guards have carried out a soft coup behind the scenes and Iran looks more and more like a military junta.

I personally suspect that most Western officials involved in this matter know perfectly well that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and does not want an actual bomb. I think the Western leaders do not want Iran to have nuclear latency, either, because it would change the balance of power in the Middle East and would take forcible regime change off the table as an option for the West.

Although some observers are wondering if Friday's vote is a prelude to stricter UN Security Council sanctions on Iran, Howard LeFrachi at CSM rightly points out that China does not want more sanctions. China was essentially blackmailed into voting for Friday's resolution, according to the Washington Post, by an Israeli threat to start a war, conveyed by Dennis Ross, a prominent member of the US Israel lobbies who also has a position in the Obama administration. But voting for an IAEA text is different from actually imposing sanctions that might hurt the Chinese economy.

Moreover, Russian Prime Minister and eminence grise Vladimir Putin is against a tightening of sanctions. India announced its opposition to a tougher economic boycott even as it voted to condemn Iran.

The reason for the reluctance of the BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to push Iran harder economically is that they have an interest in Iran's resources not being closed off to their exploitation. Reuters just reported that: "Indian state explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC.BO) is seeking a 20-25 percent stake in a $7.5 billion phase-12 project of Iran's South Pars gas field, media reports said on Friday." India is growing 7 and 9% a year and has relatively little energy of its own, and so is very hungry for Iranian natural gas.

So far the US has managed to strongarm India into backing off, by threatening Treasury Department third-party sanctions. But it is entirely possible that Indian energy hunger will cause its firms to write off the $14 trillion US market and to partner with Iran. After all, the world economy is now about $60 trillion, and united Europe's economy is as big as that of the US. If India has a choice of seeing its growth strangled for lack of electricity to run its factories and being excluded from 23% of the world economy, it may decide that the 77% is enough of a market. The importance of the US economy as a proportion of the global whole will likely rapidly decline over the next four decades.

The same considerations affect China. Russia is different because it is an energy producer. But in a world where demand for hydrocarbons is rapidly growing, there is enough demand to go around, and Russia's economy is sufficiently diversified that it views Iran as a market and an investment opportunity. Harsher UNSC sanctions on Iran would backfire on BRIC, and therefore short of egregiously bad behavior on Iran's part (discovery of an actual, dedicated weapons plant, e.g.), the BRIC countries will likely seek to block them.

Bottom line: Friday's vote was likely symbolic and a signal to Iran from the international community that there is discomfort with its secretiveness and lack of transparency, and that many are suspicious of its motives. In China's case, it may have been a warning against actions that could harm the Middle Kingdom's burgeoning economy.

What it likely was not was a harbinger of tougher international sanctions against Tehran or a sign that BRIC is softening on that issue.

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