Facing a Tough Choice on Iran

The controversy over the Iranian nuclear program is neither a new issue nor is it a crisis. But if the United States does not handle this issue carefully, the result could be that Iran would leave both the negotiating table and the Non-Proliferation Treaty and all parties would be worse off.

Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the first day it was opened for signature on July 1, 1968, and was an Original Party when it entered into force in 1970. However, for at least the last 15 years, there have been suspicions among some in the NPT community about the real objective of the Iranian nuclear program -- is it for peaceful electricity or nuclear weapons? The United States, with some justification, has been especially skeptical.

In late 2003, Iran confirmed some of those suspicions when it declared that it had been in violation of its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for many years. In essence, Iran had been developing uranium enrichment technology without disclosing this to the IAEA. At the same time, however, Iran denied any intention of building nuclear weapons and pledged cooperation with the IAEA in the future. Iran also promised to join the IAEA's expanded inspection agreement and to temporarily halt uranium enrichment related activities. This temporary suspension was terminated in June, 2004 but was subsequently reinstated. And early in 2004, Iran began negotiating with Britain, France and Germany -- representing the European Union -- over the future of its program.

The objective of the negotiations has been for the Europeans to develop a package of inducements sufficient to persuade Iran to give up that part of its nuclear program that involves an effort to acquire nuclear fuel cycle technology (uranium enrichment and nuclear waste chemical-reprocessing equipment). All along, Iran has asserted that it has a right as an NPT non-nuclear weapon party to acquire the entire nuclear fuel cycle, as implied by Article IV of the treaty. But it was clear from the beginning of the negotiation that Iran was interested in not only economic and trade concessions and peaceful nuclear technology cooperation, but also security guarantees -- sometimes referred to as non-aggression commitments.

The United States did not believe that this process would be successful, although after a time it did express its support for the European effort. Showing its seriousness during the course of these negotiations, Iran maintained its voluntary suspension of enrichment activities, and the Europeans asserted that resumption of such activities could prevent the negotiations from continuing.

Last week, the Europeans put their offer on the table and it was promptly rejected by Iran saying that it did not meet minimum expectations. Based on news reports describing the European offer, it appears to have been quite a good deal in the economic area but vague on security guarantees. Yet the talks are structurally flawed. As long as the United States stays out of the negotiations, the security guarantee, obviously, cannot include any commitment by the United States -- the country of greatest concern to Iran. So it should not be a surprise that the offer was rejected. Immediately, Iran recommenced uranium conversion -- but not actual enrichment activities -- with IAEA inspectors present.

This situation is certainly quite serious, but should not be viewed as a crisis. Last week, an article in The Washington Post disclosed the findings of the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. That highly classified report included the intelligence community's consensus judgment that Iran remained six to 10 years away from the threshold of a nuclear weapon capability. With this kind of calendar, there remains time for diplomacy to work.

Indeed, immediately after Iran rejected the offer from the EU-3, Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said in a telephone call to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that he wants to continue negotiations with Europe over the fate of Iran's nuclear program and that he is working on a new set of ideas. President Bush cautiously greeted this as "a positive sign," while the French foreign ministry said that "we think it is still possible to negotiate." And on August 11, the IAEA Board adopted a resolution urging Iran to re-establish "full suspension of all enrichment related activities." The resolution charged the IAEA Director General, Mohammed El Baradei, to report to the board on September 3 on whether Iran was carrying out the terms of the resolution.

But the diplomatic opportunities that remain would likely collapse if the West pushes for the case of Iran to be brought before the U.N. Security Council in an effort to have sanctions imposed. In any case, it is likely that Russia and China would use their vetoes to scuttle an Iran sanction proposal. But even if the Security Council somehow could be persuaded to adopt sanctions, this would seem unlikely to change Iran's behavior and the negotiations would no longer exist.

Indeed, sanctions could have the effect of actually further weakening the international non-proliferation regime. This is so because Iran might, under such circumstances, consider withdrawal from the NPT so that it had no more nuclear obligations. A daily newspaper reported as close to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, said last week in its lead editorial that Iran should withdraw from the NPT if its case was simply sent to the Security Council. There has been one recent withdrawal from the NPT -- North Korea -- another, especially Iran, would be most unfortunate.

But America is sending mixed signals. Reports that India may have obtained a better deal from the United States with respect to cooperation in nuclear technology outside the NPT than Iran could ever obtain inside the treaty could make officials in Tehran wonder what the NPT is doing for Iran. This is not the kind of message that we should be sending.

Thus, it is difficult to see how U.N. sanctions could be a practical course of action. The best chance for favorable resolution of this issue remains at the negotiating table. Director General El Baradei said last Thursday that the only way forward "is through negotiation."

In conclusion, it is very much in the interest of the United States and the world community to pursue diplomatic measures to find an arrangement with which all parties to this dispute can be comfortable and that will give strong incentives to Iran to stay within the non-proliferation community. As a nation, we have the time and capacity to do this right.

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