The Politics of Non-Proliferation

If there was a time when Iranian analysts and decision makers would question the benefits of continuing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, it would be now.  The IAEA has allowed systematic US intervention in Iran’s nuclear file, paving the way to a third round of sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme.  But while US pressure on Iran, in the knowledge that the IAEA has found no evidence of a covert weapons programme, is perhaps in the hope that it will finally force the country to leave the NPT in protest, Iran it seems is one step ahead and does exactly the opposite.

On Monday, March 3rd, the UN Security Council, following months of political wrestling, voted in favour of a third sanctions resolution against Iran, repeating previous demands to stop uranium enrichment but this time covering the country’s entire banking sector as well as placing restrictions on air and sea cargo movements, thereby beginning a new phase in US efforts to isolate Iran.

Unlike the two previous resolutions and despite claims by China, Russia, and other non-permanent members of the Security Council who tried to justify their unprincipled stance, this time sanctions are not merely ‘a signal’ but clearly punitive.  They go beyond Iran’s nuclear programme, and, for the first time, they can potentially bring about physical confrontation leading to a full-scale military attack on Iran.

Had history not had a habit of repeating itself, one would be surprised how this resolution could possibly come about against a backdrop of consistent and increased cooperation between Iran and the IAEA which has been reflected in consecutive reports by the agency’s inspectors.

Back in August 2007, Iran and the IAEA agreed on a ‘work-plan’ under which Iran would answer a number of outstanding questions and in return the IAEA would finally confirm publicly its findings to date regarding US allegations against Iran’s nuclear activities.  The report in summary gave a clean bill of health to Iran’s nuclear programme in general and in particular to its enrichment activities.  It said, “The Agency has been able to verify the non-diversion of the declared nuclear materials at the enrichment facilities in Iran and has therefore concluded that it remains in peaceful use.”

The work-plan, and further reports by the IAEA, cleared Iran of all the issue referred to by the US as evidence of a covert weapons programme.  Plutonium experiments, traces of highly enriched uranium, procurement of dual use technologies, research into polonium-210, the Gchine mine, and reprocessing activities in Tehran were all examined by the IAEA, which found no evidence of any wrongdoing by Iran.

The only major outstanding point in the work-plan was the “alleged studies.”  On this particular issue the document said:

Iran reiterated that it considers the following alleged studies as politically motivated and baseless allegations.  The Agency will however provide Iran with access to the documentation it has in its possession regarding: the Green Salt Project, the high explosive testing and the missile re-entry vehicle. As a sign of good will and cooperation with the Agency, upon receiving all related documents, Iran will review and inform the Agency of its assessment.

For five months, the IAEA despite this agreement failed to provide Iran with access to the documents on these alleged studies.  Then, in early February, for the first time, ahead of the report on 22nd February, some documents were presented to Iran.  After inspecting the material, Iran stated that “the documents were fabricated and that the information contained in those documents could easily be found in open sources.”  Then on 15 February — that’s 5 working days before the agency’s latest report on Iran — the US instructs the IAEA to present a few more documents to Iran.  On this issue the IAEA’s report of 22nd Feb said: “the Agency proposed a further meeting to show additional documentation on the alleged studies to Iran, after being authorized to do so by the countries which had provided it.  Iran has not yet responded to the Agency’s proposal.”

This single item, three lines long, in an 11 page report which is otherwise quite positive, became the basis of US and EU claims that Iran has failed to answer questions about its nuclear programme and enabled them to justify pressuring other UNSC members who were not convinced of the need for harsher measures.  Whether this vote, too, was the result of coercion or not, a number of key questions remain.

Why does the US release only bits and pieces of the information it claims to have and why only on very critical times?  Why hasn’t there been a single US allegation against Iran’s nuclear programme that given time to evaluate has not proved false?  In absence of any credible information from the US, isn’t it time that the IAEA begins to doubt US motivations?

The famous laptop that has now become a cornerstone of the US case against Iran was first made available to the IAEA in November 2005, which means the US had access to it even earlier.  It also means that the people who prepared the NIE two years later in November 2007 knew a lot about this laptop, including whether or not it is fake.  They must have assessed its content much more vigorously than the IAEA.  What makes the Bush administration still push for sanctions based on concerns that Iran may have a nuclear weapons programme, despite the NIE’s conclusion that Iran does not have one?  In short, why is George W. Bush not listening to his own intelligence agencies?  Does he know something they don’t?  Or does he want something that they don’t?  What makes the IAEA believe that the Bush administration, given the opportunity, will not use unreliable data against Iran or that the neo-cons, perhaps months away from leaving office, having nothing to lose, will not engage directly into feeding disinformation into Iran’s nuclear file?

The US has already implemented measures to protect itself if the contents of the laptop are proved to be fake.  First the White House claimed it came from an Iranian who fled the country, then its source turned out to be a terrorist cult working to overthrow the Iranian government, then there was the German intelligence stealing it, and finally the Israeli Mossad as usual claiming to have a hand in everything.  Nobody knows fully where it first came from, which is why all the parties can say they were misled by someone else.

On any suspected nuclear sites the IAEA can take samples of radiating particles and physically confirm the nature of the material, but drawings on paper and worse yet those in digital format are extremely easy to fabricate.  “I can fabricate that data,” said one diplomat at the IAEA after seeing excerpts from the laptop.  “It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt.”

On the other hand it is equally difficult for Iran to prove these allegations false.  When the IAEA first presented Iran with some documents early February 2008, Iran’s response was that these are fake.  But the IAEA again, only a few days later, on 8th and 12th February, wrote to Iran reiterating its “request for additional clarifications.”  Did the agency present new evidence to refute Iran’s initial claim that the documents are fake?  The answer is no.  So what “additional clarifications” does the IAEA expect?  Is it not up to the accusers to back their claims with verifiable evidence?  Iran again responded on 14th February “reiterating its earlier statements and declaring that this was its final assessment on this point.”

The fact is that, if Iran had something to hide, it would think twice before immediately branding the documents as fake.  In other words Iran would not risk its consistently positive record with the IAEA over something it could simply dismiss as “under investigation.”  So what is the agency or those pulling its strings really trying to achieve?  Is it that difficult for its nuclear scientists to differentiate between a technical case and one which bears all the marks of an open-ended political circus?  The answer perhaps lies deeper in the agency’s latest report.

For the first time, the scope of the information that the IAEA is trying to obtain from Iran has gone beyond the agency’s mandate which is limited to nuclear technology.  Point 39 of the report effectively asks Iran for details of its missile programme to determine whether Iran’s missiles are ‘capable’ of accommodating a nuclear warhead.  This is what Iran’s representative to the IAEA referred to as evidence that the UN’s atomic watchdog is now acting as a proxy for Western intelligence agencies trying to determine the nature and extent of Iran’s conventional military capacity.

The day the governing board of the IAEA reported Iran’s case to the UN Security Council, it started a process that many now believe may ultimately cause the collapse of the entire non-proliferation regime.  The IAEA, which until then had largely managed to keep itself away from politics by concentrating on technical issues, is now a battleground between political forces which have found a new platform and an excuse to settle old scores.  A member state party to the NPT, which had voluntarily implemented its additional protocol and consistently voiced its opposition to weapons of mass destruction, including atomic weapons, instead of receiving assistance on its fully verified civilian nuclear programme, was reported to the UNSC, vilified and bullied to the extent that many believed a military strike would be inevitable.

By allowing itself to be so blatantly manipulated by the United States, and by failing to defend the rights of a non-nuclear weapon state against a gang of nuclear weapon states, the IAEA has opened the first major cracks in the NPT which is one of the oldest and most respected pillars of international security.  Suddenly being part of the NPT does not protect you any more from harassments of nuclear weapon states.  This situation may well lead to many nations quietly looking at nuclear weapons as a deterrent for the days to come when they may not necessarily share the same world view as the United States.

Fifteen months after the IAEA reported Iran to the UN Security Council, in June 2007 its director general said:

The [NPT] regime is tattering in many ways.  Today when we are talking here, for the last ten days the parties to the NPT can’t even agree on an agenda as what to discuss. That’s how dismal the state of affairs are.

For about six years now Iran’s nuclear file has been subject to an unprecedented attention from all corners, not only in rhetorical exchanges between US and Iranian officials, which can serve both domestic and international purposes, but also in nearly every discussion regarding world security and the politics of power in the Middle East.

One thing that is clear throughout is that the players in this game are not simply reacting to one another or to random events, but are following detailed action-plans naturally designed to return maximum gains.  Part of this gain for the US is denying Iran what it has declared as crucial to its future development.  But another perhaps more immediate gain is using this case and everything associated with it as a catalyst for furthering other US interests.

From contracts between major US military corporations and the GCC states to Cold War-style exchanges between US and Russia on a missile defence system in Eastern Europe; from Israel crying out for support in the face of an “existential threat” to France trying to cosy up to the US after Tony Blair; from India receiving US assistance in its unsupervised nuclear programme to South Africa signing nuclear contracts with France, hugely profitable deals are being facilitated in the name of preparing for an “emerging threat.”  The beneficiaries of these deals are the very same people who advocate tougher measures against Iran and more often than not disregard Iran’s positive gestures, ignore the findings of the IAEA, and instead engage in smear campaigns against anyone who attempts to deescalate the tension.  These are the same people who take every opportunity to portray Iranians as irrational and incapable of reasoning and therefore deserving to be punished by any means possible.

Iran’s nuclear file, its referral to the UN Security Council, and the subsequent votes of China and Russia in favour of sanctions cannot be viewed in isolation from these countries’ own interests.  In other words the US is not the only beneficiary of an isolated Iran.

For so long as Iran’s nuclear file makes headlines, certain important issues can be swept under the carpet, such as the IAEA’s failure to implement the ‘other half’ of the NPT which obliges nuclear weapons states to disarm, the failures of the Middle East peace process, and perhaps Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.  This was most evident a few days ago.  While Iran’s president was touring Baghdad outside the green zone, the UNSC was voting on the third resolution on Iran’s nuclear programme.  The Iraq story was almost completely boycotted in British media while the nuclear one got all the headlines.

The US has proved in more than one way that the concerns it has expressed regarding Iran’s nuclear programme do not have much to do with realities on the ground.  For the past few years Iran’s nuclear file has been a platform from which the US has coordinated an agenda which goes far beyond Iran itself.  We are long past the stage where this was a technical argument between Iran and the IAEA on a few “outstanding issues.”  This is not even a nuclear proliferation issue any more.  The UNSC passed the third resolution while it had on its table a proposal from Iran to implement the NPT’s additional protocol again if its file is returned to the IAEA.  The US and the EU3 had another Iranian proposal from 2006 to jointly develop Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities so that they would gain firsthand insight into the programme and therefore confidence that it remains peaceful.  They rejected that, too.

While Iran voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment for nearly two years when it was negotiating with the EU3, the US refused to even give security guarantees to Iran so that it would continue freezing enrichment, let alone any incentives to encourage more compromise.  Recently in a House of Commons meeting I asked Ilan Berman from the American Foreign Policy Council, who has consulted for both the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense as an expert on regional security in the Middle East, why the US refused to support the EU3 initiative back then while now it sees the suspension of enrichment as a precondition for normalising Iran’s nuclear file.  His answer shocked the audience.  He said he did not know of any suspension of enrichment activities by Iran!  Given the options perhaps, this was the best he could do.

Following Monday’s UNSC vote, the IAEA’s governing board rejected a proposal for an anti-Iran resolution.  Iran shortly afterwards announced that from now on its nuclear programme will only be discussed with the UN’s atomic energy agency: i.e. it will no longer “negotiate” on this issue with the EU’s foreign policy chief who had been responsible to convey EU’s demands and by extension those of the US to Iran.

This marks an important development which has come as a direct result of the latest Security Council resolution against Iran.

For the past six years, while working with the IAEA at technical and legal levels, Iran had continued the political path with the EU3.  Yet despite being betrayed more than once in these negotiations, until now Iran was open to a deal which could include the suspension of uranium enrichment activities.  In return it was hoped the US would finally give some form of security guarantee that it would abandon its threats of preemptive strike.

This move can be seen as a sign that Iran is convinced the current US administration will not or cannot afford to provide such guarantees and that this in fact has nothing to do with the state of Iran’s nuclear programme or its cooperation with the IAEA.  Put simply, Iran has said: “You know what?  The deal’s off.  I’m not selling.”

Mohammad Kamaali is a UK board member of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII) <>.

| Print