Dealing with Iran: A Rare Diplomatic Unity
If dipmomacy is ever safely to defuse Iran's nuclear ambitions, this week's rare display of unity by the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council—America, Russia, China, Britain and France—could prove the turning point. READ MORE
By agreeing to call on the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meeting in emergency session, to report Iran's past illicit nuclear activities to the UN, they delivered a long overdue message. If Iran presses ahead with its uranium enrichment (for peaceful purposes, it claims; for bomb-building is the widespread suspicion), it can expect diplomatic isolation and possibly worse.
Defiance is Iran's trademark. Negotiations led by Britain, France and Germany and backed by America collapsed in August, when Iran resumed work to convert uranium ore to gas for later enrichment. In January, by removing IAEA seals on its pilot enrichment plant at Natanz, it helped drag Russia and China off the fence. Growing evidence that Iran is working on ways to deliver warheads by missile, and calls by Iran's president for Israel to be “wiped off the map” of the Middle East, have heightened alarm. A Russian compromise, to enrich uranium on Iran's behalf so as to create space for more talks, was brushed aside. Iran has merely used talks about such talks to try to divide Russia and China from Europe and America.
A hostile West, Iran has long claimed, wants to deprive it of its “legitimate” nuclear rights. This week's concerted diplomacy gives the lie to that. No one wants to see Iran's regime get its hands on the bomb. Iran has already been found in non-compliance with its nuclear obligations at the IAEA. The purpose in reporting that to the Security Council now, while deferring any action until next month, after another fuller report and discussion at the IAEA, should be two-fold. To give Iran a last chance to step back from the nuclear no-go line and co-operate fully with inspectors. And to strengthen the inspectors' authority, should Iran spurn that offer too.
Over the past three years inspectors have dug up a lot of evidence of Iran's wrongdoing. Yet the breakthroughs have come from information supplied by dissident groups, by foreign intelligence agencies and by clever sleuthing—not willingly by Iran. Now Iran is threatening to withdraw its co-operation with inspectors. Caught similarly red-handed three years ago, North Korea blew a raspberry at the world and pulled out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty altogether.
What can now be done? Pierre Goldschmidt, formerly in charge of investigations into Iran's safeguards breaches at the IAEA, argues that any country found in non-compliance with its nuclear obligations ought to be obliged by the Security Council to accept toughened inspections, maintain safeguards on all nuclear facilities and give up sensitive nuclear activities, such as producing uranium or plutonium (another bomb ingredient Iran has shown an interest in), for at least ten years. Passing such a resolution would set clear rules for Iran, and could help deter the next nuclear miscreant too.
For all this week's apparent unity, Iran may still calculate that, if push comes to shove, Russia and China will never back words with sanctions to enforce them. Both have big energy and other interests in Iran. So do several European countries, Japan, India and others. The best way of getting what all these countries want—a negotiated end to this stand-off—is by convincing Iran that it will pay a higher price for its defiance. Resolute words need resolute back-up too.