Although Iran’s defiant resumption of nuclear work may soon land it before the U.N. Security Council, there is no agreement within the world body on how to compel Tehran to halt nuclear activities -- or even if it can.
Provoked by Iran’s decision this month to end a voluntary, two-year freeze on nuclear research and development, a U.N. agency is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Feb. 2. The 35-member board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, will vote on whether to send Iran’s case to the Security Council, which in turn could impose political and economic sanctions or give greater powers to United Nations inspectors.
That is a move that U.S. officials have been advocating for nearly three years. But Russia and China, which have significant energy investments in Iran, are reluctant to punish Tehran. And European diplomats support Security Council action but fear that drastic measures could further harden Iran’s position. Those divisions foreshadow a drawn-out diplomatic process that may play into Iran’s interests instead of constraining it, according to experts and diplomats.
“We are not looking for immediate draconian action,” said Emyr Jones Parry, Britain’s ambassador to the U.N. “We are looking for a graduated approach, something that builds up the pressure while encouraging the Iranians to come back into compliance.”
Iran, meanwhile, refuses to give up its right to peaceful nuclear energy, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has hinted that his country might cut oil exports if hit with international sanctions. Ahmadinejad’s threat to “wipe Israel off the map,” among other such statements, have only fueled international concerns that Iran might be pursuing nuclear weapons.
“They are setting up a confrontation, and it could get very ugly,” said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and now president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “It is important to have very careful action to put pressure on Iran, but give Iranians plenty of opportunity to back down.”
Russia and China, which have veto power over Security Council actions, oppose international sanctions. Russian officials this month criticized Tehran for restarting nuclear enrichment research, but later urged the U.S. and Europe to be patient.
“There is no point in discussing the matter within the U.N. Security Council until the IAEA has presented its conclusions,” Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, said Friday at a news conference in Moscow.
Kosachyov also warned that backing Iran into a corner could produce negative results.
“Any possible repeat of the North Korean scenario, whereby excessive pressure from the U.S. caused the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ... would be highly undesirable,” he said. “Such a possibility exists, and should it become a reality, the world would doubtlessly lose.”
China likewise called for “restraint and patience” in the Iranian nuclear standoff. “We believe currently we should use peaceful dialogue to resolve the difficulties and obstacles over the Iranian nuclear issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters Thursday.
A Russian plan might be the key to compromise. It proposes enriching Iran’s uranium in Russian plants, then sending the fuel rods back to Iran, a process that would take the most sensitive part of the fuel cycle out of Iran’s hands while still protecting its right to nuclear energy. But Tehran has rejected that proposal, saying it would rather keep control of the entire process and not depend on another country. But since the IAEA decided to hold an emergency session, Iranian leaders have said they are willing to take another look at the Russian proposal.
In Moscow, the head of Russia’s atomic energy agency said Friday that Iranian officials regarded the proposal as “extremely interesting” and were coming to Moscow soon to discuss it, probably on Feb. 16. To keep that option open, the Russians have asked that the IAEA delay the vote on referral to the Security Council until a March 6 board meeting in which the agency’s chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, is set to present the agency’s assessment of Iran’s compliance. Moscow has suggested that the IAEA board simply “report” Iran to the Security Council -- stopping short of a formal referral -- in the Feb. 2 meeting to give Russia more time to persuade the Iranians to reconsider.
Russia has the most leverage with Iran. It built the Bushehr nuclear power plant on Iran’s southern coast, supplied air defense missiles to Tehran and has been a key trade partner.
China buys about 17% of its oil from Iran and has an agreement to develop Iran’s oil fields. Beijing has used its clout on the Security Council before, blocking discussion of North Korea’s nuclear program for three years because it prefers to address the issue in private talks.
If Iran’s case does end up in the Security Council, diplomats have a sketchy choreography for the next step. The Security Council is expected to support the IAEA’s demand that Iran stop all enrichment-related activity, urge Iran to answer open questions that would help confirm -- or counter -- suspicions about its program and ask for the agency’s chief to report on the state of Iran’s current compliance, as well as its history of alleged deceit.
At the IAEA board meeting in March, a regularly scheduled meeting, ElBaradei will issue a determination about whether Iran’s nuclear program is intended purely for energy production. If the evidence -- or lack of it, because of Iran’s noncooperation -- points toward pursuit of a weapon, that would bolster the Security Council’s ability to take tough measures.
Some in China are banking on diplomacy or divisions among other countries to stave off an open showdown.
“I believe there’s a slim possibility this will be turned over to the U.N.,” said Jiang Zhen, a scholar with Northeast University’s Institute of Middle East Studies. “And even if it is, the question of how to implement sanctions will result in a huge and lengthy debate.”
But a protracted dispute is not inevitable. In 2004 when Libya was reported for trying to build a bomb, it came clean about two weeks later and abandoned its weapons program.
Despite China and Russia’s distaste for sanctions as a matter of interference in a country’s internal affairs, the IAEA report may help them agree to targeted measures that would not harm Iran’s population, say European diplomats. Those could include a travel ban, a freeze on leaders’ assets and withdrawal of diplomatic ties.
Abbas Milani, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, noted that Iran had endured sanctions before and has prepared for the harshest measures, stockpiling food and medicine in case of another embargo.
Another option is a proposal by two proliferation experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It would have the Security Council consider three intermediate steps that do not involve sanctions or force, but offer considerably greater oversight.
That plan, by George Perkovich and former IAEA official Pierre Goldschmidt, says that when any country breaches its nuclear safeguards agreement, the Security Council should expand the IAEA’s authority to look anywhere, anytime, for anything until the agency is satisfied that the state is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Second, the country would have to sign an agreement allowing the IAEA to continue inspections even if the country withdraws from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. That would help block a state from developing weapons capability under the guise of energy production, then dropping out of the treaty as North Korea did and Iran is threatening to do.
Third, the state would have to suspend sensitive nuclear fuel cycle-related activities for 10 years to rebuild international trust.
“It is clear that the last three years and the delays have been to the advantage of Iran,” Goldschmidt said. “They have continued to improve their conversion process and enrichment process.”
Once Iran has mastered how to enrich uranium, an estimated three to 10 years away, “the door is open” to making a weapon, Goldschmidt said.
That raises the question of what to do if diplomacy fails. Although they have not made explicit threats that may unnerve allies, U.S. officials have left open the alternative of military action.
ElBaradei, who won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, is also talking tough.
“Diplomacy is not just talking,” he told Newsweek in an interview last week. “Diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases, by force.... Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it.”
Times staff writers Kim Murphy in Moscow and Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this report.