Engaging Iran in the Aftermath of IAEA Report

in Program

By Barry Blechman – The latest report on Iran’s
nuclear activities, released on November 8th by the Director-General
of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reaffirms in stunning detail
that Tehran is
developing the technical expertise and physical capabilities necessary to build
nuclear warheads for missiles.  While
carefully phrased, the report, which will shortly be considered by the IAEA’s
35-member board of governors, makes clear that many of the well-documented
activities appear to violate both Iran’s obligations under the
Non-Proliferation Treaty, and demands for the cessation of such activities
posed in numerous UN Security Council resolutions.  Among other options, the Board of Governors
can either direct the IAEA Secretariat to continue to discuss the issues raised
by the report with Iran,
or refer the matter to the Security Council. 
In the latter case, the UN could impose additional measures intended to
compel Iran
to terminate its illegal activities and to cooperate with the IAEA to reassure
the international community that it does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons.

As contents of the report began to leak in recent weeks,
many in Israel and the US called for military action to prevent Iran from
completing its weapon program.   Others
have said that the United States
should impose broad-based economic and financial sanctions that would preclude
virtually any legitimate business dealings with Iran.   The arguments for and against these options
have been well-rehearsed; neither choice would be wise, nor accomplish the goal
of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

  • A military strike would isolate the US and
    Israel from virtually all other nations, unite Iranians and the rest of the
    Muslim world behind Iran’s leaders, have adverse effects on the global economy,
    and, most importantly, risk involving this nation in yet another long and
    costly war in the Middle East.
  • At the same time, broad-based sanctions, like
    the legislation now pending in the House of Representatives, to bar individuals
    and entities that do business with the Central Bank of Iran from doing business
    in the United States, would not only break the coalition now supporting US
    efforts to end Iran’s nuclear program, but also its main effect would be to
    make life difficult for ordinary Iranians — while having virtually no effect
    on the individuals that make decisions on the nuclear program.

So, what should be done?

First, we should take a collective deep breath.  The IAEA report does not suggest that Iran now has
nuclear weapons.  According to the
experts, including official US
and Israeli intelligence estimates, as well as the authoritative Institute for
Science and International Security, Iran is unlikely to be able to
acquire them for at least one or two more years.  Indeed, it is not at all clear whether or not
Iranian leaders have decided to take the fateful step of crossing over from a weapons’ potential to actually building an arsenal.  It would be a decision fraught with
peril.  One thing the IAEA report makes
clear is that the international community knows a great deal about Iran’s nuclear program; it would be unlikely
that Tehran
could cross the threshold covertly. 
During this visible transition, Iran would face not only the danger
of military strikes by a coalition of nations, but also virtual isolation from
the rest of the world.  After stating for
decades that its nuclear program was intended solely for peaceful purposes, any
overt move to build weapons would end the diplomatic cover that has enabled
nations like China
to both limit UN sanctions and to interpret those that do pass as narrowly as
possible.  In many ways, Iran is better
off having the potential to become a
nuclear weapons state than a nation clearly sprinting to build an arsenal.

Instead of lashing out broadly in panic, the US and its
allies should use the IAEA report to strengthen their continuing efforts to
prevent Iran from acquiring the materials and specialized equipment it needs to
build nuclear weapons and to modernize its armed forces – efforts that have
been fairly successful over the past year.  
They should also build on the report to further isolate and punish those
individuals responsible for Iran’s
policies and actions through targeted sanctions – both multilateral sanctions
through the United Nations and sanctions individually imposed by the United States
and allied nations.  These efforts, too,
have had some success during the past year and only recently were shown to be
contributing to intensifying conflicts among Iran’s ruling elites.   In support of this policy, the US and its
allies should work to cause the IAEA Governors to refer the latest report to
the UN Security Council and then work in that body to strengthen and gain
greater adherence to sanctions focused on Iran’s leaders, especially those in the
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, intelligence organizations, armed forces,
and scientific and academic establishments related to the nuclear enterprise.

And, finally, the US
should revitalize its efforts to engage Iran
diplomatically, just as we successfully pursued both containment and
negotiations vis-a-vis China
in the 1950s and 1960s, and vis-a-vis the USSR during the Cold War.  In recent months, both Russian and Iranian
spokesmen have indicated a willingness to reopen negotiations that could limit Iran’s stock of
20 percent enriched uranium – the aspect of its program that most troubles
other nations.  While the outline of the
agreement that was tabled would be insufficient to reassure the international
community, the terms presented certainly provided a sufficient basis for
beginning a dialogue. 

The US
also should be willing to engage Iran
on additional issues, including Afghanistan,
the drug trade, and human rights.  While Iran’s leadership may be in too much disarray to
discuss these issues seriously, an expressed willingness by the United States
to talk can only strengthen our ability to maintain the international united
front against an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Photo Credit: By Dean Calma for IAEA,

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