On 4 February, the Board of Governors of the IAEA finally decided to report Iran to the UN Security Council. Their resolution noted that ‘after nearly three years of intensive verification activity, the agency is not yet in a position … to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.’ It went on to point out ‘Iran’s many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement’ and acknowledged ‘the absence of confidence that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes’.

I wrote about Iran’s nuclear programme eighteen months ago.* Russia is building nuclear reactors at Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf coast, for electricity production which should come on stream later this year. The enriched uranium fuel for those reactors will initially come from Russia, but Iran says it wishes to be self-reliant for its supply of fuel. Since 1985, Iran has been developing its own enrichment capability, importing centrifuge designs and components from Pakistan. Uranium centrifuges have a dual purpose: they can produce low-enriched (2 to 3 per cent) uranium for use as fuel, or high-enriched (90 per cent) uranium for use in weapons. The purpose of the IAEA safeguards is to ensure that nuclear material is not diverted for use in weapons. The agreement also specified that Iran had to notify the IAEA at least 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material. Iran, however, did not tell the IAEA about its enrichment plans or facilities at Natanz until February 2003, even though it had carried out tests with uranium hexafluoride gas in the centrifuges in 1999. The IAEA censured Iran in 2003 for violating the agreement.

The story gets more complicated. Since October 2003, the EU3 (France, Germany and Britain) have tried to negotiate a deal with Iran whereby it would voluntarily suspend its enrichment activities in return for regional security guarantees and help with nuclear technology. Iran was persuaded to sign the Additional Protocol, an enhanced safeguards arrangement that allows the IAEA to make inspections at any time, anywhere in the territory of a non-weapon state (under the original safeguards agreement, only designated facilities could be inspected).

The EU3 were unable to give Iran any real help with nuclear technology or security, however. Then, last year, the reformist President Khatami lost power to the fundamentalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who replaced diplomats and negotiators with hardline officials. Now Iran is insisting that when it said ‘voluntary’ it meant ‘voluntary’: it has a right to enrich uranium and will now exercise that right. So the negotiations have collapsed.

Iran is correct when it states that non-weapon states party to the NPT have a right to enrich uranium. David Edwards, a former legal counsellor at the Foreign Office, has written that ‘safeguards are designed to detect diversion of materials for military or unknown purposes. Nothing in the NPT or safeguards agreements legally prevents a state party to them from acquiring nuclear weapon capability, for example by enriching uranium to high grades, reprocessing spent fuel and so on.’ In March, the Security Council will discuss whether the right to enrichment can be constrained in the case of a state found to be in breach of the safeguards agreement. The Security Council considered a similar case in 1991 when Resolution 687 ruled that Iraq had lost its rights under the NPT to pursue nuclear technology in view of its clandestine nuclear programme and the invasion of Kuwait.

So can the Security Council resolve the problem? Almost certainly not. The Council is likely to continue to reassert the IAEA/EU3 view that Iran must cease enrichment activities. It is unlikely to impose sanctions, not only because China and Russia have to be persuaded not to veto any resolution, but also because Iran would retaliate. The next logical step for Iran would be to follow the example set by North Korea three years ago: withdraw from the NPT and expel the IAEA inspectors. That would lead to a more dangerous situation, as it would then be difficult to constrain Iran without military action. The Europeans’ view is that it is better to keep Iran within the confines of the NPT rather than force it out, but it seems that the current US administration would probably prefer Iran to withdraw and become a pariah state like North Korea.

‘We are going to ratchet up the pressure step by step,’ said Nicholas Burns, the US undersecretary of state, yet with each raising of the stakes, another solution is excluded from consideration. An instructive parallel is the breakdown of the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration to deal with North Korea’s nuclear programme: the US agreed to provide fuel oil and nuclear reactors to help North Korea with its energy shortage while both sides promised ‘to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity’ – meanwhile, neither ‘would have hostile intent towards the other’. North Korea suspended its plutonium-production facilities, and gave IAEA inspectors access to all its remaining nuclear sites. But when the Bush administration took over in January 2001, it refused to confirm that it was bound by the ‘no hostile intent’ statement; then it announced that North Korea was part of the ‘axis of evil’; then it abandoned the fuel oil shipments and the reactor project. North Korea withdrew from the NPT and locked out the IAEA inspectors. It then started up the plutonium-producing reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, and in time announced that it possessed nuclear weapons.

One possible solution would be to learn from the Clinton deal with North Korea and offer Iran a ‘no hostile intent’ agreement in return for permanently dismantling its enrichment facilities. But any such deal would have to involve the US, and the US turned down Iran’s offer to discuss security matters, including the nuclear programme, in May 2003. It is highly unlikely that the present US administration would be interested in negotiating along these lines.

Another possibility is for the Security Council to limit Iran’s right to enrich uranium to a level of, say, 5 per cent, sufficient for fuel but not for weapons, as suggested by the Liberal Democrat peer John Roper. That would probably be acceptable to Iran, which has said all along that what it wants is its own enrichment capability within the framework of the NPT. This proposal does, however, rely on the safeguards system, and would require that IAEA inspectors be permanently stationed at the enrichment plant. Again, the Bush administration would be unlikely to acquiesce.

President Ahmadinejad is the worst advertisement for the Iranian position. Threatening to wipe Israel off the map and denying the Holocaust offers Israel a casus belli whatever the facts concerning enrichment capability. There will probably be a military strike on the enrichment facilities sooner rather than later. The facilities at Natanz are underground, but bunker-buster bombs, which can penetrate more than seven feet of reinforced concrete, have recently been sold to Israel by the US, reportedly for this purpose. Alternatively, in a congressional election year, President Bush may find a strike against Natanz irresistible.

How will Iran respond? It has Shahab missiles, which in principle could hit Israel – or the West Bank, Gaza or Jordan. That said, it may not need the missiles; Iran now has great power over Shia militias in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon and warlords in Afghanistan. It may also cancel oil and gas contracts with states it considers enemies. It is a good time to invest in energy companies: the price of oil and gas is not going to go down anytime soon.

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