Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Western case against Iran's nuclear program

Al Jazeera's Inside Story has produced a fairly informative video about the state of Iran's program in the aftermath of the IAEA resolution and Iran's announcement that it plans to build ten enrichment plants.

Patrick Clawson from the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy did an admirable job presenting the case against Iran while the other two guests were more sympathetic to Iran's program.

Clawson's points, as I understand them, are:

1) The UN Security Council has decided that Iran must suspend its program. The UN is, for all of its flaws, the best hope for the world, implying that Iran has a legal and even a moral obligation to defer to it.

2) Iran has an obligation with the IAEA and Security Council to restore confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program before it can exercise its right to that program. Once confidence has been restored, the US agrees Iran has the right to a nuclear program.

3) Iran has a clear path to having its rights restored, which would be to implement the work plan agreed to in 2007 but that has seen no progress in over a year.

I'd respond to the points as follows:

1) This is a commonly made point, the trump card of those arguing that Iran should stop enriching uranium and accept the other demands such as ratifying the Additional Protocols. The Iranian guest, Seyed Muhammad Marandi, made both counterpoints; that the UNSC is not a representative for fairly constructed body and that nations routinely selectively follow its dictates.

I'd go further on the issue of disregarding international law. George Bush's invasion of Iraq according to a doctrine of preemptive invasion was a far clearer violation of the UN Charter than Iran's refusal to submit to the resolution.

A point I like to make is that the Geneva conventions require investigations of accusations of torture. Barack Obama refuses to investigate the George Bush administration, refuses to follow clear international law, because that would contravene a spirit of bipartisanship that he is trying to build in his domestic politics.

Energy independence and the strategic benefits of a nuclear weapons capability in the face of a rival that recently invaded two neighboring states has to be a more valid reason to reject an international dictate than a domestic spirit of bipartisanship.

The constant threats that an attack on Iran are "on the table" from both the US and Israel are also violations of the UN Charter.

This is the best argument the West has. Iran's response is as wrong and as potent as Obama's response to his failure to enforce the Geneva convention, which is, basically - nobody in practical terms can force us to do it. Just as nobody in practical terms can order the Obama administration to stop saying an attack on Iran is on the table.

2) No obligation to restore confidence, build or maintain confidence appears in any of the documents Iran has ratified. Iran has one actual legal obligation - to follow the UN Security Council which I discussed as point 1. Clawson, as is usual by Western pro-Israel analysts, is being careful with his language to mislead the audience to assume that there is some obligation that emanates from the NPT or IAEA that Iran suspend enrichment or take confidence building measures.

This is an important point that is not well understood. Before the UN Security Council resolutions, the measures being requested were voluntary and non-legally binding confidence building measures that the IAEA requested Iran take, but were not in any way treaty obligations. Here is text from the IAEA resolution that reported Iran to the UN Security Council.
1. Underlines that outstanding questions can best be resolved and confidence built in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's programme by Iran responding positively to the calls for confidence building measures which the Board has made on Iran, and in this context deems it necessary for Iran to:

  • re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the Agency;
  • reconsider the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy water;
  • ratify promptly and implement in full the Additional Protocol;
  • pending ratification, continue to act in accordance with the provisions of the Additional Protocol which Iran signed on 18 December 2003;
  • implement transparency measures, as requested by the Director General, including in GOV/2005/67, which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, and include such access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military-owned workshops and research and development as the Agency may request in support of its ongoing investigations;

5. Calls on Iran to understand that there is a lack of confidence in Iran’s intentions in seeking to develop a fissile material production capability against the background of Iran's record on safeguards as recorded in previous Resolutions, and outstanding issues; and to reconsider its position in relation to confidence-building measures, which are voluntary, and non legally binding, and to adopt a constructive approach in relation to negotiations that can result in increased confidence;
The IAEA has more justification in requesting that Israel take the voluntary and non-legally binding confidence building step of dismantling its weapons and joining the NPT than it does to request Iran go even further beyond its NPT obligations.

Clawson, and those who share his point of view would say at this point that Israel did not sign the NPT. That is exactly the point. The resolutions did not ask Iran to implement the safeguards agreement, or to follow the procedure outlined in the agreement itself for the rectifying a breach. The resolutions ask Iran to go beyond its requirements, just as asking Israel to ratify the NPT is requesting Israel go beyond its requirements.

I'll concede that after the UN Security Council passed its resolutions, Iran has a legal obligation to follow it, though Iran is right that the UN Security Council acted in a transparently biased and hypocritical manner in singling Iran out. While Iran does have an obligation to follow the resolutions, it is more justified in ignoring them than the US is in threatening to attack Iran which is also a violation of international law.

But to the degree Clawson and others convince their audience that there are both UN Security Council obligations and also NPT obligations that Iran is being asked to fulfill, they are being deliberately and even carefully deceptive. Careful and deliberate deception is a common mode of behavior of pro-Israel Western commentators who often have the advantage of relatively uninformed audiences.

The second part is interesting - that the US agrees that once confidence is restored, Iran can regain its nuclear rights. Effectively, the US has taken this position because it plans to assert that confidence has not been restored at least until Iran's revolutionary government has been removed from power. However, I wonder if Clawson or Obama would go as far as to say that once confidence is restored, Iran will regain its right to a "Japan-option", which is implied by the NPT phrase guaranteeing that the right to nuclear technology will not be infringed "without discrimination". I've never seen any of them asked because they generally do not have adequately informed questioners.

If Iran submits to the UN Resolutions, the US gains an effective veto, indefinitely, over every aspect of Iran's nuclear program. Iran has a legal obligation to give the US such a veto. Iran demonstrates at least a minimum appreciation of its own sovereignty by ignoring that obligation.

3) The work plan is an interesting piece of the story of Iran's nuclear program. In 2006 when the first resolution was passed, there were several outstanding questions. One was that traces of highly enriched uranium were detected on centrifuges in Iran - which even at the time, could only have come from Pakistan because Iran at the time didn't have the capacity to enrich its own uranium. There were other questions, but even at that time, there was no serious question that there was no active nuclear weapons program or diversion of fissile material to such a program that would be a violation of Iran's safeguards agreement.

The last question of the work plan requested that Iran respond to the allegations of the "laptop of death". At the time, the story was that some Iranian snuck a laptop out of Iran that had proof of nuclear weapons experiments. Iran claimed the laptop was forged. The US refuses to show the laptop or the evidence to Iran except in small pieces. What has been shown to Iran has had indications of forgery.

The work plan indicates that the US will make its evidence available to Iran and Iran will give a response. Of course, the US has not made its evidence available. Iran has given a response that the laptop is forged. The IAEA at this point is requesting that Iran admit that some parts of the laptop are not forged and address any questions raised by the non-forged parts.

There is a serious issue because if possibly forged evidence from a rival state is enough to prevent a state from having the right to a weapons-capable nuclear program, China could stop Japan's program, Argentina could stop Brazil, and once the forgeries are detected, new laptops can be produced. The only position Iran could take that would not infringe its sovereignty is that it will respond to real evidence produced through channels verifiable by the IAEA.

But the work plan explicitly requires the US to provide the evidence to Iran, and for the last year the US has refused to do so. Given that, the year without progress on the work plan can continue as long as the US wants, all the US has to do is continue to follow its terms.

Overall the issue pro-Israel participants in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program miss is that the status quo is pretty comfortable for Iran. Iran likely now effectively has a virtual nuclear weapon and certainly will over the next couple of years. The type of sanctions the US can get will solidify the progress of Iran's nuclear program.

Clawson can make a very clever case, and while he congratulates himself on his cleverness, Iran's nuclear capability becomes more of an undeniable fact. That's fine with me. I'm not sure why those who would restrain Iran's program aren't looking more creatively for an alternative to the way things are moving.


Lysander said...

"I'm not sure why those who would restrain Iran's program aren't looking more creatively for an alternative to the way things are moving."

I think, as I mentioned before, that they are well aware there is nothing they can do to stop Iran's N program. The next best thing is to rack up as many sanctions as possible to restrict Iran's economic development and increase its isolation.

It's the best they can do.

Arnold Evans said...

I see your point, that the best strategy could be to rack up as many sanctions as possible.

Burns saying his recommended strategy is to try to wear Iran down over the long run, combined with the fact that there is no more plausible strategy that could result in the US somehow prevailing, convinces me that this is the direction the US has chosen to move.

But there is try to wait Iran out with sanctions, and without sanctions. I don't see that the US has decided to go for the "with sanctions" option.

Bush, I think traded effectively taking the military threat and further sanctions off the table in exchange for help with Iraq and an understanding about how fast Iran would expand its enrichment.

I'm not convinced Obama wants to go back on that. He's saying he does, or that he perceives no choice. I'm not convinced that I should believe him.

The question I guess is how would Iran respond to sanctions. You've shown me the observation that just ramping up enrichment at this point is no longer a threat because Iran has essentially already reached nuclear capability.

Does that mean Iran should/has indicated that it would respond to sanctions by also being less cooperative in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to ramping up enrichment?

The US, given that it wants to try to wait Iran out, can either wait in a state of confrontation or a state of coexistence.

This would be a very difficult choice for Obama to make. It is very difficult for me to believe he would get here without feeling out Iran on an offer for limited supervised domestic enrichment. If that offer was rejected, the US still may well be better off going for coexistence.

Lysander said...

Too early to say. While I believe sanctions are the rout the US will take, so far we have only heard a lot of talk about sanctions but no actual new sanctions. That could go on for a long time.

As for waiting Iran out, I do notice that there are renewed demonstrations these past two days. They coincide with Iran's announcements re: enrichment to 20% and 10 new nuclear facilities.

Whether that is coincidence or the west has other means to pressure Iran is not yet clear.

I do think that US policy makers actually do believe that Iran's government is on shaky ground, may in fact collapse and so no deal is needed. Sanctions, in their minds might speed up the process.

If they prove correct, the strategic balance might switch to the US' favor almost irrevocably. If they are wrong, they may be forced to negotiate with Iran from an even worse position 2-3 years from now.

Anonymous said...


pmr9 said...

I agree - Gordon Prather at antiwar.com, and the Iranian government in a letter in March 2008 have pointed out that as the UNSC has not determined the existence of a "threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" under Article 39, it cannot take "measures" against Iran. It can only "call upon" Iran to comply with "provisional measures" under Article 40. It would be fun for Iran to make this case in the nternational Court, whose jurisdiction over enforcement of international treaties presumably extends to the UN Charter.

Lysander said...

Your earlier post about Harvard war-gaming Iran's nuclear development has been picked up by Haaretz.

Yossi Melman's conclusion;

"Conclusions: The U.S. will not attack Iran. Russia and China will not agree to imposing serious sanctions. The U.S. will pressure Israel to prevent it from attacking Iran, and so a serious crisis is liable to develop between the two countries. Under these circumstances and in view of operational capability, Israel does not in effect have a real option of attacking Iran. If it so desires, Iran can produce nuclear weapons."

Anonymous said...

Hi Arnold,

I am not a lawyer mid you, but I think you are mistaken about the UN Security council resolutions. These resolutions are all ultra veres the Security Council's powers, and contradict the UN Charter's assertions that nothing contained therein should be interpreted as compromising the supreme interests of member states.

Disregarding this, there are also litany of mistakes in the specific sequence and wording of the resolutions that a specialist in international law could probably drive a truck through. Of course, this is all in a sensee academic as this matter would never come before a judge, and it's only the political aspect of these resolutions that has any effect.


Ashley said...

The renewed demonstrations occurred on/around Students Day which is usually a day of demonstrations anyway, so I don't know if they have anything to do with the nuclear announcements?

Lysander said...

Good point Ashley.

Anyway, what is to be made of this?

Rafsanjani: Iran will not give up its nuclear rights

A senior Iranian cleric says that Western intimidation will not force Tehran to give up the Iranian nation's nuclear rights.

"The West is making a wrong move by adopting a policy of intimidation towards Iran, since we will never give up our right to use peaceful nuclear energy," Mehr news agency quoted Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as saying in an interview with the Al-Manar TV channel.

The Chairman of Iran's Expediency Council voiced Iran's readiness to hold further talks with the West to solve the nuclear issue.

"The right to use peaceful nuclear energy is a strategic issue for Iran because Iran needs the energy and we will not give up this right," Rafsanjani added.

"We know that oil reserves will run out in the future so new energy resources should be developed," the senior cleric stated.

Anonymous said...

The demonstrations have little to do with the recent developments on the nuclear stage. In fact, the opposition candidates try outflank Ahmadinejad by being even more hawkish on the nulcear issue than he is. (Opposition media on the other hand, generally tries to disseminate western style insinuations about Iran's intentions).


lidia said...


So, the opposition's right hand does not know what does it's left hand do?

Could you please tell about this with more details?

ilona@israel said...

it seems that Iran had already tasted the component of nuclear weapon. and it seems that USA is not going to prevent attac of Israel as now they sound much more loyal-they says that they are *not able to prevent attac of Israel*. Iran says that they have nothing like nuclear programm and they have enough courage to say that they have bomb if they had it. pretty complicated situation. what is the forecast now?

Arnold Evans said...

Nothing fundamental has changed. There will be no attack, and there will be no sanctions unless Iran agrees to them in advance, in exchange for faster enrichment.

My best guess, until we see specific language for sanctions is that there won't be any sanctions at all.

The reason is that sanctions mean a higher risk of dead US soldiers with no, or nearly no increase in the likelihood that Iran give up enrichment, and US generals know this.