When Turkey and Brazil voted against sanctioning Iran on its nuclear enrichment programme, most thought they were motivated by pique against the US. But there was more to it: Turkey and Brazil’s leaders came to the conclusion that Iran’s leaders do not intend to violate their most crucial NPT obligation: refraining from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons, nor withdraw from the NPT without adequate cause, says Peter Jenkins of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
This is a significant development, far more significant than most Western media appear ready to recognise. For though Iran has excuses for rebuffing Western offers of engagement; it cannot justify refusing to reassure its neighbours across the Gulf, or to recognise that nuclear proliferation in the region will create a less secure environment for Iran. The imperative is for neighbours and others who would feel threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran, to instead acquire confidence in Iran’s commitment to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons.
How this might be done has been demonstrated in South America, where Brazil took steps to reassure its neighbours that it intends to be NPT-compliant, notably by adhering to the Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) and setting up a bilateral nuclear inspections agency with Argentina: Argentines inspect Brazilian facilities, Brazilians inspect Argentine facilities. Such an arrangement made early on in South Asia may have prevented the current nuclear regime there from evolving into the military domain as it has.
But this is the direction in which Iran needs now to move, and in which the international community needs to encourage movement.
Observers of the 2010 NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation) review conference (Rev Con) held at the United Nations in New York this past May, are inclined to judge it a modest success. It rebuilt global support for nuclear non-proliferation and agreed TO a number of concrete steps in the direction of total elimination of nuclear weapons. Unlike at the previous Review Conference in 2005, this time consensus was reached on an outcome document. There were several reasons for this ‘success.’ One was the restraint shown by the US and some of its Western allies in relation to Iran’s nuclear activities, especially Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, which Israel and the US have tended to see as proof of an intention to acquire nuclear weapons.
Had the West attempted to use the Rev Con to point an accusing finger at Iran, it would have been all too easy for Iran to block a consensus outcome and generate the acrimony that marred the 2005 Rev Con. Western states realised this. They must also have realised that, legally, Iran’s position was stronger this year than in 2005. In 2005, Iran had been found guilty by the IAEA of multiple failures to comply with one of its core NPT obligations: placing nuclear material in its possession under IAEA safeguards. In 2010 it stands accused of failing to pass to the IAEA facility design information at an early enough stage (it contests that it has an obligation to do so), and of failing to cooperate to resolve allegations concerning nuclear weapons research (it says the evidence, produced by agencies that have been deceived by forgeries in the past, is a fabrication).
Politically, too, Iran was in a stronger position this year. In 2005 most members of the Non-Aligned Movement were still disturbed by Iran’s numerous safeguards failures and “the policy of concealment” reported by the IAEA, and they concurred with the Western call on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment work. In 2010 a majority of the Non-Aligned Nations felt more concern over the West’s repeated failure to deal with Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons than over a nuclear programme they are assured (by Iran) is peaceful. They saw little reason to insist on Iran forfeiting indefinitely its NPT right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment. (The NPT prescribes no penalties for past non-compliance with safeguard obligations.)
In addition the US and its allies could tell themselves that the issue is now on the agenda of the UN Security Council (it was not in 2005) and that the Security Council is far easier terrain for Western diplomacy than an NPT Review Conference.
It proved to be the right call. Within ten days of NPT parties dispersing, the Security Council passed by 12 votes to two, with one abstention, a resolution which reiterates the call on Iran to suspend all enrichment-related activity, and which adds to the sanctions imposed by three previous resolutions. But there was a surprise. Despite painstaking preparations for the vote by the US, UK and France, two significant members of the Security Council voted against the resolution: Turkey and Brazil.
Many assume that Turkish and Brazilian opposition was motivated by pique, that it was a reaction to a boorish US dismissal of their 17 May confidence-building deal with Iran. (The deal envisages the swap of low-enriched uranium produced in Iran for fuel-rods for a medical isotope-producing reactor in Tehran. It is a modified version of a deal first proposed by the West and rejected by Iran in the course of last autumn.)
Pique may indeed have been a factor. So may the existence of some kind of prior commitment to Iran to oppose further sanctions in return for Iran committing to the deal. But it is likely that other considerations were the true determinants.
To judge from their public statements, Turkish and Brazilian leaders have come to the conclusion that Iran’s leaders do not intend to violate their most crucial NPT obligation: the commitment to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons – and that Iran does not intend to withdraw from the NPT, to be released from that obligation, without adequate cause.
This is a significant development, far more significant than most Western media appear ready to recognise. Turkish and Brazilian diplomats are not naïve or inexperienced. On the contrary, they are among the best in the business. And President Lula and Prime Minister Erdogan are not so careless of their reputations that they will lightly risk being shown up as fools by President Ahmedinejad. So if they have come to believe that Iran intends to go no further than the threshold which separates states that are capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons if they so choose from state that are nuclear-armed, reasonable men and women should take notice.
There are, it so happens, several grounds for such a belief: despite protracted investigation, neither the IAEA nor other organisations have produced hard evidence of an Iranian intention to go beyond a threshold capability; former Iranian diplomats, now living in the West, believe that at the outset, in the late 1980s, the Iranian aim was to become a nuclear-armed state but that subsequently – probably since the uncovering of the covert programme in 2002 – an adjustment was made, and acquiring a capability became the aim of a dominant section of the regime; Iran’s leaders had three motives for wanting nuclear arms: to deter Saddam Hussein from a second onslaught if ever he found a way to rebuild his forces; to deter the US from imposing regime change by force; and to boost their prestige and influence as a Shi’a sta
te in Sunni-dominated South-West Asia. Saddam Hussein is now “as Nineveh and Tyre”.
Global reaction to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which was seen as short of full legitimacy and designed to enforce regime change, have made life much harder for those in the US who still long to boot the mullahs back to Qom; Unlike the North Korean regime, the Iranian government wants to be a respected member of the Non-Aligned community, and it recognises that it needs trading and investment relations not only with the Non-Aligned (including India), but also with Russia, China and Turkey. These foreign policy imperatives would be set back for many years if Iran were seen to be violating its NPT commitment to refrain from manufacturing nuclear weapons, or if its repeated professions of peaceful intent were revealed to be the mother of all lies. This would be too high a price to pay for acquiring the prestige of being a nuclear-armed state. Being a threshold state is a much better bargain.
So in place of the assumption that Iran intends to become a nuclear-armed state, the move by Turkey and Brazil suggests it would be reasonable to assume that Iran does not intend to become a nuclear-armed state, but will be content with a threshold capability.
What are the implications of such a switch in assumptions? Simply that the threat presented by Iran’s nuclear activities is less grave than previously thought. The threat posed by a state that will only seek to acquire nuclear weapons if its “supreme interests” are jeopardised by the “extraordinary events” envisaged in the withdrawal article of the NPT is not of the same order as the threat posed by states that deploy nuclear weapons operationally.
The implications of a revised threat assessment are equally important. It might be desirable, but it is not vital to put an end to the nuclear activities of a state that has no intention of violating its central nuclear non-proliferation commitment. The imperative, rather, is to ensure that those nuclear activities are not misunderstood by other states, because such a misunderstanding could end up provoking nuclear proliferation as effectively as if the source of the misunderstanding – Iran, in this case – had proliferated in the first place.
The imperative, in other words, is for neighbours and others who would feel threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran to acquire confidence in Iran’s commitment to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons (Article II of the NPT).
How this might be done has been demonstrated in South America. Brazil has the advanced uranium capability that Iran is seeking to acquire. It has given notice of its intention to produce (weapon-useable) highly-enriched uranium (as fuel for nuclear submarines). It has a ballistic missile capability. It is known to have worked on the design of nuclear warheads during a period of military rule (1964-84). Yet there is no indication that any of Brazil’s neighbours have felt compelled by Brazil’s capabilities to embark on their own nuclear weapon programmes. Why? Because Brazil has taken steps to reassure its neighbours that it intends to be NPT-compliant. Notably, it has adhered to the Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) and it has set up a bilateral nuclear inspections agency with Argentina: Argentines inspect
Brazilian facilities, Brazilians inspect Argentine facilities. (Such an arrangement made early on in South Asia may have prevented the current nuclear regime there from evolving into the military domain as it has.)
This is the direction in which Iran needs now to move, and in which the international community needs to encourage movement. The need for confidence-building seems particularly acute on Iran’s South-Western flank. Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf States have evinced far more concern over Iran’s nuclear activities than have other neighbours (Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) or indeed Russia and China and India.
This Arab distrust is rooted, no doubt, in historic grievances, in the kind of rivalry that can exist between neighbours, and in centuries-old tension between the Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam. It tends to surface in talk of Iran’s nuclear capabilities leading to an unacceptable Iranian “hegemony” in the region. Eradicating such deeply-rooted distrust will not be easy, but must be attempted to avert the risk of Iran’s nuclear activities provoking a regional nuclear arms race that would be a very serious setback for the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
And it can be done. France and Germany, and Brazil and Argentina, have shown the way. Mutual animosity need not last forever. Neighbours condemned by geography to coexist have an interest in working out a peaceful modus vivendi. Mutual accommodation can bring benefits; rivalry and fear entail only costs.
In the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran engagement and dialogue will need to extend well beyond the nuclear sphere if distrust is to be dissipated. But specific nuclear confidence-building measures could make a helpful contribution to a process of détente. One possibility would be a sub-regional nuclear inspection agency, modelled on the European Union’s arrangement for reciprocal inspections of nuclear facilities in EU member states by EU member state inspectors. Now that several nuclear power stations have been ordered or are planned for the Arab side of the Gulf, a Gulf inspection arrangement would not be unbalanced for long.
Another tried and tested confidence-building measure is the nuclear weapons-free zone. Such zones now cover Latin America, Africa, South East Asia, the Pacific and Central Asia. They are effective because the long term implications of transgressing commitments made to neighbours are not easily ignored.
This year’s NPT Rev Con agreed on the convening of a conference in 2012 to consider the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons (and other WMD). This can be an opportunity for Iran to demonstrate its commitment to remaining a non-nuclear-weapon state. That, however, would require the US and others to persuade Israel to lift long-standing objections to a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone. This is unlikely to happen, for of displeasing domestic pro-Israeli lobbies. So there would be great merit in Iran and its near neighbours considering a sub-regional zone, or in Iran joining the existing Central Asian zone.
If the policy goal shifts from coercing Iran into abandoning enrichment (and forsaking reprocessing) to generating sub-regional engagement, confidence-building and détente, what roles can be envisaged for states concerned with averting nuclear proliferation, whether as NPT or (in India’s case) as non-NPT parties? The obvious task for such states is to encourage Iran and its Gulf neighbours to forge a relationship that will eliminate the incentive to embark on a nuclear arms race.
Countries like Turkey, Brazil, India, China and Russia have influence in
Tehran – not enough, it seems, to get Iran to suspend or abandon enrichment, but enough, surely, to persuade Iran to do what is needed to avoid the spread of nuclear weapons fever though South West Asia. Iran has excuse
s for rebuffing Western offers of engagement; it cannot justify refusing to reassure its neighbours across the Gulf, or to recognise that nuclear proliferation in the region will create a less secure environment for Iran. Meanwhile, the US and others, including India, can help Arab states to break out of traditional mindsets and to find diplomatic solutions to their fear of Iranian “hegemony”.
The US for its part can also exert a restraining influence on Israel, whose professed fear of Iran’s nuclear capabilities makes no sense, and is presumably intended to distract attention from the Palestinian issue. An Israeli military strike on Iran would have devastating economic (disruption of 20% of global oil supply, possibly for months, even years) and human consequences. It would also lack all legitimacy, let alone legal authorisation, in the absence of evidence that Iran is actually transgressing Article II of the NPT; suspicion of an intention to transgress is not enough.
The economic dimension of this issue, it seems, is all too often overlooked by those who draft the global strategies of the US and certain other states. In their zeal to see nuclear proliferation as one of the greatest threats facing mankind (whereas in reality the prospects are far less alarming today than they were forty years ago), and in their eagerness to bracket Iran with North Korea as a state whose guilt, in this context, is not in doubt, they overlook the looming global oil supply crisis.
Iran sits atop some of the world’s largest (and cheapest to extract) oil and gas reserves. Over the next decade, as supplies from existing oil wells, worldwide, decline by 2.5% or more a year and as emerging market demand for oil expands rapidly, the world is going to need Iran to produce far more than its current 4.5% share of global production. This shift is inconceivable as long as the international community persists in seeing Iran as a proven nuclear proliferator and in insisting on Iran abandoning uranium enrichment.
Until Iran violates the NPT by producing nuclear weapons without the justification of a threat to its “supreme interests” – a day that may not come – a less prejudiced approach to the Iranian nuclear issue is in everyone’s interests. This is a message that a leading and globally respected member of the Non-Aligned Movement like India is well-placed to spread.
In addition, India’s role can be more active. It could ask if Turkey and Brazil would welcome its participation in jointly a) persuading Iran to do a better job of reassuring its neighbours that it does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons; and b) helping Gulf states understand that their fears of an Iranian “hegemony” are best dispelled by intense diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Ambassador Peter Jenkins is a former British diplomat who worked on the Iranian nuclear issue when ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna (2001-06).
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