Posted by Rebecca Johnson
As Main Committee II and the subsidiary bodies on institutional issues (SB3) and practical disarmament (SB1) ploughed on with negotiations over text, I was planning to devote today’s blog to the need to address the problems raised by the particularly destabilising class of short-range nuclear weapons variously described as non-strategic, sub-strategic, tactical or battlefield weapons. But then the news came through that the P-5 +1 (the Permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States plus Germany) have agreed a draft resolution to impose sanctions on Iran, which was tabled in the UN Security Council today (Tuesday). The sanctions resolution follows close on the heels of a confidence-building nuclear fuel exchange brokered by two significant non-permanent members of the Security Council, Brazil and Turkey that was (in part at least) meant to push the sanctions threat further down the road.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her announcement about the sanctions resolution before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ratification hearings on New START, thereby giving the impression that this was being pushed for domestic reasons. The signal – or at least the interpretation in the UN’s North Lawn building – is that domestic politics and the “Iran dossier” are more important to the Obama administration than the NPT. The question is, what will be the effect on the NPT Review Conference of this push to get sanctions against Iran in the Security Council?
Notwithstanding their own concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and compliance record, many thought the fuel exchange deal was an honest attempt by Brazil, Turkey and even Iran to to help the NPT Conference, clear potential obstacles out of the way and facilitate more constructive engagement. Has the Obama administration blown that chance? The next ten days will tell, but many here think the calculus has changed, and not for the better.
Brazil-Turkey-Iran fuel exchange deal
The deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey was in essence a nuclear fuel exchange in which Iran would deposit 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in Turkey, in return for receiving 120 kg of fuel needed for its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). This is similar to the offer made to Iran by the “Vienna Group” (the IAEA with France, Russia and the United States) last year, but is weaker and only (at this stage) relates to about half of Iran’s LEU stocks. It is not being presented as a long term solution, but as a confidence-building measure to get talks going again. Turkey (a NATO member with nuclear weapons on its soil) and Brazil, one of the most significant actors among states parties to the NPT, will have thought through the deal very carefully and it is clear that one reason was to head off the pressure for sanctions, which could derail the NPT Review Conference. Both these nations are constructively engaged in the NPT Review Conference and the first two paragraphs of the agreement underlines their intention to support the NPT and create a “a positive, constructive, non-confrontational atmosphere leading to an era of interaction and cooperation”.
The first paragraph also signals their understanding – which is shared by most developing countries – that the NPT confers a right “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy (as well as nuclear fuel cycle including enrichment activities) for peaceful purposes without discrimination”. You don’t have to like the way that nuclear energy is characterised as an “inalienable right” – and I don’t – to recognise that it’s in the NPT’s Article IV. I wish it weren’t, but in 1968 the treaty framers felt the need to include “atoms for peace” as an incentive to get non-nuclear countries to accede. The nuclear powers knew that nuclear fuel production capabilities are essential for making bombs – that’s the route they took, after all – but the treaty was a trade-off, so they enshrined nuclear energy, made no distinction between power reactors and fuel cycle facilities, and hoped that safeguards would create a sufficient barrier.
The fact is – and the Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal recognises – that uranium enrichment is not prohibited by the NPT as long as it is subject to full compliance with IAEA safeguards. Iran’s uranium-enrichment programme was not fully and properly declared to the IAEA before being exposed by dissident whistleblowers, and this violation of its safeguards agreements has resulted in a series of IAEA and Security Council resolutions. With the experience of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) fresh in non-proliferation thoughts, there are deep concerns that Iran may also be making as much use of the Article IV nuclear energy ‘rights’ as it can prior to withdrawing from the treaty and making nuclear weapons. The potential for a nuclear weapons option is certainly there, and this is the subtext for many of the heated arguments we are seeing in the NPT Conference, especially on the role of the IAEA, the Additional Protocol, withdrawal and strengthening the NPT’s institutional powers.
High risk tactics
There is undoubted impatience with the attitude of Tehran under President Ahmadinejad, but what those pushing the sanctions at this time have underestimated or failed to understand is that there is also a widespread sense that Iran is being unfairly hounded over its enrichment programme. It may be cause for anxiety, but the programme does not of itself constitute a violation of the NPT. This view is not only held by the 116-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), of which Iran is a member, but by others as well. Part of the rationale for moving towards negotiating a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention is that would provide far more effective and non-discriminatory barriers and tools for preventing nuclear proliferation as well as for banning nuclear weapons and facilitating disarmament. The way Article IV is framed is one of the most dangerous systemic weaknesses in the non-proliferation regime, but coercive actions are not the answer. Trying for another sanctions resolution against Iran at this time is a very risky strategy for the Obama administration.
A successful and positive NPT Conference outcome would have done more to reinforce the New START Treaty’s ratification process than the short term candy of telling Senate Republicans that you’re going to punish Iran yet again. At the very least the United States should have worked with Brazil and Turkey to give the deal a starter’s chance in the hope of it leading to longer term agreements to close off Iran’s weapons options permanently. Unless there is startling new evidence on Iran’s programme to substantiate further noncompliance charges, which does not seem to be the case, the timing of this sanctions resolution looks like a slap in the face for Brazil and Turkey. It could divide not only the Security Council but the NPT.
Back at the NPT Review Conference, it has been obvious that Iran’s relationship with the NAM is under strain and that Egypt learned its lessons from 2005 and is determined not to get used by either side in the titanic political struggle between the United States and Iran. The tensions were displayed again this afternoon when Iran’s Ambassador Ali Soltanieh castigated some of the NAM’s positions on the draft report from Committee II on safeguards, to which Egypt’s Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz gave a combative and almost dismissive response. The United States no doubt hopes the sanctions resolution will isolate Iran further. The danger is that the attempt to corner Iran is more likely to backfire, letting Ahmadinejad off the hook at home and allowing Tehran to garner more support for its positions in the NPT context. Past experience demonstrates that Ahmadinejad attacks when he feels cornered, and that outside pressure strengthens his domestic power and weakens support for his democratic adversaries.
Of course Tehran should cooperate fully with the IAEA and it would be highly desirable for Iran and everyone else to suspend uranium enrichment and halt their nuclear programmes, but the timing and tactics of this attempt to get sanctions could turn a high-win NPT probability for President Obama into a losing mess. Whether or not the resolution gets through the Security Council in the next two weeks, the view here is that it is likely to backfire for the United States and be bad for the NPT.
The sanctions resolution against Iran sidelined the NPT on Tuesday and has infuriated many delegates, starting with Brazil and Turkey. Those behind this strategy in the Obama administration must be convinced that the results will be worth the high risk for the President’s NPT objectives. They’ll have to hope they are right. The Obama administration had worked hard to promote a constructive NPT Review Conference and until today was first in line to claim credit if the outcome on May 28 was deemed successful, as many expected. If the Conference collapses in deadlock and failure, the resultant weakening of the non-proliferation regime will now be laid at Obama’s door. That will of course be overly simplistic, but in politics perception is nine-tenths of the impact.