What is the status of efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
The United States, Britain, France, and Germany are pushing for the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), meeting this week in Vienna, to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for disciplinary action over its nuclear activities. The IAEA found Iran hid aspects of its civilian nuclear energy program from international inspectors, but has not found any concrete evidence that Iran has an illicit nuclear weapons program, as the United States and other countries claim. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the UN General Assembly September 17 that Iran had an "inalienable right" to nuclear power and called western efforts to curtail Tehran's ambitions "nuclear apartheid."
Was Ahmadinejad’s statement a surprise?
Only in its boldness, experts say. Iran’s leadership—and most of its people—have long supported Iran’s right to have a nuclear energy program. This was true even under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, who was seen as a moderate potential reformer. Ahmadinejad, who is a conservative nationalist, was elected in June, and experts say they are not surprised he chose to use his first global appearance to speak out strongly for Iranian national interest and prestige.
Is Iran enlisting other countries as allies?
Yes. “Iran has a strategy to use the economic leverage at its disposal to cultivate a number of influential countries,” says Robert Einhorn, senior adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Russia, China, and India, which all have strong ties to Iran, are helping to oppose the U.S.-led effort to bring Tehran before the Security Council. Russia is helping Iran build an $800 million commercial light-water nuclear reactor at Bushehr, a southwestern Iranian city on the Persian Gulf coast. Russia will provide fuel for the reactor and take away the spent fuel so it cannot be illegally reprocessed.
India and China have developed relationships with Iran’s oil and gas. In August, Iran and India finalized plans to build a 2,100 km natural gas pipeline from the Iranian port of Assaluyah through Pakistan to the Indian state of Rajastan. The pipeline is expected to bring 60 million cubic meters of gas per day to India in its first year, 90 million cubic meters in its second year, and 120 million cubic meters in its third year. India—which imports 70 percent of its crude oil and produces only 50 percent of the natural gas it consumes—and China, which is rapidly becoming one of the world’s largest oil consumers, are both aggressively seeking stable energy resources to fuel their booming economies.
How will recent developments in U.S.-Indian relations affect Iran?
In a historic meeting between President George Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh July 18, the United States recognized India as “a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” and agreed to assist India with its civilian nuclear energy program. The agreement seemed to usher in a new warming of relations between the two countries.
However, India has since supported Iran’s position on its right to pursue a program against the wishes of the United States. U.S. officials have pressured India to vote against Iran at the IAEA, and some members of Congress are reportedly threatening to torpedo the U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement if it doesn’t. “Members of Congress feel pretty strongly about Iran, and they could take that out on India if they feel India is not on our team,” Einhorn says. However, experts say that public opinion in India is strongly in favor of Iran and against the U.S. position, and that Indian diplomats have talked of abstaining from an IAEA vote on Iran. “The Indians would vote with us [at the IAEA] at a great domestic price,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Will Iran be referred to the Security Council?
Perhaps, experts say. “It’s not unreasonable to think we’d take this thing to the UN [just to] inspire a tremendous debate,” Sokolski says. Even if the result is a weak resolution, Sokolski says the United States would benefit by showing the world it can still make things happen. Einhorn says if the issue did get to the Security Council, what would likely follow is “a very slow process of trying to get a very mild statement that doesn’t impose any penalties” on Iran, because China and Russia would veto any sanctions.
Therefore, “ Iran is in a strong position right now,” says Jon Wolfsthal, nonproliferation fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “The United States hasn’t done a good job explaining why Iran has to be referred to the Security Council,” he says. “In addition, it has a huge credibility gap because of Iraq, and a consistency gap because it’s trying to treat Iran differently from how it treats other countries with nuclear ambitions, like India, North Korea, and Brazil.” Many other countries believe the diplomatic options for solving the crisis are not yet exhausted, and think U.S. officials would get farther by engaging Iran—negotiating and offering incentives—instead of threatening it.
How will the recent negotiations with North Korea affect Iran’s case?
At six-party talks hosted by China, North Korean and U.S. negotiators agreed September 19 to a pact that would oblige North Korea to give up all its nuclear weapons and halt its existing nuclear programs. However, important details—such as when North Korea would disarm and if the nation would get a civilian light-water reactor in return—were left undefined, leading some experts to question the usefulness of the agreement. Some experts say the North Korea pact may weaken U.S. ability to enforce nuclear regulations against Iran. “The United States lost ground on North Korea,” Wolfsthal says. “The fact that the United States has recognized, in theory, North Korea’s right to have peaceful nuclear technology makes it much harder to argue that Iran can’t have it.” Sokolski agrees: “There is going to be all kinds of diplomatic fallout from this that we’re going to be dealing with for a long time,” he says. However, Einhorn says, “If pressure [to give up its nuclear program] appears to be working on North Korea, it could make it easier to pressure Iran.”
What happened to the deal negotiated between Iran and Europe?
In November 2004, the so-called troika—Britain, France, and Germany—negotiated a deal in which Tehran agreed to stop enriching uranium in exchange for economic incentives, technological assistance for its civilian nuclear program, and support entering international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO). As part of the EU deal, Iran agreed to halt activities at its uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan in central Iran. (In the uranium enrichment process, naturally occurring uranium ore, known as yellowcake, is converted into uranium hexafluoride, which is fed into powerful centrifuges and converted to even higher levels of enrichment that could be used to power nuclear weapons.) But in August, Iran disavowed the agreement, broke IAEA seals on the Isfahan facility, and resumed conversion activities. This decision—after several years of back-and-forth negotiations—helped galvanize European support for the U.S. push to bring Iran to the Security Council.
What happens now?
Very likely nothing, some experts say. Despite all the public friction, “we’re still not at a crisis point on Iran,” Wolfsthal says. Some U.S. intelligence reports say Iran is at least five to ten years away from developing nuclear weapons. The consensus among Iran experts is that negotiations will continue under European auspices and that each side will present their positions at the next IAEA board meeting in three months. Tehran, having once again skirted sanctions, may continue to test international limits on its behavior, possibly by restarting some other nuclear facilities, trying to extract more concessions from the West, or making deals to increase its leverage in the international community while playing for domestic political support. Experts say the Iranians have been very sophisticated about playing the international negotiations game: They’ve made room for themselves to maneuver, but have never gone so far—by testing a nuclear weapon, for example—as to force a reaction from the United Nations.