Despite the historic nature of the first direct letter from an Iranian president to a American president since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Tehran’s position has not fundamentally softened—yet. Iran still wants to expand its nuclear program.
But this letter could provide an opening to pursue a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem.
We propose that the U.N. Security Council pass a resolution under Chapter 6 of the U.N. Charter, which calls on parties to settle their disputes through peaceful means. Currently, the United States is pressing for a resolution under Chapter 7, which can authorize the use of economic sanctions or military force. China and Russia have opposed a Chapter 7 resolution.
The Chapter 6 resolution would authorize the International Atomic Energy Agency to form a special inspection team that would have wide-ranging access to investigate Iran’s nuclear activities. This team would draw from international nuclear experts, mostly from the IAEA.
It’s important to note that the team would supplement—not replace—the role of the IAEA and would root its mission in the IAEA Statute’s Article 12, which provides for special inspections to resolve compliance problems. If the inspection team found proscribed nuclear activities, the Security Council would then have stronger grounds than it now has to consider forceful action.
The current process in the Security Council is keeping the Iranian nuclear problem at a boil. A Chapter 6 resolution could relieve the pressure before it erupts into an unnecessary and costly war while holding Iran accountable for adhering to its nuclear safeguard commitments.
Why would Iran have an incentive to work cooperatively with these special inspections?
First, although Iran may want to maintain ambiguity to make its nuclear program look more formidable than it may be, Tehran will gain more if it opens up to more intrusive inspections. Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, recently stated that Iran is willing to permit “intrusive inspections” at its nuclear facilities and to “limit the enrichment of nuclear materials so that they are suitable for energy production but not for weaponry.”
Second, the special inspections could provide Iran with an opportunity to obtain a clean bill of nuclear health. If Iran objects to these inspections, it would appear to be an obstructionist.
Iran strives for legitimacy and wants to emerge as a major power in the Persian Gulf region and the broader Middle East. The United States and its allies want to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Russia and China as well as the European Union also want to continue doing business with Iran.
Is there a way to satisfy these different interests?
While the first steps should involve reducing ambiguities about Iran’s nuclear program and compelling Iran to come into compliance with its safeguard requirements under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it is also important to address Iran’s security and economic concerns.
Here’s where Russia can play a special role. Acting as a proxy for the United States, Moscow should convey to Tehran that the currently ambiguous situation is pointing toward war. Russia should press on Iran the urgency of immediately slowing down its enrichment efforts and allowing a special inspection team adequate access to make an informed assessment about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
As an additional necessary incentive, Russia should also offer to convene a multilateral dialogue involving, at a minimum, Iran, Russia and the EU. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states also would have an incentive to join the dialogue. The United States may opt out initially but should be prepared to jump in once it appears that Iran is serious about cutting a deal.
The dialogue would consider a broad agenda involving security assurances and economic development. Concerning timing, Russia, which now holds the presidency of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, should plan to convene the dialogue before the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg this summer.
Russia and the United States have demonstrated over 15 years that working together can provide greater security for all parties.
Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. Victor Mizin, a Russian arms control and nonproliferation expert, is a visiting research fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center. Their e-mails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.