Iran seems intent on confronting the world. Remarkably, the international community has mustered a unified response to the Tehran government’s seeming determination to build a nuclear weapon. But brinkmanship continues: Last weekend Tehran said it was ending its commitment to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), a move that severely curtails the ability of international nuclear regulators to ensure that Iran is not cheating and building a bomb. Iran must reverse that decision.
For nearly three years, there have been mounting suspicions about the forces driving Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran insists that it is exercising its right as a member of the NPT to develop a domestic nuclear-energy program. Its critics believe that the civilian energy effort is a cover for a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. The debate continues without resolution, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, has enough doubts to be concerned.
To quell those suspicions, in 2003 Iran agreed to let the IAEA monitor its nuclear sites and perform snap inspections at facilities as permitted by the Additional Protocol. That decision was a confidence-building measure to spur negotiations Tehran was holding with Britain, France and Germany on the nuclear issue. Those governments were trying to fashion a “grand bargain” that would provide Iran security and economic incentives in exchange for that country’s abandonment of any nuclear ambitions.
Key to the deal was the provision of enriched uranium to run nuclear reactors. The fuel would come from an outside source, most likely Russia, which would closely monitor the uranium. This would prevent the diversion of fuel to build a bomb and remove the incentive to develop technology that would permit Iran to enrich its own uranium — or build a bomb. This same issue lies at the heart of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Indeed Pyongyang’s behavior — and its withdrawal from the NPT — magnified concerns over Tehran’s actions.
Unlike the North Korean case, however, the world community managed to develop a consensus on how to respond. After months of negotiations and Tehran’s continuing defiance, the IAEA voted last weekend to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei is to report to the Security Council and outline the steps that are needed to eliminate suspicions about Tehran’s nuclear program.
The decision to go to the Security Council is overdue. The questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions have not been answered to the satisfaction of the international organization responsible for such issues and ad hoc negotiations have failed. The situation is becoming a crisis. This is precisely the type of situation that the U.N. was created to deal with.
The readiness of the five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — to agree on the IAEA resolution is a promising sign. Until last weekend, Tehran had successfully exploited divisions among the P-5 to stave off a UNSC session. After the IAEA resolution passed, Iran resumed those tactics by announcing it would no longer comply with the Additional Protocol, meaning that it would refuse surprise inspections of its facilities and discontinue the suspension of uranium enrichment. Yet, Tehran said it was prepared to resume discussions with Russia later this month on plans to receive enriched uranium, but they would have to be modified to reflect the “current situation.”
The decision to go to the U.N. does not mean that the crisis has come to a head. Mr. ElBaradei will not report to the Security Council until March. Moreover, the Security Council has a range of options, and there is as yet no consensus on the proper response. Sanctions are unlikely to be leveled at that session.
Iran insists that it has the right to build a domestic atomic energy industry. In fact, every NPT signatory has that right — as long as they forswear nuclear-weapons ambitions. Tehran is apparently betting that concerns about its ability to disrupt world energy markets — it is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of oil, the source of 15 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports and 12 percent of China’s — will oblige UNSC members to go easy.
Yet Iran’s continuing defiance will leave the U.N. with no choice. That institution is legitimate and credible only if it effectively deals with threats to international peace and security. An unwillingness to enforce the terms of the treaties and conventions that it created will render the organization an empty shell. It will confirm the judgment of the skeptics and critics who argue that there is no substitute for national action in times of crisis. Coming on the heels of the Iraq crisis, it could prove a fatal blow to the U.N., and the dreams of a world ruled by law rather than brute force.
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