As promised, Iran has delivered its response to the U.N. ultimatum that it resume negotiations over its nuclear-energy program. And, as expected, the response was sufficiently ambiguous to offer something to everyone. If Tehran is serious about talks and is truly seeking a negotiated solution to stave off a crisis, then other nations must make every effort to seize the opportunity. If Iran is merely stalling for time to present the world with a nuclear fait accompli, then the world — and the United Nations in particular — must be ready to force Tehran to meet its international obligations.
Four years ago, revelations about clandestine nuclear facilities hardened suspicions about the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program. The slow drip of evidence and the belated acknowledgment that Tehran had not been totally forthcoming with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, compelled the world body to take a harder line when dealing with Iran. The announcement that the country had begun enriching uranium, as well as its increasingly belligerent rhetoric, compounded fears that Iran sought nuclear-weapons capability.
Earlier this summer, after several years of on-again, off-again negotiations, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (which had helped lead European Union discussions with Tehran) offered Iran a package of political, economic and security incentives to halt its nuclear program. Iran wanted time — two months — to study the proposal and prepare a response.
Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council upped the ante and demanded that Iran suspend all uranium-enrichment activities by Aug. 31 or face possible sanctions — a deadline the Iranian government dismissed as “illegal and worthless.”
Earlier this week, Iran provided its response: Mr. Ali Larijani said his government was prepared to enter “serious negotiations” over the nuclear program, and proposed a “new formula” that is a “comprehensive response” to the U.N. offer. The Iranian deal is both complex and still unclear without further analysis. In other words, Tehran has bought itself more time.
The signs are not promising. Iranian officials continue to insist they enjoy the right to develop a nuclear-energy program as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said earlier this week that the country’s nuclear program is peaceful and insisted it will continue. On Aug. 21, Iran turned away IAEA inspectors from an underground site meant to shelter its uranium-enrichment program from attack. On Aug. 20, Iran held military exercises during which it test-fired surface-to-surface missiles during a second day of war games. At no time has Iran indicated a readiness to suspend uranium enrichment as demanded by the U.N.
Iran’s strategy is clear: It seeks to divide the five permanent members of the Security Council. It is no secret that China and Russia are more sympathetic to Iran’s claims that its program is peaceful. Both governments want to preserve their influence in Tehran, a regional power. Russia wants to maintain a profitable business relationship (it has the contract to build new nuclear facilities in Iran); China wants to maintain good relations with a key energy supplier.
The key question is how European governments will respond. While Britain, France, Germany and the United States have said they are studying the Iranian offer, London, Paris and Washington are reportedly convinced that Tehran is stalling for time. Mr. John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said his government is ready to push for strong financial sanctions against Iran if it does not halt enrichment activities by Aug. 31 as demanded by the U.N. The Europeans are likely to be hesitant about resorting to sanctions, given their trade relations with Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter. The belief that such sanctions are unlikely to work and that stiffer measures will be required increases their reluctance to take the first steps down what is perceived to be a very slippery slope.
But there is no credible alternative to a firm stance. No one disputes an NPT signatory’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology. But the acquisition of that technology also creates obligations: The recipient cannot divert it for military uses. Iran’s failure to provide more than verbal assurances about its nuclear program is a violation of its NPT responsibilities. The international community’s failure to enforce that bargain reduces the NPT to a flimsy piece of paper. The world recognized as much when the Security Council passed its resolution earlier this month. If Iran disregards the U.N. and the world body fails to follow up, then it will have once again lost credibility as an enforcer of international law and the guarantor of international peace and security. It cannot sustain many more such failures.
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