The United Nations Security Council agreed last weekend to sanction Iran for refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The unanimous vote is designed to encourage Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and eliminate suspicions about its nuclear intentions. The vote is a proper step forward — an escalation of pressure — but Iran’s continuing defiance means the world had better be ready for, and prepared to respond to, more provocations from Tehran.
There have been doubts about Iran’s nuclear program since its inception, but concerns have intensified following a steady drip of revelations about secret facilities and capabilities. Years of negotiations to find a formula that would permit Iran to build a peaceful nuclear program while ensuring that it could not be diverted for military purposes have made no progress. Three months ago, frustrations bubbled over and the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that banned trade in sensitive nuclear materials and ballistic missiles, and froze the assets of 12 individuals and 10 institutions associated with the nuclear programs.
That resolution called for a halt to Iranian efforts to enrich uranium and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, both of which can be used to build nuclear weapons. Tehran refused to suspend the programs, arguing that as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) it has a right to technology for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. That is not in dispute. The question is whether Iranian intentions are truly peaceful; on that count, all the world has is Iranian assurances, which are not worth much in light of the revelations about hidden programs.
Iran’s intransigence managed to unite the permanent members of the Security Council — no insignificant feat — and produced last weekend’s resolution. That measure tightens the sanctions in place. It bans all arms exports and freezes some of the financial assets of 28 Iranian individuals and entities linked to the country’s nuclear and military programs. The sanctions would be suspended if enrichment activities were verifiably halted; failure to do so could result in additional penalties.
The resolution was the result of five weeks of intense negotiations that pitted the United States, Britain, France and Germany against Russia and China. Washington and London, in particular, seek stronger measures that would force Tehran to halt suspect activities. Indeed, other nations worry that the real goal of the sanctions is regime change, not merely a change in nuclear policy. Moscow and Beijing are reluctant to punish a trade partner and diplomatic ally that shares their suspicions of Western intentions, but they also recognize the danger a nuclear-armed Iran poses to the region and to the global nonproliferation regime.
The result was a resolution that dropped harsher measures proposed by the U.S. and other European nations, such as a travel ban on certain individuals, a cutoff of export credits for companies trading with Iran and a ban on all arms imports, while accepting the extension of sanctions to military programs and expanding the number of individuals sanctioned. Countries are asked, not mandated, “to exercise vigilance and restraint” in the supply, sale or transfer of weapons to Iran and to deny Iran training or financial assistance that would be used to procure weapons. All nations and international lenders such as the World Bank are again “asked” to stop giving grants, loans and other financial aid to Iran, except for humanitarian or development purposes.
There should be no doubt: Some countries do seek to isolate and undermine the regime in Tehran. But suspicions about Iranian intentions are not unfounded. The IAEA has complained that Iran has not provided “the necessary level of transparency and cooperation” to permit it to verify that the Iranian program was solely for peaceful purposes. Those concerns drove the IAEA to suspend 22 technical aid projects this month.
There is a simple solution to this standoff. Iran can live up to its international obligations and let the IAEA — an instrument of the international community and the U.N. itself — do its job. A thorough inspection of Iranian facilities is not a concession on Tehran’s part: It is required by its signature on the NPT. Failure to permit the IAEA to do that risks undermining the global nonproliferation order. It will encourage other governments to defy the IAEA and to proliferate themselves.
More important, a failure by the Security Council to respond more forcefully to this danger will do great damage to the U.N. itself. It will convince other nations that the U.N. will not respond to governments that challenge international peace and security. If the U.N. will not act, then they will take it upon themselves. That is a recipe for international anarchy.
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