Nuke Watchdog Raises the Heat on Iran

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The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolved on Saturday to find Iran in "non-compliance " with its obligations under the Nuclear non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) over its nuclear program, a finding that could lead to Iran being referred to the United Nations Security Council. The resolution does not stipulate when Iran will be reported to the UN's top enforcement body, although the issue is likely to come to a vote at the next meeting of the IAEA board in early November. Only one board member — Venezuela — voted against the resolution, which was supported by 22 of the 35 board members. But 12 abstained, including Russia and China, both of which have the power to veto any action proposed at the Security Council.


Referral to the Security Council is a serious escalation of the crisis over Iran's nuclear activities, because it signals an end to European Union efforts to negotiate a compromise that would allow Iran to maintain a nuclear energy program but not the capacity to produce fuel that could also be used for nuclear weapons. Iran has continued to insist that it has an "inalienable right" under the NPT to enrich its own uranium for reactor fuel — enrichment capability is of paramount concern to the West, because it would give Iran the technical means to create weapons-grade nuclear material. That stance hardened with the election of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last week insisted that Iran would never give up the "right" to enrich uranium and scoffed at Western concerns that Iran was building a bomb.

The Case Against Iran

The U.S. has long insisted Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb; Iran has denied it, saying that its program is purely for civilian energy purposes. It nevertheless admitted to concealing elements of the program for decades, and then only when forced to by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The EU , Canada and Japan , among other nations, now agree that that Iran is is "non compliance" with the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, a finding that allows referral to the Security Council, although with no specific timetable. Russia and China and countries of the Non-Aligned Movement such as South Africa and Brazil have opposed the move, and reportedly abstained in today's vote. Their opposition has been based on fears that the crisis will now escalate, possibly to include military intervention and also on concerns that sanctioning Iran for its nuclear energy program could set a precedent that would affect programs elsewhere. China Russia and India also have economic ties with the oil rich country. However, the decision by these countries to abstain from the IAEA vote appears to represent a softening of their opposition to tougher UN-led action.

What to Expect

Iran has not yet been referred to the Security Council and it still has a few months to reverse its position. If it fails to do so, as now seems likely, the IAEA board will likely vote on immediate referral again in November. The Security Council, unlike the IAEA, has the authority to enforce its resolutions with sanctions or, indeed, force. However, European diplomats have said that trade or other economic sanctions are not likely to be considered yet because at least two permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia, would likely veto the move. Sending the issue to New York, according to British ambassador Peter Jenkins, “will give the Security Council an opportunity to throw its weight and authority behind the (IAEA) board’s resolutions. It will give the Security Council an opportunity to endorse the board’s calls for confidence-building measures, especially full suspension (of uranium enrichment activities) and for the full transparency which was first promised in October 2003.”

"Iran responded angrily to the vote. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called it "political, illegal and illogical." About 180 out of 290 lawmakers in Tehran said that their government should now limit cooperation with the IAEA. Iran has also threatened not to ratify an agreement that would have allowed more intrusive UN inspections and to start enriching uranium despite international pressure not to do so. Opponents of taking the matter to the Security Council worry that, if pressed further, Iran might throw out inspectors altogether and withdraw from its obligations under the NPT as North Korea did last year and Saddam Hussein's Iraq did in the mid 1990s. The absence of inspectors in Iraq was one reason why Western intelligence on Iraq's program proved so inadequate, though Iran is known to already have a more advanced civilian nuclear capability than Iraq ever did.