Allies Weigh Response to Iran

  • Share
  • Read Later
Iran on Monday dramatically raised the stakes in its showdown with the West over its nuclear program by threatening to resume work at a sealed uranium-enrichment research facility. Iran had previously agreed to have the enrichment equipment at the Natanz facility sealed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a good-faith gesture towards the three European countries with which it had been negotiating. Tehran insists on exercising its right to enrich uranium as part of a civilian nuclear energy program, but the same technology would allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon — and the Western powers don't trust Iran's intent. Breaking the seals at Natanz is either an exercise in brinkmanship designed to improve Iran's bargaining position, or else it reflects a decision to break out of the framework it had been negotiating with the European Union and accelerate its pursuit of the technological capability to build a nuclear weapon. Either way, the U.S. and its European partners are treating the move as crossing a red line, forcing them to respond. The three European countries with which Iran had been negotiating — Britain, France and Germany — agreed Thursday that there was no purpose in further negotiations as long as Tehran holds its current course, and they called for an emergency session of the IAEA board to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. A decision along those lines is expected either at an emergency session held later this month, or else at the next IAEA board meeting in March.

But even if Iran is referred to the Security Council, it's not clear what action may result. Veto-wielders China and Russia, both of whom have strong economic ties with Tehran, have made clear their opposition to having economic sanctions imposed against Iran, and even the Europeans have a limited appetite for this kind of measure. The French would only favor sanctions that did not hurt the population as a whole, and the current regime in Tehran is apparently less sensitive to this kind of threat than its predecessors. Bruno Tertrais, a former arms control strategist with the French Defense Ministry, warns against expecting quick action from the Security Council: "When this gets to New York, people won't be calling for a strong motion," he says. "They'll just recall the international agreements Iran has made. It will be some time before we see real arm-twisting."

Recognizing the need to hammer out a common position, the Europeans have arranged a meeting in London next week with the U.S., Russia and China to discuss how to respond to Tehran's move. One option would be for the Security Council to start by requiring Iran to comply with existing IAEA resolutions, and then consider measures to strengthen the IAEA's powers of inspection, although the problem with this scenario is that the U.N. agency cannot operate without the compliance of the host country. Other options may include travel bans on Iranian officials or restrictions on fuel supplies in the country from India—despite being a major oil producer, Iran's refining capacity is limited and it still imports a substantial portion of the fuel it consumes domestically. Crucial to the outcome of the London discussions, and any Security Council deliberation, will be the input of Russia, which has sought to mediate the standoff by offering to establish a facility on its own soil to enrich uranium, under international scrutiny, to fuel Iran's nuclear energy reactors. (In order to create a nuclear weapon, uranium must be enriched to a far higher degree than that required to run a nuclear power plant, but the Europeans and the U.S. want to keep enrichment capability out of Iran's hands.)

Iran has previously tended to push the limit in its dealings with the international community over its nuclear program, and then retreat, carefully reading the responses and the red lines of its negotiating partners. But recently Tehran's tactics have become much more aggressive, and it does not seem likely that it will back down from its enrichment program. There is still room for maneuver: Iran has yet to start actually spinning the centrifuges to enrich uranium gas, and could agree under pressure to voluntarily desist from turning on the machines for a little while longer. But with the current mood towards Tehran in capitals around the world, that kind of gesture may not be enough.

—With reporting by James Graff/Paris