The US’s long-running campaign to pressure Iran over its nuclear programme was ratcheted up to a new level last month, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution effectively threatening to report Iran to the UN Security Council if it is not satisfied that Iran’s nuclear programme is for purely civilian purposes by its next meeting, which is on November 25.
Iran immediately condemned the resolution, which it had succeeded in weakening considerably through assiduous diplomatic efforts. The US had demanded that the IAEA set an October 31 deadline, and make referral to the UN Security Council automatic rather than dependent on a future decision by the IAEA Board. The IAEA resolution, passed on September 18 after a five-day meeting, also confirms countries” right to peaceful nuclear activities, although the US had demanded that this should be dropped. One significant element of the resolution is that it pushes the next step of the process past the US presidential polls on November 2, making it less likely that the Bush administration will act against Iran in order to boost its presidential campaign.
However, the resolution still calls for Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities, as well as to grant “full and prompt access” to IAEA inspectors. This is despite the fact that enrichment is allowed by the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which sets the standards that the IAEA is supposed to monitor. In October 2003 Iran reached an agreement with three European countries, the UK,France and Germany, to suspend enrichment as a confidence-building gesture. In return, the European countries were supposed to offer technical assistance in other nuclear-related areas, and to ease the IAEA pressure on Iran.
Iran’s officials say that the Europeans have not kept to the agreement; the expected technical assistance has not been provided, and the IAEA has continued to pressure Iran as demanded by the US. In June it passed a particularly tough resolution accusing Iran of a “deplorable” lack of cooperation, even though the reports of inspectors who had visited Iran did not include any such complaints.
Hassan Rohani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Council, which is in charge of the nuclear programme, pointed out on September 19 that inspectors have found nothing improper about Iran’s nuclear programme. He also stated that Iran’s uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan would be proceeding with the first stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, making the uranium gas that acts as the feed for centrifuges. “We have reached the stage where we can produce nuclear fuel,” he said. “People should know that the suspension is not a halt to our activities. In one year, we have achieved everything we wanted.”
He also criticised the new IAEA resolution for including references to Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment without any reference to the agreement of which it was a part. He emphasised thatIran cannot be obliged to give up its right to do something that is not illegal, but might agree to do it voluntarily through negotiation.
Iranian president Mohamed Khatami said on September 20 that his country is determined to go ahead with uranium-enrichment as part of the plan to develop “peaceful nuclear technology”, even if that means ending cooperation with the IAEA. He criticised the IAEA for bowing to pressure from the US, saying that its resolution is “a sign of the moral decadence in the world and the pre-eminence of force and hypocrisy in international relations.”
Iran insists that its nuclear programme is for peaceful energy purposes only, as its domestic demand for electricity is growing by nearly 10 percent annually. It has also rejected offers from Western countries to supply nuclear fuel, arguing that it needs to be self-sufficient. The US and its allies say that Iran’s three fuel cycle projects, a heavy water reactor at Arak, a uranium conversion plant at Natanz and a uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, have the potential to be used for weapons purposes. Disinterested observers acknowledge that there is no evidence of Iran using them for this purpose, and that there is nothing illegal about what Iran is doing.
However, the US is determined to create an international climate of fear about Iran’s nuclear programme, similar to the one it created around Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction”. It has been pressing for Security Council action for over a year, and has put immense pressure on the IAEA and its director, Mohamed Elbaradei, to produce the conclusions it wants, regardless of the evidence they find on the ground. As in the run-up to its war on Iraq, the US is seeking the establishment of a “trigger point”, a point at which international action against Iran would be automatically triggered. In Iraq’s case, the US claimed to have such a trigger-point, and the right to take action without further reference to the US Security Council, even though members of the Security Council and neutral observers did not agree. Now other countries, including European ones, are all the more reluctant to give the US anything that can even remotely be interpreted as such a trigger point. However, the latest IAEA resolution moves in that direction.
In view of the quagmire in Iraq, the US is unlikely to launch military action against Iran in the near future. However, it is lobbying for the UN to impose international sanctions on the pretext of Iran’s nuclear programme. Whatever Iran may choose to do diplomatically, and however determined it is to maintain its peaceful nuclear program, it is likely to face increasing pressure in the future.