Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Sat Sep 25 12:25:26 PDT 2004


Iran, accused and defiant

Sep 23rd 2004 
>From The Economist Global Agenda

Iran insists its nuclear programmes are for civilian use only. But its
behaviour is arousing suspicion‹not only in America, but increasingly in
friendlier European countries and at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
A diplomatic solution is possible, but it remains far off


The hawks' verdict

Get article background

"WE HAVE made our choice: yes to peaceful nuclear technology and no to
nuclear weapons," said Iran's president, Muhammad Khatami, this week. But
few are convinced. Among the doubters are Britain, France and Germany, the
European trio that last October thought they had the makings of a
face-saving deal to head off Iran's nuclear ambitions. Since then,
inspectors have turned up more evidence of past wrongdoing, and Iran has
turned more belligerent.

On Saturday September 18th, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, called for a full
accounting of Iran's nuclear programme when it meets next, in November. This
followed a critical report by Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA¹s head, circulated
ahead of the meeting. The report scolded Iran for producing experimental
amounts of uranium hexafluoride gas (a step in enriching uranium for bombs)
and revoking an agreement to stop making centrifuge components (used to
separate the bomb-grade uranium from the gas). The report also reprimanded
Iran for not divulging more about a second, secret centrifuge programme that
came to light earlier this year. And inspectors have still not received a
satisfactory explanation for some traces of enriched uranium found at
different sites in Iran.

Iranian officials, miffed that the IAEA is still on their case, suggest that
they may end co-operation with the agency. Iran's parliament‹packed with
hardliners since thousands of reformists were prevented from standing in
February¹s elections‹refuses to ratify an agreement for intrusive
inspections. And Iran could drop out altogether from the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, say the officials, if the IAEA board sends its
case to the UN Security Council, and sanctions follow.

The United States has been pressing for referral to the Security Council for
more than a year, ever since inspectors, acting on a tip-off from an exiled
opposition group, uncovered an almost 20-year trail of covert nuclear
research. Under last October's deal with the European three, Iran had agreed
temporarily to suspend all uranium-enrichment-related activity while
inspections continued; the hope was that, with the encouragement of trade in
other, less dangerous technologies, the suspension could be turned into a

But Iran has steadily back-tracked. This week, the head of Iran's Atomic
Energy Organisation revealed that work was already under way to convert 37
tonnes of natural uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride‹enough for several
bombs, if diverted to military use. The Americans see Iran¹s continued
intransigence as proof that it harbours weapons ambitions.

Unless Iran has a change of heart, its uranium-related activity and its
continued failure to fill in some of the gaps in its nuclear story seem
likely to lead to a showdown at the IAEA in November. The one hope, says
Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London,
is that, despite its bravado, Iran still seems keen to avoid being reported
to the Security Council. Yet it also seems determined to hang on to a
nuclear option. Can diplomacy alone press it to choose?

Not if Iran assumes it can win in November. The regime has been buoyed by
high oil prices, and it is feeling a certain bravado since sweeping the
rigged February elections. The decline of Iran¹s reformists makes the
conservative leadership less susceptible to international pressure. It also
knows that some IAEA members, notably Brazil and South Africa, are loth to
see it pressed too hard over the enrichment suspension, since their nuclear
industries rely on similar technologies. If inspectors come up with no
additional proof of wrongdoing, if Iran promises to put off actual
enrichment for the time being and, especially, if there is also a change of
administration in America, it may hope to avoid harsh censure.

Good cop, bad cop?

Yet Iran is exhausting the patience of even the friendlier European
governments. Britain and France have told Iran privately that it must fulfil
its obligations to the IAEA, and also its original promise of a full
suspension of enrichment-related activity. Germany has been less staunch,
worrying more than the others that Iran may make good on its threat to leave
the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But, ultimately, it agrees with its European
partners that Iran must toe the line. An Iran that went nuclear despite
repeated European overtures would make a mockery of European claims to be
defter at diplomacy than heavy-handed America.

And in any case, America and Europe are, for once, reading from the same
page. The Europeans are keener on offering incentives and the Americans
readier to threaten punishment. But they share the same goal, and the two
strategies, far from being mutually exclusive, may be mutually reinforcing.
Though Americans may sometimes become frustrated with European hesitation to
press Iran harder, by and large the two sides are trying harder to work
together than they did with Iran¹s neighbour, Iraq. The Europeans have
consulted repeatedly with America as they have made their diplomatic
overtures. As Michael Levi, a non-proliferation expert, notes, ³Good cop,
bad cop only works when the good cop and the bad cop leave the room and talk
strategy together.²

If Europe is the good cop and America the bad cop, Israel may be the
vigilante. Ha¹aretz, an Israeli newspaper, reported this week that Israel is
planning to buy 500 ³bunker-buster² bombs from America, capable of
penetrating six feet of concrete and destroying underground facilities.
Israel and America both insist that there is no explicit threat to destroy
Iran¹s nuclear plants (as Israel did in Iraq in 1981), but the timing of the
purchase does not look like coincidence.

What if promises and threats combined fail to move Iran? If it drops out of
the Non-Proliferation Treaty, this might look like an admission of guilt and
make it easier for America to move the issue to the Security Council. But
what happens then is anybody¹s guess. Russia, which holds a veto on the
council, has called on Iran to do as the IAEA asks. But it has also long
helped Iran with nuclear programmes it takes to be civilian, and may thus be
unwilling to vote for sanctions. The newly tough European line could still
open a window for diplomacy in the next couple of months. But it is unlikely
to stay open long.

  Copyright © 2004 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All
rights reserved.


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