Français   |  

Subscribe to the whole site

Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Dialogue amid rattling sabers


Dialogue amid rattling sabers

Sunday 27 May 2007, by Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran has reconfirmed the country’s steady progress on its centrifuge technology, thus giving new impetus for a third round of United Nations Security Council sanctions, as this constitutes defiance of the UN demand that Tehran halt enrichment-related activities.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, also warned for the first time that Iran probably could enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb in three to eight years, setting off new fears of Iran’s nuclear intentions.

In Iran, the four-page report by ElBaradei elicited a more favorable response, relatively speaking. Ali Larijani, the chief nuclear negotiator who is due for another talk with the European Union’s foreign-policy head Javier Solana next week, stated that the report shows that IAEA inspectors have not found any major problem, and this means "Iran is operating within the scope of international standards".

Although ElBaradei’s report complains of a deterioration of the IAEA’s access to Iran’s facilities during the past few months, this is considered a backlash against the UN’s atomic agency for "politicizing Iran’s dossier" and not impacting the overall Iran-IAEA safeguard agreements.

According to Mohammad Saeedi, the deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, the report shows that Tehran is committed to its legal and international obligations and there is no obstacle to the IAEA’s access to the country’s nuclear facilities. But Kazem Jalali, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security Committee, criticized ElBaradei’s report as "typically unfair, double-sided and ambiguous".

In the United States, on the other hand, officials are seething at ElBaradei’s candid statement last week that Iran has pretty much reached the point of no return on the nuclear-fuel cycle and the appropriate response is to allow it limited access to this technology instead of trying to dispossess it completely through coercive sanctions.

"We vehemently disagree that somehow the international community should allow Iran to get away with all its international obligations," a senior White House official told the Washington Post. But has it?

Iran is entitled, under Article IV of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to acquire an independent nuclear-fuel cycle, and given its "corrective steps" absence of any "smoking gun", and Iran’s continued participation in both the NPT and the IAEA’s inspection regime, it is difficult to find the legal justification for UN sanctions.

A recent editorial in the New York Times proposed a US-led "grand bargain" with Iran, offering more carrots than before, including on security matters or, alternatively, in case Iran refuses, a "more painful punishment".

Again, conveniently overlooked by the Times editorial and other US media is the legality of punitive measures against Iran - exercising its "inalienable rights", much like nations such as Japan and Brazil. The UN Security Council has sidestepped Iran’s national rights and has imposed sanctions because Iran has refused to comply with a non-legally binding confidence-building measure requested by the IAEA. This is clearly a disproportionate response, the flaws in which will be exposed when and if Iran agrees to a temporary suspension followed by the resumption of its enrichment activities.

Suspension is not, after all, termination, and there is nothing in any of the UN resolutions stating the duration of Iran’s suspension. Henceforth, it may be in Iran’s interests to go along with Solana’s suggestion for a month-long suspension, to take the steam out of the UN’s express train of sanctions after sanctions, not to mention the "military option".

Weighing the military option

With its terminal addiction to hard power, on the eve of the US-Iran dialogue in Baghdad on Monday, Washington has ratcheted up the pressure on Tehran by holding yet another military maneuver close to Iran in the Persian Gulf. This is widely interpreted by the US media as another step in "the path to war with Iran".

Adding a disturbing twist to this familiar behavior, the White House has reportedly authorized covert action inside Iran, according to an exclusive report on the American Broadcasting Co (ABC) network.

Interestingly, none of the "experts" interviewed by the ABC or CNN on this subject has bothered to remind the viewers that legally speaking, the US government is barred from any covert activities in Iran per the 1981 US-Iran agreement in Algiers. President George W Bush’s authorization, if true, violates the United States’ prior pledge "not to interfere directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs".

Unfortunately, the White House is not alone in falling into historical amnesia, and hawkish members of the US Congress, who sponsored the Iran Freedom Support Act calling for regime change in Iran, have equally forgotten the United States’ international obligations. These preclude such initiatives as interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs in the name of democracy or human rights, as the US$75 million fund for democracy in Iran allocated by the Bush administration clearly does.

The White House’s justification - that this is the "lesser evil" compared with Vice President Dick Cheney’s aggressive push for military action - may convince some gullible members of the US media, but cannot pass the scrutiny of international law.

One of the unintended consequences of such interventionist behavior by the US over Iran is to foment a security paranoia in Iran, reflected in the recent arrest of a number of Iranian-American scholars visiting Iran, who are accused by the government of trying to promote a "soft" or "velvet" revolution.

In light of growing signs of the United States’ attempts to sow discord and division among Iran’s multi-ethnic population, eg by supporting Azeri irredentist groups operating in neighboring Azerbaijan, Iran’s stern reaction is likely to escalate even further. In other words, the United States’ "pro-democracy" actions toward Iran have had, and will have, the obverse effect of actually undermining the democratic forces and chipping away at their legitimacy.

That aside, the "military option" has been openly backed by a limited number of experts on international law, such as Alan
Dershowitz and Louis Rene Beres, whose penmanships have landed on the side of condoning an "anticipatory" military strike on Iran in the name of "self-defense".

The basic flaws in their argument include a legal nihilism cloaked by their unfounded generalization regarding international law and the dubious notion of anticipatory self-defense. Contrary to Beres’ and Dershowitz’ claim, international law hardly confers an endorsement of this dangerous idea that only leads to greater violence by lowering the threshold of unilaterally determined contingencies that warrant acts of self-defense.

The UN Charter, Article 2.4, expressly prohibits member states from using or threatening force against one another, and Article 51 has clearly restricted the right to self-defense to cases when an armed attack occurs, an interpretation upheld by the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal (1947): "Preventive action in foreign territory is justified only in case of an instant and overwhelming necessity for self-defense, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation."

As the late scholar of international law Abram Chayes put it in the case of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, "It is a very different matter to expand Article 51 to include threatening developments or demonstrations that do not have imminent attacks as their purpose or probable outcome."

Sadly, such basic insights about international law are foreign to some respected professors of international law.

The case against a military strike on Iran

From the prism of international law, it is abundantly clear that short of UN authorization, no country or coalition of countries has the legal permit to attack Iran. Thus the net result of such an impermissible attack would be to spread global anarchy and a Hobbesian lawlessness, deemed intolerable by the international community still grappling with the dire consequences of the illegal invasion of Iraq.

On the practical side, a US demolition of Iran’s key nuclear facilities would only culminate in an immediate exit of Iran from the non-proliferation regime and a vigorous push to acquire nuclear weapons by setting aside its declared antipathy toward nuclear weapons.

Contrary to what has been adopted as an article of faith in the West, there is no consensus in Iran about "going full nuclear", and the country’s leadership appears to have settled on being "nuclear-ready" via mastering the nuclear-fuel cycle, but nothing more.

By making illicit inferences about "Iran’s nuclear ambition", the proponents of the military option assume to know the full spectrum of Iran’s national-security mindset, some, such as US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, focusing instead on Iran’s "irrationality".

Calling for tough sanctions and Iran’s diplomatic isolation, Romney has rejected any comparison to the Cold War and "living with a nuclear Iran", following the argument that "for all of the Soviet Union’s deep flaws, they were never suicidal. A Soviet commitment to national survival was never in question. And that assumption simply can’t be made about an irrational regime that celebrates martyrdom like Iran."

The irrationality argument falls by the wayside, however, once we scrutinize Iran’s foreign-policy behavior since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as Iran’s regional cooperation policy, or its "sphere of influence" politics, clearly demonstrate. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly, as late as this month, prioritized Iran’s "national interests" and warned that no one in the country is allowed "to act against national interests". Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the author in a recent interview that "our priority is to protect our rights and interests".

But Iran’s pro-Israel critics in the US are sold to the demonization and characterization of the Iranian government, marketing their warmongering recipes (for disaster) by projections of military action that pin the hope on a limited warfare not eliciting any exaggerated response by Iran. They champion "surgical" strikes and fail to connect the dots and see the serious ramifications, eg in Iraq, where Iran wields considerable influence.

Unfortunately, this is a delicate point bypassed by seasoned analysts such as Anthony Cordesman, in his recent interview on Iran with the Council on Foreign Relations. Yet to his credit, Cordesman admits that there is no military solution with respect to Iran.

In conclusion, the schizophrenic US policy toward Iran, offering the olive branch of dialogue with one hand and, with the other hand, the stick of military action, simply poisons the environment for fruitful US-Iran dialogue and hampers any meaningful cooperation with respect to Iraq, the focal point of their coinciding interests.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran’s Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu.

View online :