With the possibility of ‘smart’ sanctions in the near future and muscular US military moves in the Persian Gulf, the grids for the end game on Iran’s nuclear intransigence are getting strengthened.
Four UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions - 1737 of December 23, 2006, 1747 of March 24, 2007, 1803 of March 3, 2008 and 1835 of September 27, 2008 – have urged Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities and cooperate more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to establish with full confidence the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme. Since 2003, the IAEA, in 28 reports (till February 2010), has detailed Iranian compliance or otherwise with its safeguards requirements, including uranium enrichment activities, uranium imports, concealed nuclear sites, plutonium enrichment activities, cooperation with the nuclear black market including the A.Q. Khan network, among other instances. The UNSC and IAEA resolutions have urged Iran to “re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities … ratify promptly and implement in full the Additional Protocol … implement transparency measures …” among other requirements.1 These requirements have however not been fulfilled by Iran, which has grown increasingly defiant in the face of what it considers to be undue pressure over its nuclear programme.
In fact, Iran’s response to rising pressure has been to become more defiant. In the aftermath of sanctions being imposed on it, Iran informed the IAEA in March 2007 that it will no longer be bound by the revised Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangement to its Safeguards Agreement.2 It has even threatened to quit the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) if pressure becomes unbearable. For instance, in the wake of the February 4, 2006 IAEA resolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated on February 10 – the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, that Iran “will revise its policies” regarding the NPT if the “rights of the Iranian people were violated.”3
Iran’s defiance has only grown in the aftermath of September 2009 when it declared the existence of its third fuel enrichment plant at Fordow, near Qom. While Western powers and the IAEA charged that the development was illustrative of Iranian non-compliance, Iran contends that it was not required to inform the IAEA as it had not introduced any nuclear material into the facility, and therefore was within the mandate of the February 12, 1976 Subsidiary Arrangement to which it was adhering to.
Iran also informed the IAEA on December 2, 2009 about its decision to construct 10 more uranium enrichment facilities. The October 2009 agreement reached in Geneva to enrich its uranium in a third country like France and Russia has meanwhile fallen flat. After outgoing IAEA chief Dr. Mohammed El-Baradei indicated that the Agency’s interactions with Iran had reached a “dead end”, the new IAEA Chief Yukiyo Amano, in his first report on February 18, 2010, stated that Iran was working on high-precision detonators, high-explosives initiation systems, spherical implosion systems, possible nuclear payload chamber design engineering, among other contentious weapons-related activities.4 Tehran dismissed Mr. Amano’s charges and termed him as a “non-starter and a novice.”5
After September 2008, there has not been any other UNSC resolution relating to the Iranian nuclear issue. The Obama administration is continuing with its current ‘engagement’ strategy with the Iranians though reiterating that it is not taking off “any options off the table” – a euphemism for tougher sanctions as well as possible military strikes. Reports indicate that the United States has beefed up its naval assets in and around the Persian Gulf both on land and at sea - deploying ships with advanced anti-ballistic missile capabilities and Patriot missile defence systems in UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain in preparation for any military eventuality.6
The possibility of more punitive sanctions, which China and Russia were earlier opposing, also seems to be changing. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in a message to the Arab League Summit in Libya on March 27, 2010 noted that though the “path of sanctions” was “not optimal,” the possibility of tougher sanctions “cannot be excluded.”7 During his visit to France in early March, Mr. Medvedev stated that Russia would support “smart” sanctions if diplomacy failed.
China though on its part has remained non-committal on its support for tougher new sanctions. Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi stated that “pressure and sanctions are not the fundamental way forward to resolving the Iran nuclear issue.”8 Similar sentiments have been expressed by Indian officials, with Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao stating in Washington on March 15 that “sanctions that target Iranian people … would not be conducive to a resolution of this [Iran] question.”9
With Iranian defiance growing and ‘smarter’ sanctions increasingly a distinct possibility, increased military pressure could force Iran to move in either of two directions – succumb to the diplomatic, economic and military pressure and tow the UNSC/IAEA directions or completely cut-off contacts with the NPT regime. The possibility of the latter happening is greater, given the history since 2003 when rising pressure led Iran to decide not to follow the Additional Protocol and the revised provisions of its Subsidiary Arrangement. If Iran does quit the treaty, then all of its activities will be off the international radar and minus IAEA inspections questions will linger over its alleged nuclear weapons-related activities. Despite occasional threats, especially from conservative lawmakers, Iran has however not yet made the consideration that “extra-ordinary events” have “jeopardised” its “supreme interests”, as provided in Article X Part I of the NPT which detail the right of a State Party to withdraw from the treaty. While Iran’s nuclear narrative has been sustained by its ‘legal brinkmanship’, it remains to be seen how far its ‘defiance’ or ‘behavioural’ opposition can stand up to the rising scrutiny of an increasingly sceptical international and regional opinion.