In a possible softening of its attitude toward the United Nations, the Bush administration has decided to bring the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council.
While it bypassed the world body to deal with Iraq militarily and is trying to handle North Korea’s recently revealed nuclear capability through regional talks, the administration hopes to involve the U.N. in the Iranian issue. Officials say they hope to convince the U.N. atomic agency to declare Iran in breach of its treaty obligations and ask the Security Council to take action against the Islamic regime.
American diplomats are pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency, known as the IAEA, to issue a formal declaration during its upcoming board of governors meeting in June that Iran is violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Washington would like the IAEA board to formally require the Security Council to take up the issue and eventually enforce sanctions against Tehran.
John Wolf, assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, told an April 28 conference reviewing the treaty, known as NPT, that Iran “provides perhaps the most fundamental challenge ever faced by the NPT” because of its “alarming, clandestine program” to produce nuclear weapons. He called for “resolute action” by the international community to hold Iran accountable.
“The administration’s focus now is to bring the issue to Security Council and get it to act on it,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst with the Congressional Research Service. “If this doesn’t happen, there are more robust options in certain corridors.”
Critics have portrayed the administration’s standoffish treatment of the world body during the last year as evidence of a far-right ideological stance, while defenders have maintained the issue was a pragamatic one. The new policy appears to reinforce the pragmatic interpretation.
Nonetheless, hawks at the Pentagon are reportedly considering more drastic measures if the diplomatic pressure fails to spur Tehran to halt its nuclear program. Under consideration are contingency plans to take out the nuclear facilities directly, sources said.
For now, however, the administration’s priority is to exert international pressure on Tehran. This strategy stands in stark contrast not only to the administration’s reserved stance toward international treaties in general, but also more pointedly to its unwillingness to have the Security Council deal with Iraq and with the obvious North Korean breach of the non-proliferation treaty. The U.N. atomic agency has called the North Korean violation “egregious” and urged the Security Council to address it. However, the issue has been handled outside the U.N.
Pyongyang decided several months ago to renounce a 1994 framework agreement with the United States to freeze its nuclear program, following its admission that it had a nuclear program underway. It then kicked out atomic agency inspectors and withdrew from the non-proliferation treaty. Late last month, North Korean officials admitted having nuclear weapons during talks with American and Chinese officials in Beijing. That ignited a new round of debate in Washington about how to handle rogue states that already have advanced weapons of mass destruction.
To deal successfully with Tehran, the administration is now hoping that the tensions that surfaced before the Iraq war between Washington and Mohamed el Baradei, the Egyptian head of the IAEA, will be forgotten.
Baradei angered Washington by flatly denying the existence of an Iraqi nuclear program and publicly dismissing as phony the evidence provided to him by Western intelligence about African uranium sales to Baghdad.
While the IAEA decision on Iran will be made by the 35 members of its board of governors — including the five permanent members of the Security Council — Baradei’s assessment is likely to be the key to success.
Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Vienna-base atomic agency, said the board was likely to report on Iran at its June meeting, based on ongoing inspections in Iran and discussions with top Iranian officials. She said the Americans did indeed appear to be intent on pressing for public condemnations and concerted action against Tehran.
Last year, Washington discovered that Iran had two previously unknown facilities that could be used in the production of nuclear weapons. After the news surfaced, Iran acknowledged the program and announced that it was mining its own uranium ore and reprocessing its own nuclear fuel. In theory it would thus be able to have an entirely indigenous capability to produce its own nuclear fuel and weapons.
Iranian President Mohammed Khatami invited Baradei to visit one of the facilities and pledged to submit the facility to inspections and to provide the atomic agency with early design information on any new nuclear plants.
Agency inspectors concluded that Iran was “well advanced” in its ability to produce enriched uranium, the key component in nuclear weapons, through the gas centrifuge process. The agency urged the regime to grant unfettered access to its nuclear facilities.
More specifically, Baradei called Tehran to sign an additional protocol of the non-proliferation treaty allowing unlimited, surprise inspections by international experts of any suspect sites.
So far, Iran has said it would agree to sign the additional protocol only if American trade sanctions were lifted.
Iranian authorities have long maintained that their nuclear program was solely aimed at coping with an increasing demand for electricity and was therefore not a violation of the 1970 non-proliferation treaty to which it is party.
But American officials and leading arms experts have cast doubt on such an argument, claiming that Iran’s oil and gas resources were largely sufficient to provide electricity and that its nuclear program was in fact a military one.
“The IAEA was recently in Iran and their assessment has given additional credence to statements the United States has made,” an American official told the Forward. “This is a concern on the anti-proliferation front.”
Many observers saw Iran’s public admission of the nuclear facilities as replicating North Korea’s strategy to stave off American military intervention by claiming to be on the nuclear threshold.
In any case, the recent developments have prompted Washington to accept Israel’s longstanding assessment that Tehran was likely to manufacture a nuclear device by 2005.
For years, America’s concerns focused on a nuclear facility built in Bushehr with Russian assistance. But Russia and most European countries said they were confident Iran intended to use the facility for civilian purposes.
The revelation of the new facilities has changed the situation and prompted many of those countries to adopt a tougher stance toward Tehran. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, for example, urged Iran to sign the additional protocol during a recent visit to Tehran.