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For the past few years, Iran has been testing the resolve of the international community on the issue of its nuclear research program. Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (N.P.T.), argues that it reserves the right to control the nuclear fuel cycle. Tehran states that control over the cycle is important for Iran's development of nuclear energy. Indeed, according to the N.P.T., a state does reserve the right to control the nuclear fuel cycle, including the process of enrichment. The sticking point is that the process of enriching nuclear fuel is controversial because while enrichment is necessary to create nuclear energy, the enrichment process, if enhanced, can also be used to produce weapons-grade material to create nuclear weapons.
On September 24, the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) passed a resolution stating that "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations [under the N.P.T.] ... constitute noncompliance." The resolution calls for Iran to end the conversion of uranium and to answer more questions about its past nuclear activities. Failure to comply with these demands could result in Iran's nuclear case being brought before the U.N. Security Council, an action that could result in economic and military sanctions being placed on the Persian state.Background to the Current Crisis
Certain members of the international community, led by the United States, for years have feared that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its nuclear energy program. In the past, Iran has admitted to keeping aspects of its nuclear research program secret from the international community, and there is the possibility that there are still aspects of the program that remain hidden from international inspectors. Since the start of the current crisis, the I.A.E.A. has been trying to ascertain whether Iran's failure to disclose certain parts of its nuclear research program constitutes a violation of the N.P.T.
The United States and its allies want to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons because such a development would give Iran more power in the Middle East. A country with nuclear weapons has more foreign policy leverage since it becomes more costly to threaten a nuclear power with military action. It would limit the ability of the United States -- or any other power in the region -- to take military action against Iran, since any such action could result in Tehran retaliating with nuclear weapons. [See: "Why States Seek to Acquire Nuclear Weapons
If Iran were able to add nuclear weapons to its threat arsenal, it would also be better able to assert itself in the region, possibly to the detriment of regional stability and, therefore, to U.S. and Western interests. Regional instability can create uncertainty over the global supply of energy, a concern that was an important factor in the Bush administration's decision to push Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991, and played a factor in the current Bush administration's decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad.
Furthermore, Israel, which is the major U.S. ally in the Middle East, views a nuclear-armed Iran as a major security threat. Iran is the main sponsor of the Islamic group Hezbollah, an organization that was responsible for bearing the brunt of the resistance against the Israeli invasion and subsequent occupation of Lebanon and is still responsible for occasional attacks against Israeli interests today. Israel worries that if Iran were able to acquire nuclear weapons, it would be able to spread its influence better in the Middle East to the detriment of Israel's security situation. Israel remains the only Middle Eastern state that possesses nuclear weapons, and by losing its monopoly in nuclear arms, it would also lose some of its ability to influence Middle Eastern affairs. [See: "Can Israel Maintain its Nuclear Superiority in the Middle East?"]
The United States has been very clear in its accusations that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons covertly. On September 21, for instance, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said at a daily briefing that Iran needs to "stop pursuing a nuclear weapons program under the guise of a civilian nuclear program."
Nevertheless, the United States does not consider military action against Iran a viable option under the present circumstances. For instance, the ongoing insurgency in Iraq has resulted in the overextension of the U.S. military; many of Iran's nuclear facilities are believed to be hidden, making it difficult to eliminate its nuclear research program through air strikes; and, the skyrocketing price of oil is weakening the economies of oil-dependent countries, and any military move on Iran would add more instability to energy supplies, thus lifting oil prices even higher.
Because of these restraints, the United States has pursued a policy of isolating Iran from the international community with the hopes that this pressure will cause Iran to abandon its drive to control the nuclear fuel cycle. Iran has extensive relations with the international community, and the Bush administration thinks that this is the country's vulnerable point. [See: "Washington's Iran Strategy: Ostracizing Tehran from the International Community"]
This explains why Washington has been careful not to be perceived as the primary party taking a hard line with Iran, as can be seen in U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent statement about the E.U.-3's role: "We are not trying to be in the lead on this one because it's the E.U. that they [Iran] walked out on. Remember that our strategy has been that the European Union offered to engage them in these talks."
The administration's strategy has been to lobby the E.U.'s three most influential states -- the United Kingdom, France and Germany (the E.U.-3) -- to pursue Washington's hard line with Iran. On September 19, Rice explained this strategy in an interview with Time Magazine. Rice said, "Ultimately, I don't believe the Iranians can afford to be completely isolated from the international community. ... This is a very worldly population that is accustomed to being a part of the international economy, international politics. I don't think Iran wants to get that isolated. And I think it's one reason that they have been so anxious to avoid referral to the Security Council."
Rice's statements do explain why Tehran has attempted to engineer a foreign policy that does not relinquish its right to control the nuclear fuel cycle but also does not permanently damage relations with its major trading partners, such as certain states in the European Union; Iran depends on European states economically and a loss of trading relations with the bloc would have a negative impact on the Iranian economy.
Therefore, in the past, Tehran has retreated from its bold nuclear rhetoric in order to prevent the E.U.-3 from moving closer to Washington's policy line on Iran. For instance, on October 21, 2003, the E.U.-3 convinced Iran to place an extra protocol on its signed copy of the N.P.T.; the protocol allowed for more intrusive inspections by the I.A.E.A. and placed into effect a temporary halt on all uranium enrichment activities inside Iran.
Nevertheless, after this agreement was established, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi made a statement highlighting Iran's motivations behind complying with the European demands: "We suspended uranium enrichment voluntarily and temporarily. Later, when our relations with the I.A.E.A. return to normal, we will definitely resume enrichment." Early in 2004, Kharrazi continued to pursue this policy line, arguing that "it's our legitimate right to enrich uranium."
Yet, the next crisis occurred in late 2004. During this crisis, once the point came where Iran would lose the support of the E.U.-3, Tehran announced on November 14 that it would fully suspend all uranium enrichment-related activities.
Throughout these crises, the E.U.-3 had been hesitant to take Washington's suggested hard line on Iran, which involved referring it to the U.N. Security Council for a vote on possible sanctions. The E.U.-3 attempted to work with Iran to offer it political and economic incentives in return for its commitment to not control the nuclear fuel cycle. The main goal of this policy was to provide Iran with the necessary enriched nuclear fuel so that it could pursue a nuclear energy program, yet not allow it to control the entire fuel cycle, thus removing the possibility that Tehran could seek to create nuclear weapons at a later stage through its own indigenous uranium enrichment program.
However, Iran was unwilling to accept this deal, calling its right to control the nuclear fuel cycle a matter of national pride and security. Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani said that "pressuring a country like this is resisting a country's national pride." In response to the E.U.-3's offer of providing Iran with nuclear fuel, Larijani argued, "There is no international guarantee that governments would provide us with nuclear fuel. We cannot lay the fate of this nation in the hands of other governments."
Therefore, the E.U.-3 began to move more toward Washington's current policy on Iran, and on September 24 pushed a resolution through the I.A.E.A. board that could result in Iran being referred to the Security Council.The September 24 Resolution
In the days before the September 24 resolution, the E.U.-3 hesitated over their proposed draft since Russia and China -- two countries that have veto rights on the U.N. Security Council -- reacted negatively to the draft motion, implying that such a resolution could result in a veto. A veto of this resolution by Russia or China in the Security Council could create a diplomatic row with the two Asian states on one side, and the E.U. and the U.S. on the other; this is a development that most countries involved want to avoid.
Indeed, while the E.U.-3 did decide to approve a resolution that could refer Iran to the Security Council, it was watered down from what the U.S. had initially hoped. Any threat of sanctions was removed from the resolution, although sanctions still would be a possibility if the issue makes it to the Security Council and it votes to sanction Iran for violating the N.P.T. Furthermore, the resolution did not outline a time frame when Iran would be put before the Security Council but instead said that such a referral could occur if Iran does not cease uranium conversion and if it fails to answer additional questions on its nuclear research program.
The resolution also showed how the international community is divided over referring Iran to the Security Council. The resolution passed with 22 votes in favor, one vote against, and twelve abstentions. In the past 20 years, there have only been two instances where the I.A.E.A. board has not passed a resolution by consensus. Both Russia and China abstained from the vote.
After the vote, members of the E.U.-3 stressed that Iran still had ways to avoid being referred to the Security Council. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said, "This resolution shows the international community's concern about Iran's non-cooperation regarding the non-proliferation rules. At the same time, the text keeps open the possibility of negotiations which we must take advantage of, without delay, in order to put forward proposals which could re-establish trust." The U.K., which usually toes the closest to the U.S., said that, "Iran has an opportunity now to address the clear concerns of the I.A.E.A., and the lack of confidence in Iran's nuclear intentions."
But the statements, and the resolution, did not proceed much further. While the resolution worked to the Bush administration's advantage, it still gives Tehran time to maneuver away from having any punitive measures placed upon it. Russian and Chinese Resistance
Despite not voting against the I.A.E.A. resolution, Russia and China have reservations about bringing Iran before the Security Council. On September 21 in a speech in San Francisco, RIA Novosti reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "While Iran is cooperating with the I.A.E.A., while it is not enriching uranium and observing a moratorium, while I.A.E.A. inspectors are working in the country, it would be counter-productive to report this question to the U.N. Security Council." Lavrov continued, "It will lead to an unnecessary politicizing of the situation. Iran is not violating its obligations and its actions do not threaten the non-proliferation regime."
Moscow refuses to state that Iran has violated the N.P.T., saying instead that the country is still abiding by the treaty. Washington argues that because of Iran's decision to keep aspects of its nuclear research program secret, it has undercut the principles of the N.P.T. which act as a violation
In a sign that Russia may be willing to veto any Security Council resolution punishing Iran, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement that "it will not contribute to the search for a solution to the Iranian problem by political and diplomatic methods."
The statements made by Lavrov and the Foreign Ministry display Moscow's unwillingness to support tougher action on Iran. Indeed, for Moscow, E.U.-3 and U.S. action against an important trading partner and a country that resists U.S. influence in the Middle East is just another sign of Moscow's weakening international influence. Combined U.S. and E.U. efforts in Moscow's near abroad have led to its loss of influence in Eastern Europe and, at least temporarily, in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moscow has been struggling to reassert itself after the devastating collapse of the Soviet Union, and so far it has not been very successful.
Russia also is the party responsible for being the primary supporter of Iran's nuclear research program. Moscow is building the US$1 billion nuclear reactor at Bushehr, and has provided Iran with much of its nuclear knowledge. If the Bushehr reactor goes operational, it can be expected that Moscow will assist Tehran in the creation of more nuclear power plants, offering Russia a lucrative economic future in the field of nuclear energy. Moscow also provides Tehran with the bulk of its military equipment -- such as MiG-29 fighter aircraft, Su-24 fighter bombers, T-72 tanks, and Kilo-class attack submarines -- making it a major contributor to Iran's growth as a regional power.
The Chinese, on the other hand, also warned against taking Iran's nuclear issue before the Security Council. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing reportedly told an E.U. grouping, led by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, that bringing Iran before the Security Council "could encourage Iran to take extreme measures" and would, therefore, be counter-productive.
China has its motives for preventing a condemning resolution. China, for instance, has seen a dramatic increase in energy demand due to its rapid economic development. In order to find new energy resources, it has looked to countries near its borders that still have reserves to be exploited. Since Iran does not share economic relations with the United States due to U.S. sanctions on the country that stem from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beijing has been able to foster new energy ties with the country. About 15 percent of China's imported oil and natural gas comes from Iran, and U.S. attempts to destabilize Iran would pose a threat to China's energy and economic interests.
China, too, is wary of attempts by the U.S. to weaken countries such as Iran, since Beijing fears that Washington will take future actions aimed at containing China's rise as a major power in Asia. For instance, in an example that displays the Bush administration's views on China, on September 21 U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick argued that China's "actions on Iran's nuclear program will reveal the seriousness of China's commitment to non-proliferation." This statement can be read that China's continued support for Iran on this issue demonstrates its willingness to take actions counter to U.S. interests, explaining the U.S. rationale for containing China.
Furthermore, China and Russia have been improving their bilateral relations and have been cooperating in order to limit the spread of U.S. influence in Central Asia. Both countries are working together to increase the cohesion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.), and have caused the S.C.O. to release a statement calling for the withdrawal of the U.S. military from its member states. [See: "The Significance of Sino-Russian Military Exercises"]
The resistance by China and Russia played a role on the E.U.-3's final proposed resolution; while the resolution passed did affect Iran's interests negatively, it did not result in any immediate action on Iran, giving Tehran once again more time to avoid being the victim of any substantial international action against it.
Nevertheless, Russia and China still abstained from voting on the resolution. While the two states were not willing to vote against the resolution, questions remain on whether they would be willing to issue a veto if a future resolution that threatens sanctions comes before the Security Council.
Despite their resistance to U.S. and E.U.-3 efforts on Iran, it cannot be said that Russia and China would welcome Iran becoming a nuclear power; both countries may be interested in placing restraints on Iran's nuclear development. Nevertheless, it appears that an Iran with nuclear weapons is not as much of a concern to Russia and China than is the ability of the United States and the E.U.-3 to refer Iran to the Security Council and to place economic and military sanctions on the country.How Iran Might Proceed
Before the September 24 vote, Larijani said that it was unfortunate that "countries with economic ties with Iran, particularly in the petroleum area, have so far not defended Iran's rights." This tact taken by Iran was an effort to threaten with economic repercussions those countries that are supporting U.S. policy on Iran. Iran is the second largest oil exporting country in O.P.E.C., and has the ability to cancel billions of dollars in contracts with European energy companies. It also possesses the world's largest gas reserves. Larijani explained this threat, stating, "Some countries with economic interests especially in oil do not show any feelings of responsibility the [Supreme National Security Council] is determined to create a balance and provide the ground for their participation [in energy projects] accordingly."
Billions of dollars in contracts are on the line, with companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Repsol of Spain and Total of France facing a major loss of business. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was even more succinct on his country's economic threats, telling the Iranian parliament that "economic ties are not irrelevant to political ties" especially with "hostile" countries that "fail to recognize Iran's legitimate rights" under the N.P.T. For instance, China, Russia and India also have major energy contracts out with Iran, and those countries have shown no interest in jeopardizing such contracts due to questions over Iran's controversial nuclear program.
For instance, in early 2005 India and Iran signed off on plans to construct a 1,609-kilometer (1,000 miles) natural gas pipeline from the Iranian port of Assaluyeh to the Indian state of Rajasthan, traversing Pakistan; additionally, in 2004, Iran signed a 30-year, US$70 billion liquefied natural gas deal with China's Sinopec.
That being said, India did vote in favor of the I.A.E.A. resolution due to its hope of acquiring more nuclear technology from the United States. In July 2005, India and the U.S. signed a nuclear deal that granted New Delhi access to civilian nuclear energy cooperation; however, the U.S. Congress has not yet approved the entire deal. New Delhi was concerned that Washington was hinging future nuclear support on India's vote for the resolution condemning Iran. However, because India was not behind drafting the resolution, and has shown little outspoken regard for punishing Iran due to its nuclear program, Tehran views India in a different light as it does the U.S. and the E.U.-3. [See: "The Implications of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership"]
Therefore, behind these threats, Tehran's hope is that major European energy companies will lobby their governments and ask for a less confrontational foreign policy when it comes to dealing with Tehran. It will be important to note whether Iran proceeds with executing its economic threats now that the E.U.-3 has pushed through a resolution that threatens Iran with referral to the Security Council.Conclusion
The three-year posturing between Iran and the United States is moving closer toward confrontation. The U.S. has been able to convince the E.U.-3 to put more pressure on Iran to abandon its desire to control the nuclear fuel cycle. However, as expected, both Russia and China have increased their resistance to attempts by the E.U.-3 and the U.S. to place Iran before the Council. Nevertheless, the U.S. and the E.U.-3 have managed to push the I.A.E.A. board to pass a resolution that threatens to refer Iran to the Security Council if it does not pursue a series of measures to explain its nuclear activities.
Before the I.A.E.A. vote, Iran tried to demonstrate to the E.U.-3 that it will not abandon its wish to control the nuclear fuel cycle, even though this could damage economic and political relations with the European bloc. Tehran was betting that resistance by Moscow and Beijing to the joint U.S.-E.U.-3 maneuvers would soften the E.U.-3's line and give Iran the ability to continue its nuclear research program. While a softer resolution was passed, it still damages Iran's interests since the resolution demands that Iran end the conversion of uranium and demands that it answer more questions about its nuclear research program; failure to comply with these demands could result in it being referred to the Security Council.
It is important now for Iran to keep Russia and China on its side. If Iran does eventually get referred to the Security Council, it will need one of those two countries to veto any resolution that calls for sanctions. However, any such veto would create an international crisis and there is little doubt that both Russia and China want to avoid this development. It can be assumed that they will now put pressure on Iran to make its nuclear efforts look innocuous and to prevent a major escalation of rhetoric with the U.S. and the E.U.-3.
The United States, on the other hand, will have to continue to pressure the international community to resist Iran's wish to control the nuclear fuel cycle. With the intervention in Iraq draining U.S. resources, Washington is not in a position to begin a new front across the border in Iran, even if that only involves executing air strikes on Iran's suspected nuclear facilities. With the price of oil seeing record highs, the United States and the E.U.-3 cannot afford to pursue any action that could result in uncertainty over oil supplies since that would push the price of oil even higher, threatening a recession in oil-dependent countries. Indeed, this concern could also affect how willing the U.S. and the E.U.-3 will be eventually to implement sanctions on Iran, since this, too, would create concern in the market.
Additionally, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq continues to hinder the United States' credibility on the international scene, and an attack against a country that does not have a proven nuclear weapons program would not be welcomed in the international community and could further erode Washington's ability to pursue an effective, multilateral foreign policy.