via Lobe Log

On 20 August Al-Monitor published a perceptive article about the upcoming Iranian three-year presidency of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM). The authors were Abbas Maleki, who was a deputy foreign minister of Iran for many years, and Kaveh Afrasiabi. One of the authors’ points was that any nuclear “missteps” by Iran would be seen by many of Iran’s NAM partners as a betrayal of trust. This is a shrewd observation.

I was serving in Vienna in 2003 when Iran’s nuclear safeguards violations over several years were reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors. NAM countries, with few exceptions, were not amused. They felt that Iran had let their side down.

This may surprise Western readers who are used to hearing it implied that the NAM is feckless and irresponsible (because it refuses to toe Washington’s line). But that image of the NAM can be misleading. In my experience, most NAM members take seriously their responsibilities as parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and value the moral high ground that compliance with the Treaty’s provisions confers.

Why? Not least because that moral high ground can be used to condemn some of the practices of the three western nuclear weapon states (NWS), which the NAM see as a bad lot: dragging their feet on nuclear disarmament; denying the non-nuclear weapon states the nuclear fuel cycle technology to which the NPT appears to entitle them, provided they place all their nuclear material under safeguards and refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons; and turning a blind eye to the nuclear threat posed by the greatest rogue state (to NAM eyes) in the Middle East: Israel.

So Iran’s three-year leadership of the movement is likely to be two-edged. Should any fresh Iranian non-compliance with its NPT safeguards obligations come to light during this period, the odds are that NAM members will once more put Iran under pressure to correct the failures and come back into compliance with its NPT obligations.

An interesting question is whether NAM members would also be ready, as in 2003, to press Iran to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing-related activities and to re-apply the IAEA’s additional protocol (providing enhanced assurances as to nuclear material remaining in non-weapons use).

On the one hand, NAM members are likely to take a second betrayal of trust by Iran even more badly than the first, given Iran’s representational role as leader of the movement, and given the frequency with which Iran has assured NAM partners that its nuclear activities are blameless and that it is the victim of a vendetta.

On the other hand, the NAM view of the three western NWS is even darker than it was in 2003. NAM members did not appreciate the 2004 Bush administration’s proposal to divide the nuclear world into “haves” and “have nots”, nor a consequent tightening of the guidelines observed by members of the nuclear suppliers group. All but India and its closest friends disliked the same US administration’s decision to make nuclear technology available to one of only three states that have refused to adhere to the NPT: India.

Many NAM members consider the sanctioning of Iran by the UN Security Council, at western NWS instigation, to have been disproportionate to Iran’s pre-2003 safeguards failures, and therefore unjust. They note only modest NWS movement towards nuclear disarmament (though the Obama administration’s record is a big improvement on the back-sliding of the Bush administration). They also deplore continuing Israeli refusal to countenance proposals for a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone, which would complement such zones covering Latin America, Africa and much of the Asia/Pacific region.

Moreover, the battle between the West’s candidate to succeed Mohamed ElBaradei as director general of the IAEA and the NAM candidate was bitter and divisive, and won by the West’s candidate.

This is a long list. Nonetheless, my hunch is that NAM members would want to give Iran a hard time if credible evidence of current (not pre-dating 2003) non-compliance were to be laid before the IAEA board by a credible IAEA member state (not Israel, the political leadership of which is seen as unscrupulous, and possibly not the US, UK and France, none of whose reputations for integrity have prospered in recent years).

So fate may be handing the West the best opportunity in years to achieve renewed Iranian suspension and reapplication of the additional protocol. There’s a twist, though.

The trigger for NAM pressure on Iran would be credible evidence of a second Iranian betrayal of NAM trust. That same second betrayal of trust would deepen Iran’s confidence deficit with the rest of the world and would increase the number of Westerners – including me, I suspect – who would be convinced that Iran cannot be left in possession of enrichment technology, even with the best guarantees in place against diversion of nuclear material. A long-term settlement based on the NPT, at the end of a suspension during which the IAEA completes its additional protocol investigations, would probably turn out to be as elusive as ever. We still would not be out of the thickets into which the Islamic Republic’s insecurity has driven us.