via Lobe Log

When two or more aficionados of the Iranian nuclear controversy are gathered together, the conversation will turn at some point to whether opportunities for resolving the issue peacefully have been missed.

Some see a missed opportunity in the first George W. Bush administration’s refusal to countenance an Iranian negotiating proposal transmitted by Switzerland in May 2003. Others lament the inability of France, Germany and the United Kingdom to accept the limited resumption of uranium enrichment in Iran, in 2005, in return for a range of confidence-building measures and safeguards against the diversion of nuclear material to military purposes.

I regret that it occurred to no one in the autumn of 2003 to link Iran’s voluntary suspension of work on the development of an enrichment capacity to completion of International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) verification under the Additional Protocol, a voluntary but advanced nuclear safeguards standard introduced in the mid-1990s.

On 16 October 2003, the then Director General of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, flew to Tehran to discuss with the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, the contours of a deal with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK. The proposal, in essence, was that if Iran suspended its nuclear fuel cycle activities, allowed IAEA inspectors the access and cooperation envisaged in the Additional Protocol, and entered into talks with the three European powers (the E3) about the future of its nuclear programme, the E3 would ensure that the IAEA board of governors refrained both from declaring that Iran had been in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations and from reporting that non-compliance to the United Nations Security Council, where the Bush administration was waiting to pounce like a tiger on its prey.

The flaw in the agreement with the E3, as discovered five days later, was the absence of timelines. The Iranians were reluctant to commit themselves to suspension for a particular length of time, because they were hoping to resume the development of an enrichment capacity as soon as the risk of a referral to the Security Council had passed. The E3 were reluctant to press Iran to make such a commitment because they wanted Iran’s suspension to last indefinitely. And the IAEA, if asked, would have declined to say how many years would be needed to complete Additional Protocol verification, because they were conscious of many uncertainties.

Yet had Dr. ElBaradei tried and succeeded in persuading a vulnerable Iran to maintain its voluntary suspension until the completion of Additional Protocol verification, the risk of another war in the Gulf, which the world faces today, would be far less acute.

At the conclusion of an Additional Protocol investigation the IAEA secretariat reports to the board of governors that it is in a position to provide a credible assurance about “the absence of undeclared nuclear activities or material” in the country in question. Had these words been pronounced in relation to Iran at any time since 2003, even the most hawkish of Western adversaries would have found it hard to argue that Iran’s nuclear activities posed a threat to international peace and had to be curtailed. Instead, Iran renounced suspension after two years; the E3 retaliated by engineering a non-compliance report to the Security Council; Iran counter-retaliated by ceasing to allow the IAEA to undertake Additional Protocol verification; the IAEA secretariat has had no option since but to report that it is not in a position to provide Protocol non-proliferation assurances; an alleged proliferation threat has been used to justify a steady multiplication of sanctions; and demands for an (unlawful) act of aggression to destroy Iran’s nuclear plants have grown ever more frequent.

All this begs two questions: why did Iran cease applying the Additional Protocol in 2006 and why have they not voluntarily reapplied it since? Nothing forced Iran to reduce cooperation with the IAEA to the legal minimum in 2006. They could have resumed enrichment work but continued to grant Protocol access. And since 2006 they could have wrong-footed their adversaries by reapplying the Protocol and winning the best guarantee the IAEA can give: “no undeclared nuclear activities or material”.

I don’t know the answers. It’s a puzzle. Is this simply a case of reluctance to lose face by reversing an unwise decision? Are the Iranians worried that granting Protocol access would enable the IAEA to discover undeclared activities and/or material, aggravating Iran’s Security Council predicament? Has Iran lost all confidence in the impartiality and professionalism of the IAEA secretariat, which was accused last year of taking instructions from Iran’s Western adversaries?

One thing, however, is certain: if Iran wants to put an end to repeated Western calls for it to prove that its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful, reapplying the Additional Protocol is the solution. The one and only proof of a peaceful programme that the non-proliferation community cannot contest are the assurances that can result from the IAEA’s Protocol investigations: “no undeclared nuclear activities or material”. Those words are the key to demonstrating to the world that there is no nuclear proliferation justification for sanctioning Iran or threatening her with devastation.