Iran and the EU3: Stick it Out
Author: Aldo Zammit Borda
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 10/20/2005
The Agreement of November 2004 between France, Germany and the United Kingdom, with the support of the High Representative of the European Union (EU3) on the one hand and Iran on the other, stated that Iran’s voluntary suspension of its enrichment and reprocessing activities was an essential condition for negotiations on a longer term agreement to proceed (2).
The EU3’s insistence on making this suspension permanent and Iran’s determination to produce at least part of its nuclear fuel cycle caused talks to reach a deadlock already in early 2005.
Iran’s suspicions that the EU3 were trying to transform this temporary suspension into a de facto permanent suspension by dragging out the talks, led them to repeatedly threaten resuming nuclear activities unless new proposals were tabled. The EU3 thus submitted new proposals in August 2005 which, however, were rejected by Iran.
Though these proposals were not made public, Iran cited, inter alia, the permanent suspension of enrichment activities as the reason for rejecting them.
Consequently, on 8 August 2005, Iran unilaterally resumed nuclear activities at its uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, including in areas previously sealed-off by the IAEA, in spite of calls by the EU3 to restore the suspension (3).
This persuaded the Governments of France, Germany and the UK to table and vote in favour of a tough IAEA Board of Governors resolution on 24 September 2005, which threatened to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, unless the country took certain confidence building measures, such as re-establishing the full and sustained suspension of all its enrichment and reprocessing activities (4).
Could the talks be revived?
Iran’s temporary and voluntary suspension of all enrichment and reprocessing activities was an essential condition of the November 2004 Agreement. In return, the EU3 undertook not to support Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council.
Iran’s resumption of nuclear activities and the EU3’s vote in favour of threatening referral have therefore been viewed as marking the dissolution of the November 2004 Agreement and the breakdown of EU3 – Iran talks.
It could be argued that the deadlock in talks, which was reached in early 2005, was never truly surmounted and the current situation was inevitable, given that both sides were unwilling to make concessions.
However, as the Director General of the IAEA Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei observed, there is still room for diplomacy (5). The intervening period between now and 24 November 2005, when the IAEA Board of Governors is scheduled to reconvene, provides a ‘window of opportunity’ for negotiation and diplomacy. Both sides must however be prepared to make concessions.
This window should be seized by both parties because such talks provide the forum for constructive engagement and the chance to clarify concerns and motivations, which are important preconditions for longer term cooperation to develop.
Moreover, referral to the UN Security Council at this stage would not be in the EU3’s interest.
Not in the EU3’s interest
With the international community still divided over the question of Iran’s nuclear intentions and without strong evidence of Iran’s illicit intentions, referral to the UN Security Council at this stage could only have limited results. These divisions are evidenced by the IAEA resolution of 24 September 2005, which was adopted by vote rather than consensus, with twenty-two votes in favour, one against and twelve abstentions.
China and Russia, both veto-holding members of the Security Council, were two of the countries which remained unconvinced of Iran’s illicit intentions. They both opposed the above resolution and abstained (6).
Russia and Iran moreover continued to cooperate closely on Iran’s nuclear energy programme and an agreement for the supply of fuel for the Bushehr nuclear reactor was concluded as recently as February 2005.
It is unlikely, therefore, that a Security Council resolution on the Iranian nuclear issue would gain the backing of China and/or Russia in the absence of strong evidence of Iran’s illicit intentions. And either country could veto such a resolution, if it remained unconvinced that Iran posed a threat to international peace and security.
Moreover, the very existence of widespread divergences within the international community over Iran could have the effect of diffusing the efficacy of any international action, such as sanctions, taken against the country.
Indeed, it is conceivable that the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council, in the absence of strong evidence of Iran’s illicit intentions, would be counterproductive, serving to antagonize Iran against the West (both the US and the EU) and to redouble Tehran’s determination to pursue a nuclear energy programme.
By supporting Iran’s referral to the Security Council, the EU3 would thus jeopardise hard-gained bargaining power with Iran and dim prospects of developing a long-term cooperation agreement between the countries.
Indeed, by supporting Iran’s referral to the Security Council, the EU would effectively be conceding its ineptness as a non-proliferation actor on the international scene. It was in fact the EU3 that insisted on pursuing negotiations with Iran, in spite of the US’s requests to refer the country to the Security Council already in September 2003.
Critics of the EU3 – Iran talks argued that, through these negotiations, Iran was merely buying time to develop its nuclear capabilities further. By supporting Iran’s referral to the Security Council now, the EU3 would be conceding that these criticisms were not unfounded.
The following section briefly looks into the main sticking-point of the EU3 – Iran talks.
The main sticking-point – “objective guarantees”
The ultimate aim of the EU3 – Iran negotiations was to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. Both sides ostensibly agreed with this aim. What they disagreed on is how to achieve it. The November 2004 Agreement provided that: “The [long term] agreement will provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes” (7).
The deadlock in talks was reached mainly due to diverging interpretations of what these “objective guarantees” should be.
EU3 officials adopted a narrow views and argued that the only “objective guarantee” of the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program is “the effective cessation of all activities leading to the production of nuclear materials (i.e. enrichment, reprocessing and heavy water technologies)” (8).
Iranian officials, on the other hand, adopted a broader view and argued that Tehran was ready to “present everything necessary to prove that [it] will not produce an atomic bomb” (9). But Iran remained determined not to give up its right to peaceful nuclear technology and to continue producing at least part of its nuclear fuel (10).
The EU3’s insistence on a permanent cessation must be seen in the light of Iran’s past concealment and lack of transparency, which created a “confidence deficit” (11). Iran’s repeated statements that its nuclear programme was solely for peaceful purposes has provided little reassurance to the West.
Nevertheless, at the 49th Regular Session of the 2005 IAEA General Conference, the Director General stated that: “Since October 2003…Iran has made good progress in correcting its past breaches and the Agency has been able to verify certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme” (12). While the Director General recalled Iran’s past failures on a number of occasions, he observed that “Iran continues to fulfil its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol by providing timely access to nuclear material, facilities and other locations” (13).
Moreover, in August 2005, a scientific inquiry revealed that the traces of enriched uranium on centrifuge parts, which had been considered by the West to constitute strong evidence that Iran was undertaking a secret uranium enrichment programme, had in fact been imported from Pakistan (14).
In view of the conciliatory steps taken by Iran in the recent past, as reported by the IAEA Director General and in view of the lack of strong evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, this article proposes an alternative way forward in lieu of Security Council referral.
A way forward
By continuing to press for a permanent suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities, the EU3 risk not seeing the wood for the trees. Their ultimate goal is to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and not to prohibit the country from developing legitimate nuclear energy.
For this reason and in view of Iran’s conciliatory efforts as described by the IAEA Director General, both sides must be prepared to make concessions. The EU3 should shift their focus from pressing for a permanent suspension of enrichment activities to pressing for Iran’s speedy ratification of the Additional Protocol and full cooperation with the IAEA verification mechanism.
The Additional Protocol requires a state to provide the IAEA with broader information covering all aspects of its nuclear fuel cycle-related activities, including research and development and uranium mining. States must also grant the Agency broader and more intrusive access rights and enable it to use the most advanced verification technologies.
With wider access, broader information and better use of technology, the Agency’s capability to detect and deter undeclared nuclear material or activities is significantly improved. If Iran’s assurances that it has no intention to develop a nuclear weapon are sincere, it should have no problem with speedily ratifying the Additional Protocol and allowing more intrusive inspections on both declared and undeclared nuclear-related facilities on its territory.
Though Iran signed the Additional Protocol on 18 December 2003 and pledged to implement it voluntarily, pending ratification, it has not ratified it yet. Ratification is necessary in order to bestow legal certainty onto the intrusive verification regime.
Such ratification is by no means straightforward. In order for the Protocol to formally come into effect, it must be ratified by the Iranian Majlis (Parliament), where some influential conservatives have vowed to oppose it (15). The signing of the Protocol has been criticized, especially in the conservative media, as a capitulation to Western pressure and an infringement of Iran’s national sovereignty. Its ratification is therefore by no means certain and, though Iran has agreed to implement the Protocol voluntarily, such voluntary implementation carries little legal certainty.
Indeed, following the adoption of the tough IAEA resolution of 24 September 2005, Iran’s first reaction was to threaten stopping the voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol, if it was referred to the Security Council (16).
Though an international agreement to permanently suspend enrichment and reprocessing activities would undoubtedly raise the costs for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, Iran could, if it were determined to do so, obtain proliferation material on the black market and go underground (17).
Even if Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities permanently, therefore, the EU3 would still depend on intrusive inspections to detect any underground activities. For this reason, securing the IAEA’s right to carry out intrusive verification activities by ensuring that Iran ratifies the Additional Protocol should be a priority.
Iran’s ratification of the Additional Protocol would serve to confer legal certainty on the intrusive inspections regime and, even if there was a change in policy or government, Iran would no longer be entitled to revoke such inspections without breaching its international obligations.
In parallel with talks on ratification, the EU3 should give full effect to the second pillar of their “EU Strategy against proliferation of WMDs” (EU WMD Strategy) (18), namely, constructive engagement.
Chapter 2 of this Strategy recognises that the EU’s dialogue with the countries concerned should take account of the fact that in many cases such countries have real and legitimate security concerns, with the clear understanding that there can never be any justification for the proliferation of WMD.
The EU WMD Strategy thus puts forward a two-tiered approach of addressing the immediate security concerns in the short term while dealing with their underlying causes in the longer term.
The EU3 should continue to implement this two-tiered approach with Iran as these talks provide the forum for constructive engagement and the chance to clarify concerns and motivations, which are important preconditions for longer term cooperation to develop.
The EU has vast experience in negotiating long term cooperation agreements with third countries and is well aware of the fruitful role such agreements play in building mutual trust. Given the EU’s involvement in the Middle East and Iran’s important strategic role in this region, the EU3 should embrace the opportunity of pursuing talks with Iran, with a view to eventually reaching a long term agreement with an important player in the region.
Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council at the IAEA Board meeting of 24 November 2005 would at best have limited results and may be counterproductive. The EU3 should instead seize the window of opportunity between now and 24 November 2005 to revive EU3 – Iran talks over the nuclear issue.
With the international community still very much divided over Iran’s intentions and, in particular, China and Russia’s opposition to a UN Security Council referral, such a move would not be advisable at this stage.
The EU3 should instead focus on ensuring Iran speedily ratifies the IAEA Additional Protocol and should continue engaging constructively with the country.
Iran’s speedy ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol would bestow legal certainty on the intrusive inspections regime in Iran. This would allow the IAEA to continually monitor and verify nuclear activities in Iran, both at declared and undeclared sites.
Should such inspections uncover evidence of illicit activities, or should inspectors be significantly disrupted in their work, Iran would be in breach of its international obligations and the international community would be more likely to unite and exert pressure on the country. In such a case, the threat of a UN Security Council referral would be more credible and effective.
In parallel with talks on ratification of the Additional Protocol, the EU3 should continue to implement the approach outlined by the EU WMD Strategy of addressing the immediate security concerns while dealing with their underlying causes. Such talks would provide the forum for constructive engagement between the EU3 and Iran and the chance to clarify concerns and motivations, which are important preconditions for longer term cooperation to develop.
The period between now and 24 November 2005 gives both parties the renewed opportunity of either reviving diplomacy or further polarizing their positions. Both must however be ready to make concessions.
Bio: The author, Aldo Zammit Borda, read law at the University of Malta. His doctorate thesis was entitled “The Threat and Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons under International Law”. He subsequently pursued scholarship studies at the Dublin European Institute (a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence), where his dissertation was entitled “Meeting the Proliferation Challenge: The EU WMD Strategy”. The author may be contacted at: email@example.com