Deconstructing the Iranian challenge

By Joshua Pollack | September 29, 2009

Long-awaited talks between Iran and six major powers (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) start on Thursday, October 1, in Geneva. Bolstered by last week’s revelation of a enrichment facility hidden under a mountain near the Iranian city of Qom, Western officials reportedly will press Iran to commit to the Additional Protocol, an agreement that allows wide-ranging access for international inspectors. Iran faces the threat of new sanctions if an agreement isn’t reached by December, but it’s hard to be optimistic about the outcome.

President Barack Obama has called the secret construction of the Qom facility “a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the nonproliferation regime.” Let’s go even further than that: The upcoming talks are part of a bigger, two-part effort to uphold an embattled international order.

While Iranian officials challenge the legitimacy of the NPT and the Security Council most openly, these sentiments clearly extend further. Indeed, the substance and authority of these ‘two pillars’ of international security are gradually eroding.”

To start with the obvious–the spread of hard-to-detect centrifuge enrichment technology, ably facilitated by the A. Q. Khan network, has undermined one of the core assumptions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT contains no restrictions on the possession of this or any other fuel-cycle technologies by non-nuclear weapons states. But once they are mastered, vacuum centrifuges can be set up at hidden sites (such as the one near Qom), enabling either an illicit weapons program or a quick and perfectly legal “breakout” from the treaty.

The growing recognition of this dilemma lately has sparked a variety of proposals, such as trading away centrifuges for guaranteed fuel supplies; the creation of an international nuclear “fuel bank”; or the creation of regional multinational fuel centers. The United States favors a less ambitious, but still challenging, approach, pledging to “pursue vigorously the universal entry into force of the Additional Protocol” at the NPT Review Conference next May in New York. Expanded inspection rights, Washington hopes, will deter the construction of hidden fuel-cycle facilities, shoring up the NPT.

The second and related challenge is to uphold the U.N. Charter, particularly the authority of the Security Council. Both Iran and North Korea have flatly rejected the legitimacy of a series of Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on them in response to their actions in the nuclear field. The “package of proposals” submitted by Iran as the basis for the Geneva talks is even bolder, calling for the reform of the United Nations and the Security Council. It declares that “existing mechanisms” of international security “are the direct products of relations based on brute power and domination” and must be replaced by “new mechanisms.”

For Iran, the major irritant in the NPT and the Security Council is the inequality common to both arrangements that grants special standing to the same handful of states: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States. These countries are at once the five recognized nuclear weapons states under the NPT and the five veto-bearing permanent members of the Security Council. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad linked these two inequalities in an interview with a German newsmagazine earlier this year: “If a technology is beneficial, everyone should have it. If it is not, no one should have it. Can it be that America has 5,400 nuclear warheads and Germany has none? And that we are not even permitted to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear energy? Our logic is completely clear: equal rights for all. The composition of the Security Council and the veto of its five permanent members are consequences of World War II, which ended 60 years ago. Must the victorious powers dominate mankind for evermore, and must they constitute the world government? The composition of the Security Council must be changed.”

While Iranian officials challenge the legitimacy of the NPT and the Security Council most openly, these sentiments clearly extend further. Indeed, the substance and authority of these “two pillars” of international security are gradually eroding. This trend diminishes the ability of the international community to protect itself from the prospect of regional nuclear arms races and the specter of nuclear terrorism. Nowhere is the problem more apparent than in the failure of most countries to take steps implementing Security Council Resolution 1540, which aims to prevent terrorism with weapons of mass destruction. All countries should be able to agree on this much–yet they do not.

The unspoken context of this disaffection can be traced to several issues, but the most prominent is the process leading up the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain in March 2003. The invasion was justified by Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and preceded by a failed attempt to win a new Security Council resolution authorizing military action. Nothing has been more damaging to the legitimacy of the NPT and the Security Council than the unwillingness of two great powers to be bound by the Security Council’s vote and their subsequent failure to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

This point can be seen clearly in over-skeptical responses to Western claims about the nature of Iran’s secret nuclear activities. By way of illustration, if a centrifuge facility similar to the one in Qom had turned up in Iraq in 2003, few would have questioned that it was intended to make nuclear weapons. But after the invasion of Iraq, presumptions about the burden of proof tend to point in the other direction.

Regardless of the outcome in Geneva, the nonproliferation agenda of the Obama administration and like-minded governments faces a stiff challenge. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons isn’t just a matter of facing down Iran’s negotiators. It’s also a matter of convincing world leaders who are rarely in the headlines that stopping the spread of nuclear weapons isn’t the narrow agenda of a few powerful countries alone, but an elementary common good.

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