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– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
IAEA Unlikely to Refer Iran to Security Council

Paul Kerr

On Nov. 24, following an anticipated report from Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors is set to evaluate Iran’s cooperation with a Sept. 24 resolution that found Tehran in “non-compliance” with its agency safeguards agreement. Although Iran seems unlikely to comply with all of the resolution’s demands, there seems to be little chance that the board will refer the matter to the UN Security Council.

Under the IAEA statute, the board is required to notify the Security Council if a state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is found in noncompliance with its agency safeguards agreement. Such agreements allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military purposes.

However, the September resolution does not specify when or under what circumstances such a referral will take place. Iran violated its safeguards agreement by conducting clandestine work on several nuclear programs and has yet to resolve a number of questions, especially with regard to its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. (See ACT, October 2005.) Uranium enrichment can produce both fuel for civilian nuclear reactors or fissile material for nuclear weapons.

IAEA board decisions are usually made by consensus, but a Department of State official told Arms Control Today Oct. 17 that Washington anticipates that the board would have to vote on any future referral decision because of the contentious nature of the Iran dispute.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph told an academic audience Oct. 21 that, after receiving such a referral, the council could seek to “reinforce” the IAEA’s efforts, perhaps by calling on Iran to cooperate with the agency and giving the IAEA “new, needed authority to investigate all Iranian weaponization efforts.”

Still, a State Department source told Arms Control Today Oct. 28 that Iran will likely avoid Security Council referral at this month’s board meeting by providing the IAEA with “at least superficial cooperation.” The official would not describe the extent of Iran’s cooperation, but Reuters and the Associated Press reported Oct. 20 that Iran gave the IAEA some documents and allowed agency inspectors to interview a government official.

The September resolution calls on Iran to “implement transparency measures,” such as providing IAEA inspectors with procurement documents and access to certain Iranian officials. These steps are not required by Iran’s safeguards agreement, but the agency believes them necessary for developing a complete history of Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Stalled Diplomacy, Possible Compromises

The September resolution also urges Iran to suspend operating its uranium-conversion facility near Isfahan and resume talks with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The two sides had been engaged in negotiations since November 2004 to resolve concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran agreed at that time to suspend operations at the Isfahan facility for the duration of the negotiations, but the talks broke down when Iran restarted the facility in August.

Tehran has said that it is willing to return to the bargaining table but will not suspend the facility’s operation. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Oct. 23 that Iran would continue its nuclear efforts until its “fuel cycle becomes operational.”

Uranium-conversion facilities convert lightly processed uranium ore into several uranium compounds, including uranium hexafluoride, which is the feedstock for gas centrifuges. Iran is permitted to operate uranium-enrichment facilities under IAEA safeguards, but both the United States and the Europeans are concerned that Iranian expertise gained from operating enrichment facilities will support a nuclear weapons program.

The Europeans still want Iran to suspend conversion operations and respond to their August proposal, which laid out incentives aimed at persuading Iran to cease its enrichment program permanently. (See ACT, September 2005.)

But the State Department official told Arms Control Today that the Europeans are now exploring solutions that would allow Tehran to keep a limited uranium-conversion capability, perhaps by permitting Iran to produce some uranium compounds but not uranium hexafluoride.

A Western diplomat asked about this possible compromise said that the Europeans’ formal position is that Iran should give up its nuclear fuel programs. But a “credible” proposal allowing Iran to retain a residual conversion capability would not be “ruled out automatically,” the diplomat admitted.

In an effort to strengthen ongoing multilateral diplomacy, the United States and Europeans have increasingly focused on efforts to persuade Russia, who currently opposes a Security Council referral, to change its position. As a permanent member of that body, Russia can veto any Security Council action. Moscow is also widely believed to have considerable influence on Tehran.

Russia and China—another veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council—abstained from voting for the September resolution. Asked about Chinese opposition to a council referral, the State Department official indicated that U.S. officials believe Beijing would moderate its position if Russia does so.

At a press conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters Oct. 15 that the IAEA should “do everything possible” to resolve concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program before referring the matter to the Security Council. But he also emphasized “the necessity” for Tehran to cooperate with the IAEA.

The United States is encouraging Russia to propose creative solutions to facilitate the Europeans’ diplomacy, although there is no indication that Russia will join the talks.

For example, Moscow has proposed that Iran share ownership of a uranium-enrichment plant located in Russia, the State Department official said. Designed to address Iran’s claim that it cannot rely on outside nuclear fuel suppliers, this proposal could be combined with Moscow’s months-old proposal to enrich Iranian uranium in Russia. It would also satisfy Washington’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, the official added. Lavrov mentioned the joint-ownership proposal to his Iranian counterpart during a recent meeting, and Moscow is awaiting Iran’s reaction.

Washington anticipates that Iran will reject the offer, the State Department official said, but argued that such a decision would demonstrate Iran’s lack of interest in compromise and make Russia more likely to support the U.S. position.

South Africa has also reportedly offered its own compromise that would allow Iran to convert South African uranium to uranium hexafluoride. The gas would then be sent back to the country. South African embassy and foreign ministry officials did not respond to requests for further details.

The Western diplomat, however, said that no country has approached the Europeans with a proposal. In fact, no government is performing an intermediary role between the two sides, the diplomat said.

Iran Adrift?

Tehran’s more aggressive diplomatic stance since Ahmadinejad’s June election has drawn criticism from some prominent Iranian figures, such as former presidential candidate and current head of Iran’s Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who have called for a more moderate approach.

But, whether Iran’s policies will change remains unclear. Iran had shown signs of moderation by its apparent cooperation with the IAEA and its failure to carry out recent threats to resume work on its other enrichment-related facilities. However, Ahmadinejad’s Oct. 26 call for the destruction of Israel provoked widespread international condemnation and cast further doubt on Tehran’s ability and desire to conduct cooperative diplomacy.

Courting the NAM

To try to win greater support for its preferred hard-line position on Iran at the IAEA, Washington has also lately made an effort to reach out to developing countries, such as those belonging to the Nonaligned Movement (NAM).

These efforts, such as a September statement from U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte that emphasized U.S. support for peaceful nuclear energy, are meant to counter Iran’s efforts to gain support among developing countries. Iran has portrayed U.S. and European nuclear diplomacy as an attempt to deny such countries access to peaceful nuclear technology.

NAM countries have generally shown some sympathy to Iran at past board meetings and frequently display an ambivalence regarding nonproliferation efforts in general. Although these governments express concern about the spread of nuclear weapons, they also fault the NPT nuclear-weapon states, such as the United States, for lagging in their disarmament commitments under the treaty.

The State Department official and the Western diplomat differed as to the extent to which Iran’s argument has been effective. Indeed, the September vote tally reflects a degree of disunity within the NAM countries. All told, 22 board members voted for the September resolution, with 12 abstentions and Venezuela casting the only negative vote. Aside from Venezuela, all NAM board members either supported the resolution or abstained from voting. But the board has subsequently added some new members less favorable to the United States: Belarus, Cuba and Syria.

Demonstrating the situation’s complexity, U.S. officials are still lobbying India to support a future Security Council referral. New Delhi voted for the September resolution, but issued a statement later that day which disputed the resolution’s key noncompliance finding.

A source from NAM chair Malaysia told Arms Control Today Oct. 19 that the NAM wants Iran to resolve its outstanding issues with the IAEA but is concerned that removing the issue from the agency at this time would be “counterproductive” and could damage the IAEA’s integrity. However, the source indicated that the NAM could eventually support a Security Council referral if Iran persists in its failure to cooperate fully with the agency.

Apparently referring to Washington’s disregard for UN weapons inspectors’ findings prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the source emphasized that the NAM would base its Iran assessments on reports from the IAEA rather than an “individual country.”


IAEA Iran Vote Tally

Paul Kerr

Below is how the then-members of the IAEA Board of Governors voted on a Sept. 24 resolution that said Iran was in “non-compliance” with its safeguards agreement. The resolution was adopted with 22 board members voting for it, 1 against, and 12 abstaining. Some of the board members have subsequently changed.

For Resolution
Republic of Korea
United Kingdom and
Northern Ireland
United States

Against Resolution

Russian Federation
South Africa
Sri Lanka