Boomeranging Sanctions on Iran

The Bush Administration now has Iran sanctions to brandish, but the resolution is pragmatically irrelevant, undermines U.S. interests and represents a liability for the UN and the Security Council.

The UN Security Council resolution to sanction Iran certainly is the foreign-policy coup for the Bush Administration it has been trumpeted to be-at least in the narrowest sense and in the short term. But it also undermines U.S. interests and is a liability for the United Nations and its fragile credibility.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, some ideologues charged that the United Nations consigns itself to irrelevance by failing to cooperate with and harness the clout of the world's only superpower. But America's continuing bleeding in Iraq has attenuated that argument by graphically demonstrating the potential cost of acting virtually alone and without legitimacy. The superpower, therefore, has its own interest in harnessing the cooperation of the Security Council and key allies-something it achieved, at least nominally, with the Iran sanctions. But what the United Nations, including the Security Council, needs to bolster its own credibility is a demonstrated independence from the United States-a phenomenon underappreciated within the confines of the Beltway.

The United Nations therefore should toe closely to the rule of law and act with consistency. By approving the sanctions on Iran, the Security Council has failed in this regard, and the resolution will surely prove counterproductive.

A Paper Treaty?

The Non-Proliferation Treaty is clear in the rights and obligations of its signatories. Signatories that were not nuclear powers when the treaty was adopted have the right to peaceful nuclear power development, including: enrichment, research and light- and heavy-water reactors. Moreover, signatories would receive technological and safety related support in their quest to develop peaceful nuclear power. In return the signatories agreed to forego nuclear weapons and to open up their facilities to IAEA inspection and safeguards. In turn, the nuclear powers agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenal and, in time, to eliminate all such weapons.

In the case of Iran, the United States has argued that Iran has lost its rights and privileges under the NPT for the following reasons: in the past it did not fully disclose its nuclear program, it is pursuing nuclear weapons, it has so much oil and gas that it does not need nuclear power and the regime in Tehran cannot be trusted and is dangerous.

It is true that Iran in the past did not disclose all of its nuclear facilities but Iran gives a credible reason for its non-disclosure: its facilities may have been attacked before they were constructed-a justification supported by Iran's experience with international duplicity (more on this below). There is not a shred of hard evidence to support the assertion that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Further, Iran has now opened up its facilities to IAEA inspection that go beyond legal IAEA requirements and IAEA inspectors have found traces of highly enriched uranium, which seems to have come from secondhand equipment bought by Iran.

And in wake of the Iraq War, the world cannot again believe U.S. assertions on the basis of hard evidence "that cannot be disclosed for fear of harming confidential sources." Iran's reserves of oil and gas are indeed expansive but this is totally irrelevant to the legal interpretation of the NPT. Interestingly, the United States did not criticize and threaten the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC)-consisting of six countries with one-third of Iran's population and about three times Iran's oil and gas-for its announcement earlier in December to develop peaceful nuclear power. This naturally leads to the fourth U.S. justification for taking away Iran's right to peaceful nuclear power: that the regime in Tehran is dangerous. But that rationale would, again, contravene the treaty, which does not disqualify certain regimes from its provisions.

Proliferation Posturing

Why was Iran's nuclear program under the Shah acceptable, but not under the current regime? Doesn't the right of peaceful nuclear power belong to a people, Iran, as opposed to a particular regime, a shah or a mullah? Moreover, do not regimes change over time, for good or for bad? Would the United Nations allow peaceful development with a regime subjectively considered "good" and then approve of the destruction of facilities when a "bad" regime comes to power? Is Saudi Arabia's regime a "bad" regime? If so, on what grounds? What should the world community do about a country (say, Pakistan) that has nuclear weapons and some consider to be ruled by a "bad" regime? Does a so-called bad regime become, by virtue of some policy alchemy, an accepted nuclear power once it has acquired the weapons and a delivery system?

Finally, have the nuclear powers kept up their end of the bargain to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear weapons as called for in the NPT? The simple answer is no. While that standard was upheld during the Reagan era-as both the United States and the Soviets reduced their nuclear arsenals-under the Bush Administration the United States is building new classes of nuclear warheads; China is still increasing the number of its nuclear weapons; Britain recently announced a new nuclear weapon program; and France has been building new weapons. The United States is affording India, a non-signatory to the NPT, all the privileges of signatories, although India has developed nuclear warheads outside the NPT and will not have to open all of its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection.

In short, the nuclear powers clearly have not adhered to the NPT and the treaty did not grant the Security Council, or any of its members, the right to deny non-nuclear signatories their rights and privileges on the basis of their oil, gas or coal reserves-or on the acceptability of their regimes.