Iran and the security council: changing the dynamic

Jan De Pauw
31 May 2006

The United States proposal on 31 May 2006 of direct talks with Iran in return for Iran's commitment to suspend its nuclear enrichment and reprocessing work represents a glimmer of possibility that a potentially dangerous international crisis can be defused. But there is a long way to go before the provisional offer of the George W Bush administration becomes part of a substantive negotiating process that could lead to an agreement. As Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress comments: "There's no question this is a major policy shift, but we don't yet know (if) this is going to lead a diplomatic breakthrough. There are people in both capitals that don't want these negotiations to happen."

This judgment seems borne out by the first response from Tehran to the US's outreach: Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki professed readiness to talk, but rejected any conditionality over the country's nuclear research. Condoleezza Rice's speech outlining the US offer "lacked a logical and new solution to resolve Iran's nuclear issue", he said.

This is the latest stage in the tortuous historical relationship between the United States and Iran. It is also a significant moment in the unfinished diplomatic saga over Iran's nuclear-energy plans. The discussion moves on to Vienna where a "sextet" of powers – the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany - meets on 1 June under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna to seek agreement among themselves on a package of measures to present to Iran.

The outcome of the US initiative and the Vienna meeting will clarify the next steps in the unfolding drama. In this intricate diplomatic power-play, the ability to reach a constructive solution will crucially depend on the United Nations security council and how its members understand their responsibilities in light of the experience of the last three years.

Indeed, it is now forty months since Mohammad ElBaradei and his team of IAEA inspectors visited Iran's uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz in February 2003 and exposed the nuclear programme that Iran had kept secret for eighteen years. From that day in February 2003, a still unresolved debate over the true nature of the country's nuclear ambitions has raged within the international community.

The authorities in Tehran maintain that their programme's has a peaceful intention that aims mainly to reduce Iran's dependence on fossil fuels. The divided but more than notional "international community" cite Iran's gargantuan oil reserves to dispute the sincerity of this claim, and suspect Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons.

Alongside the US initiative of 31 May and the Vienna consultations of 1 June, the United Nations security council retains a key role in resolving the issue, after referral of Iran to it by the IAEA. The failure to persuade Tehran to comply with UN/IAEA demands for transparency, access and accountability has reinforced the momentum of a so-called "Chapter VII" resolution (referring to the key item in the UN charter) that could open the door to sanctions or even military action against Iran.

The UN security council is where the crux of the Iran problem needs to be resolved. Three of the five permanent members (France, Britain and the United States) would like the council to adopt a Chapter VII resolution, while the other two (Russia and China) consider such a move to be premature. All five hold a veto-wielding power. The result is stalemate.

The crisis over Iran is, then, in the first instance less about the danger of nuclear proliferation and conflict than about the value and capacity of the security council as a multilateral security instrument.

This is the latest article in a growing openDemocracy debate about how war with Iran can be avoided:

Kaveh Ehsani, "On the brink: the Great Satan vs the Axis of Evil"
(3 May 2006)

Mary Walsh, " The Iran crisis: a United Nations solution" (8 May 2006)

Trita Parsi, " The United States's double-vision in Iran" (9 May 2006)

Raymond Barrett, " Iran through Arab eyes"
(10 May 2006)

Scilla Elworthy, "If diplomacy fails"
(11 May 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran's politics: constants and variables"
(12 May 2006)

David Rahni, "Iranian-Americans and a war on Iran"
(15 May 2006)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: the elite against the people" (22 May 2006)

For an overview of the debate, click here

A draft in dispute

The draft UN security council resolution proposed by the United States and the "EU3" (the three European Union states of France, Germany and Britain which negotiated with Iran for more than two years after October 2003) on 5 April 2006 is understood to contain three key elements: urging Iran to comply with IAEA regulations and safeguard measures; inviting states trading with Iran to remain alert and to restrict their nuclear dealings; and, most significantly, requiring Tehran to halt enriching uranium or face "further measures".

Most of the debate between the permanent members comes back to these two words: "further measures". Russia has expressed strong reservations that such a loose formulation could be used as a pretext for military action. China, supporting Russia's reluctance, has voiced its own doubts that the draft will produce positive results.

Such scepticism from America's peers (and geopolitical rivals) is understandable, but it is not the whole story. The text's Clause 7 states that the security council "expresses its intention to consider such further measures as may be necessary to ensure compliance with this resolution and decides that further examination will be required should such additional steps be necessary".

The vagueness of the passage makes it resemble routine diplomatic discourse. What is striking is that it provides for built-in controls in the event of a prolonged stand-off with Iran. That is, any next steps would have to be preceded by further investigation, and approval sought then to continue. The Iranian news agency (Irna)'s report that the draft resolution invokes Articles 40, 41 and 42 of Chapter VII is significantly wrong here: the text draws upon Articles 39 and 40 only, which advocate vigilance and call for compliance rather than implement sanctions and other penal measures. As it stands, the current proposal seems to implement Chapter VII in its weakest form only. Why, then, the Russian and Chinese reservations?

Three reasons may be uppermost. First, the repeated affirmation by John Bolton, the US's ambassador to the UN (and some other administration officials) that the US will not exclude any option over Iran - including military action, and regardless of security-council approval - arouses suspicion. Some council members, haunted by the way that acceptance of resolution 1441 in 2003 was used as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq, are intent on avoiding any risky verbal ambiguities in order to prevent a repeat of what they see as the hijacking of the UN's legitimacy for unilateralist purposes. (Here, however, France's co-sponsorship of the draft proposal – in contrast to its critical role in 2003 - suggests that historical precedents can fail to serve linear reasoning.)

Second, China and Russia may both genuinely doubt that Iran poses a real threat and believe that it has a legal right to develop nuclear-energy facilities.

Third, these advocates of patience and continued diplomatic effort have much to gain from deepening bilateral relations with Iran. China is seeking to increase and diversify its energy resources from the world at impressive speed. Its current major reliance on coal is becoming untenable from the perspective of both efficiency and sustainability. The instability inherent in its energy predicament is a strong reason for China to avoid antagonising Iran. Russia too will benefit from good relations with its southern neighbour. Again, energy policy is key; pipelines from the Caspian sea to the Persian Gulf could boost Russia's position on the international stage as a pivotal energy player.

The differences within the security council are, then, well-grounded. But they don't fall neatly into two groups – rather there are three broad positions:

  • the United States: continue to support the diplomatic effort for now, but keep all options – including unilateral military action – on the table; remain firmly opposed to Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons; and don't talk about Tehran's right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes
  • the EU3: keep experimenting with different carrot-and-stick scenarios in the hope that one will work; declare support for an Iranian civil nuclear programme provided Iran agrees to work in compliance with international regulations; pro-actively engage Iran as a way to demonstrate to the world that the union's commitment to multilateral diplomacy remains a core part of its brand
  • Russia and China: pursue energy contracts before anything else; worry least about Iran developing the bomb and most about keeping all channels with Tehran open; calculate that if Iran succeeds in exploiting security-council differences, the impact on multilateral security will create new strategic opportunities.

Crisis and opportunity

For the moment, the crisis seems to be in abeyance. The United States offer to Iran on 31 May creates a space for further diplomatic movement. This follows the decision of all security-council members on 12 May to give negotiations another chance before tightening the screws on Tehran.

Despite these signals of diplomatic compromise, Tehran continues to defy the west both with strong rhetoric (as in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denunciations of Israel during his visit to Indonesia in mid-May) and strong demands that any package deal to resolve the dispute must contain explicit recognition of Iran's right to nuclear energy. At any point, the situation may escalate and the question may return: what action should the security council take?

The international community needs to do three things to prevent its own further fragmentation. First, the US should build on its offer of direct talks by responding to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to George W Bush in a serious and respectful way. Such a display of goodwill could bring inestimable (and much-needed) public-relations benefits in the Muslim world.

Second, the members of the security council must understand that Iran's tactics and rhetoric serve domestic purposes as much as (or even more than) global ones. Millions of Iran's people are young, unemployed and restless. Many of them and many other Iranians want reform, and they tend to be pro-western (in varying degrees). Tehran's international brinkmanship should be seen as an effort to divert attention from these issues by raising the demon of western imperialism, and to consolidate its domestic power-base before it dissolves into a demographic and economic quicksand. To accommodate Tehran's tactics in this respect will only strengthen the regime.

Third, the international community should work on inverting Tehran's strategic use of time. At present, Iran gains most from delaying decisions and acts with such delays in mind. The members of the security council need to reverse the dynamic, to begin to set timetables according to which Iran might be persuaded to measure its options. This again will make direct negotiations between the US and Iran essential. If, moreover, the US agrees to such negotiations within a timeframe of tightening impositions, this should serve as a guarantee that Washington will not resort to unilateral action before a final deadline expires.

President Ahmadinejad’s conduct may seem erratic, but he has skilfully manoeuvred himself into the centre of domestic and international power politics. There is opportunity in this. Where previous international attempts at securing a deal with Iran became stranded amid the confusion of Iranian authority, the world now faces a clear and focused interlocutor. It is time to bring the US and Iran to the table. If Europe can help make this happen, then perhaps it will reveal itself as the true communicator it professes to be. Then too perhaps the judgment that Washington's announcement of 31 May 2006 "is another sign of the decline of the ideologues and the rehabilitation of the pragmatists" might be seen to be true on an international scale.

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