Iran's nuclear question: a wider lens

The valuable experience of Latin American states on key nuclear and conflict issues needs to be heard in the dialogue over Iran, says Juan Gabriel Tokatlian.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
12 June 2012

The global nuclear regime is eroding too quickly. Some countries around the world seem ready to develop their own nuclear-weapons initiative in the event of a sharp deterioration in the international environment. In this context the way Iran's uranium-enrichment programme is managed and resolved is crucial.


Herein lies a further problem. For the handling of Tehran’s nuclear question by the "P5+1" (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France) plus Germany is close to failure - notwithstanding the mix of rhetoric, posturing, and sanctions that surrounds it.


The Baghdad summit between the P5 + 1 and Iran (23-24 May), and the forthcoming round of talks in Moscow (on 18-19 June) are examples of diplomatic bankruptcy, because such gatherings are embedded in a traditional rationale that no longer serves a useful purpose; that is, organising a "core" group and weighing the process in its favour. The reasoning is that only a few central actors know how to deal with nuclear proliferation.


It is clear, though, that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council who wield veto powers, together with an ascending Berlin, are not necessarily well-equipped to avoid nuclear development in the global periphery. After all, they have a poor record if the cases of Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are taken into consideration. By contrast, several emerging countries in the global south who are bound by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) have demonstrated their understanding of and commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Their insight and experience should be welcomed.


The others' experience


In particular, a positive regional showcase deserves more attention. Latin America is witnessing a major redistribution of regional power with international implications - which is also both non-nuclear-weapons based and conflict-free. In the area there is now one emerging international power (Brazil), several middling powers (Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela), and a few smaller powers (Chile, Cuba, Costa Rica). All coexist with a global power-shift; none is a source of international tension. There are varied dynamics in the region - of measures, ideas and institutions - but they tend to support adherence to international regimes in the resolution of conflicts and non-proliferation.


Within that overall framework, Latin America has benefited from a central stabilising attribute since the mid-1980s: the end of the security tensions between Brazil and Argentina. The pacifying effect of this bilateral achievement - which took place under the impulse of democracy, interdependence, and integration - was reinforced by the establishment in 1991 of the Agencia Brasileño-Argentina de Contabilidad y Control de Materiales Nucleares (Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials / Abacc).


This agency is the only one of its type in the world. Abacc is a binational agency that verifies the peaceful use of nuclear materials, thus avoiding the potential manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Brazil may on the way to becoming a global player, but it is in part thanks to the good work of Abacc that it has chosen not to develop nuclear arms.


Argentina, for its part, is ranked at 16 on its strengths along a range of nuclear measures (trends in material production / elimination, on-site physical protection, control and accounting procedures, response capabilities, domestic nuclear materials security legislation, independent regulatory agency, and voluntary commitments) - just below the United States (13) and ahead of France (19) (the ranking is organised by the Nuclear Materials Security Index of the Nuclear Threat Initiative [NTI]).


In short, Brasilia and Buenos Aires have where nuclear matters are concerned, they are responsible actors: by checking each other, by improving the civilian use of nuclear power, by rejecting proliferation, and by making Latin America a democratic zone of peace. Argentina and Brazil have contributed decisively to the creation of a robust, authoritative intermediate security order within a highly contested global security order, and by producing and supporting a set of legitimate rules, norms, and procedures.

Their example deserves more recognition. But it should also earn them the chance to offer a meaningful input into the current, stalemated negotiations on the Iranian nuclear question. This is now a war-or-peace issue, and the voice of key emerging and regional actors demands to be listened to and incorporated into the process.

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