Global Policy Forum

The Best US Weapon Against Iran Is Diplomacy


By John Burroughs*

September 26, 2007

On Friday at the United Nations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will discuss strategy regarding Iran's nuclear program with her counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. What is needed is not another UN Security Council resolution strengthening existing sanctions. Rather the Bush administration should talk directly with Iran, and soon, because the U.S.-Iran confrontation is heating up dangerously. Tensions over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit this week are just the tip of the iceberg.

The administration has stepped up its claim that elements in Iran are supplying advanced roadside bombs, other munitions and training to insurgents in Iraq. In an address last month to the American Legion, President George W. Bush stated that to protect U.S. troops, "I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities." The administration is considering declaring the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or its Qods Force a terrorist organization. There is a major U.S. strike force in the Persian Gulf. For its part, Iran charges that U.S.-supported Kurdish groups based in Iraq are carrying out attacks in Iran.

Nuclear developments have also reached a crucial juncture. Iran continues to enlarge its capability to enrich uranium in defiance of Security Council resolutions. Iran says that it will use enriched uranium to fuel nuclear reactors, but the same facilities can produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. While endorsing sanctions, in his recent speech Bush said: "We will confront this danger before it is too late." To avoid unpredictable and extremely dangerous escalation arising both from the Iraq war and the nuclear dispute, the United States and Iran must now negotiate on the range of issues dividing them. The Bush administration has refused to discuss nuclear matters until Iran suspends enrichment, but that amounts to telling Iran that no negotiations can be held until you concede the main issue at stake.

A diplomatic approach to reversing North Korea's breakout from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is yielding results. Key elements were direct U.S. involvement and a willingness to contemplate normalization of relations and security guarantees. A similar approach to Iran should be pursued. There is real potential for reaching agreement with Iran on monitoring and limiting its nuclear program. Since 2003, when its history of reporting violations was revealed, Iran appears to have met reporting requirements. In a report last month, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Gen. Mohamed ElBaradei stated that his agency "is able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran." While the IAEA cannot now confirm the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities, that is a challenging determination that takes considerable time and requires enhanced inspections not now accepted by Iran.

The IAEA and Iran have reached agreement on a work plan to clear up outstanding questions about Iran's past nuclear activities. To encourage the process, the six governments meeting at the United Nations this week should defer a Security Council decision on stiffening sanctions. Iran has repeatedly indicated its openness to operation of limited enrichment facilities in Iran under heightened IAEA monitoring and with foreign participation. International organizations and law were shunted to the side in dealing with Saddam Hussein. That mistake must not be made again. We now know that after the 1991 defeat of Iraq, the IAEA and UN succeeded in dismantling its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. If President George W. Bush had permitted the completion of inspections of Iraq in 2003, the dismantlement would have been confirmed and the catastrophe of the Iraq invasion likely averted.

The IAEA must be allowed to do its job in Iran. Its leaders do not appear to have made the decision to acquire nuclear weapons. On "60 Minutes" Sunday [September 23, 2007], Ahmadinejad said that the "time of the bomb is passed." And earlier this month, Iran's more credible supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that the country "has no atomic bomb and has no plans to create this deadly weapon." A smart diplomatic strategy and close international involvement can keep the balance tipped toward nonacquisition. That approach, unlike war, is consistent with the UN Charter. Absent authorization by the Security Council, a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would violate the Charter's prohibition on use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of another state. Restraint and diplomacy are also the right tools to address alleged Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq, as well as alleged U.S. support of unrest in Iran.

To more credibly insist on Iranian compliance with its obligations, the United States must meet its own. The Bush administration must stop violating a Non-Proliferation Treaty-related commitment by holding out the option of a nuclear attack on Iran and other countries not possessing nuclear weapons. The United States and other nuclear weapon states also need to get moving on their treaty obligation to negotiate the verified reduction and elimination of nuclear arsenals. In a recent interview, Nobel Peace Prize winner ElBaradei said, "We are moving rapidly toward an abyss." It is not too late to step away.

About the Author: John Burroughs is executive director of the New York-based Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy and co-editor of "Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security? U.S. Weapons of Terror, the Global Proliferation Crisis, and Paths to Peace."

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