The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is once again in the eye of a political storm of nuclear proportions. More than a year ago the IAEA’s Board of Governors, under immense pressure from the United States, adopted a resolution “reporting” the case of Iran’s alleged but not proven non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the United Nations Security Council. The United States had tired of the IAEA’s meticulous inspection and verification process, according to which only states proven to have “diverted” fissile materials from a peaceful nuclear programme to non-peaceful purposes may be “referred” to the Security Council. Although the IAEA had real concerns about the transparency of aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, it had found no convincing evidence of “diversion”. Because this was frustrating US attempts to build a political case against Iran, the US decided to circumvent the IAEA by taking the Iran question to the Security Council. An IAEA resolution was crafted violating the IAEA’s own statute by “reporting” Iran to the Security Council, although the IAEA’s position on the question of diversion was and is unchanged. The US wanted to marginalise the IAEA, and to politicise its mandate.
Although China and Russia initially supported the “reporting” of Iran to the Security Council, they came to see the error of their ways, and pressed for the IAEA to once again be the key player in this matter. They have used their Security Council veto power to block US initiatives deemed inappropriate, arguing that the IAEA, and not the Security Council, is the appropriate forum for resolving the Iran question. Although Russia and China endorsed Security Council resolutions imposing trade and other sanctions on Iran, they were limited in scope, and did little more than marginally strengthen the trade boycott unilaterally imposed by the US after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Both Russia and China enjoy lucrative trade relationships with Iran.
In the meantime key US advocates of a diplomatic resolution such as Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates are increasingly isolated, with Richard Cheney’s hawks appearing to be gaining the upper hand. Israel has for years been fuelling hawkish fires by declaring that, if the US does not lead an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will do the job itself. Israel could attack Iran. If Iran then retaliated, the US would have a threadbare pretext for “preventive” strikes against Iran.
Even the most recent US intelligence estimates predict that, in a worst case scenario, Iran will be nuclear capable some time between 2010 and 2015. In the meantime Israel’s illegally acquired nuclear capability, estimated at 200 or more nuclear warheads, is not officially deemed to be a significant factor in the Middle East equation. Several other regional states have recently expressed an interest in developing nuclear energy. Jordan has already begun, with US assistance, to develop a peaceful nuclear industry. And there have been persistent rumours that Saudi Arabia may already be nuclear capable.
In the meantime the US administration has become increasingly embattled at home and abroad, and has found itself confronted on almost all sides by unprecedented opposition from a diverse and powerful international coalition led by Russia and China. The non‑aligned movement, representing about one third of the IAEA Board of Governors, has recently discovered a sense of common purpose, and has not collapsed into disunity as soon as it was placed under real pressure. Although the US Chiefs of Staff have firmly opposed the use of nuclear weapons in a first strike against Iran, their use in second phase warfare has not been ruled out.
The growing isolation of the Bush administration, coupled with the steep and continuing rise in oil prices, the massive US budget deficit, and the growing fragility of the US economy, mean that, in the short and medium term, the US need for secure access to reasonably priced oil from the Middle East is greater than ever. A war against Iran would ensure ready access to Iraq and Iran’s enormous oil and gas reserves, and could precipitate a new “war on terror” mobilizing the US electorate behind a reborn Republican Party. This would be the dubious rationale for a military adventure whose unforeseeable consequences would make the Iraq war look like a Sunday afternoon tea party.
A major attack on Iran could precipitate a chain reaction involving at the very least the following players: Iran, Syria, Israel, Hezbollah, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the southern Sunni provinces of Iraq. Islamic sleeper cells could be activated throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, especially in states perceived to be supporting the attack on Iran. Oil prices could leap to US$120 per barrel, destabilising the international economy. The Straits of Hormuz might well become impassable for the region’s oil and gas. Last but not least, Putin’s newly re‑emergent Russia would have to consider whether a major military incursion into its sphere of influence would be condoned or resisted.
The ball is now in the court of the IAEA and its feisty Director-General. Mohamed ElBaradei was reappointed for a third and final term of office in the teeth of bitter opposition from the US, which even went so far as to tap his telephones in a fruitless search for incriminating evidence. ElBaradei has openly declared that his overriding concern is, through the IAEA, to strive for a solution to the Iran question that will avert a war with the potential to sow havoc and destruction throughout the Middle East. In playing this role he is wittingly exceeding his mandate as IAEA Director-General. He is determined to prevent this disarmament and non-proliferation organisation from being used politically to legitimize war. He knows that a military attack on Iran could eventually spill over into the use of nuclear weapons. He also realises that a further unilateral military intervention in the Middle East could trigger nuclear proliferation throughout that region and beyond. El Baradei has more than once drawn attention to John F Kennedy’s warning of a future world with at least 20 nuclear capable states.
Mohamed ElBaradei has taken the extraordinary step of launching an initiative aimed at buying time for peace. Towards the end of August he announced a secret plan, already negotiated with Iran, setting out a timetable to clear up certain controversies about Iran’s past secret activities, while also improving access for IAEA inspectors. Intriguingly, the agreement also stipulated that the US should give Tehran copies of intelligence documents related to alleged secret Iranian military work on nuclear warheads.
The US and its supporters, mainly in Europe, were initially enraged at the absence of any obligation for Iran to cease uranium enrichment. But ElBaradei contended that, in the vortex of the distrustful relationship between the US and Iran, it was incumbent on him to build trust and to make peace more probable. He has even described himself as a “secular pope” whose mission is to “make sure, frankly, that we do not end up killing each other.” By entering into such a secret agreement with one IAEA member state, without consulting its other members, ElBaradei was placing his head into the lion’s jaws. He has in the meantime stated that, if Iran does not respond satisfactorily to his questions by November of this year, it will have to live with the consequences of this.
He has also reiterated his strong support for a reciprocal “time out” in which the Security Council would abandon sanctions against Iran in return for an undertaking that Iran would temporarily stop uranium enrichment. This would be verified through IAEA inspections. The Americans are divided over this, as is the European Union. Germany and Austria have broken ranks by publicly declaring their support for ElBaradei’s initiative. They want to give peace another chance. Gordon Brown’s new government appears to be following in the footsteps of the US over this issue. China and Russia have once again demonstrated their preparedness to block Security Council decision-making. France’s attempt at mobilizing unilateral EU sanctions against Iran has foundered for the time being on Germany and Austria’s reservations.
Always assuming that a fragile peace prevails in the Middle East until ElBaradei’s November deadline, the heat will then come on Iran to honour the deal that he, at high risk to himself, has brokered. ElBaradei has warned Iran of the high stakes in this nuclear brinkmanship: “I told them very openly that it will backfire.” In the meantime Iran has handed over a number of the promised documents. At a juncture when no one is talking to anyone else, and all paths appear to lead nowhere, ElBaradei can at least show a meaningful interim result. However, if there is no movement towards a “time out” on Iran’s uranium enrichment, those states currently supporting his initiative may slowly but surely defect to the US camp, thus increasing the probability of a military attack on Iran in the run up to next year’s US elections.
If ElBaradei delivers the goods, the remaining two years of his tenure as IAEA Director‑General will be assured. However, if Iran is perceived as having taken advantage of his dedication to the cause of peace, he, the IAEA, and Iran will be seriously damaged. He might well have to stand down. Iran’s political support would be narrowed down to China, Russia, and the non-aligned movement. If ElBaradei is forced to stand down, the US will ensure that his successor is a bland international civil servant. Further steps would also be taken to neutralize the IAEA, capitalising on the fact that about 50% of its senior staff will be retiring in the near future. The IAEA would be ripe for the plucking.
One can only admire ElBaradei’s lion-hearted courage and dedication to peace. But one must also consider with some trepidation the possible consequences of the failure of his Iran initiative.
The author, Bob Rigg, worked for nine years for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. He resigned in 2002 in protest at the ousting of Director-General José Bustani. He lives in New Zealand.