At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the former Soviet Union jealously safeguarded their own global political and military interests by vetoing each other’s resolutions in the most powerful body at the United Nations: the Security Council.
"We will soon see the same cat-and-mouse game," predicts one Asian diplomat, "only the players, and the power alignments, may be different."
The issue that has triggered a new political battle is Iran’s attempt at developing what it calls "peaceful nuclear energy" not nuclear weapons, as the Western world contends.
But the United States and the 25-member European Union (EU) are refusing to buy the Iranian argument. Collectively, they are threatening to punish Iran on charges that it may be on the verge of developing nuclear weapons by referring the matter to the Security Council, and possibly calling for military and economic sanctions against Tehran.
However, their attempts are being thwarted by two veto-wielding permanent members of the Council, namely China and Russia, who are opposed to any immediate action against Iran.
The two key players in the new game are the EU, on the side of the United States, and China on the side of Russia. India, another nuclear power, is backing Iran despite pressure from the United States.
On Thursday, after failing to win Russian support for a draft resolution calling for Iran to be reported to the Security Council, EU diplomats meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna warned that the bloc would proceed with immediate referral unless Iran allowed inspectors greater access to suspected nuclear sites.
"This dispute has given definition to a new East vs. West rivalry, with the Eastern nuclear powers Russia, China, and India forming a bloc against the interests of the Western nuclear powers," Michael Spies, program associate at the New York-based Lawyer’s Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS.
Both the United States and the EU had tried to persuade the 35-member IAEA to adopt a consensus resolution singling out Iran for censure by the Security Council in New York. But with at least a dozen countries opposed to such a move, a consensus resolution has thus far proved impossible.
At the Thursday meeting in Vienna, more than a third of the nations on the board opposed bringing the issue of Iran before the Security Council.
Another draft circulated by the EU at the IAEA had asserted that Iran is in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but left out the call for a referral to the Security Council.
"Russia and China in particular have remained steadfast in their opposition to Iran’s referral to the Security Council by the IAEA Board," Spies said. He pointed out that even India, also an IAEA Board member, has come out in opposition to a Security Council referral.
"Russia has specifically stated that this matter is still at the stage where it is most appropriately addressed by the IAEA and through negotiations. Russia and China have also indicated they would likely veto any action taken by the Security Council," Spies said.
The speculation at the United Nations is that all three countries, namely Russia, China and India, have been pushing forward with their own current or planned economic and military projects with Iran despite warnings from the United States that they halt nuclear cooperation with the government in Tehran.
Iran has also been seeking to expand military and security cooperation with all three states, prompting them to protect their own national interests.
Spies predicted that a Security Council referral would certainly harden Iran’s position. "In the event of referral, Iran has threatened to resume uranium enrichment, which is still suspended, and to cease cooperation under the Additional Protocol, which it has to ratify," he said.
He said that the involvement of the Security Council would mean the end of the diplomatic path, which requires all sides to make concessions on their current position in order to reach a mutually acceptable outcome.
Iran’s concessions to date have included both the suspension of certain activities and an intrusive inspection regimen, above and beyond the requirements of the Additional Protocol. All this would certainly come to an end if the IAEA Board votes to refer, Spies warned.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying: "I am quite certain that at some point in time Iran is going to be referred to the Security Council, particularly if Iran continues to demonstrate that it is not prepared to give the international community assurances that is not going to try to build nuclear weapons under cover of civil power."
She also said that Iran’s referral for possible sanctions is "nearly certain," but only the timing is not.
Addressing the UN General Assembly last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took a defiant stand, stressing his country’s "inalienable right" to develop nuclear energy.
He also accused the United States and its allies of nuclear "apartheid" for their double standards in ignoring the development of nuclear weapons by Israel. He said that a proposal for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East is being thwarted by Israel.
Both the United States and the EU have expressed disappointment over the hard line taken by the Iranian president. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the speech was "anything but helpful." Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary of Britain, the current EU chair, also described the statement as "unhelpful."
Spies of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy said that while it seems plausible that Iran is striving for the capability to produce fissile materials, there is no evidence one way or the other that its current program goes beyond the role of supporting its civilian reactor program, which has been under construction since the 1970s.
"Security Council referral and a more aggressive international posture would certainly be perceived in Iran as a threat to its security, likely providing impetus to those elements in Iranian society which call for it to develop a nuclear weapon as the ultimate guarantor of its security," he argued.
In the broader geopolitical context, he said, the current Iranian regime very quickly decided that political and economic integration with the West is not essential for its development.
"Hence in all spheres of its policy, Iran is looking to develop either complete self-sufficiency or is looking to bolster its transnational relations within its own region and with the major powers in Asia," Spies said.
Backing from the larger states in particular has certainly emboldened Iran’s posture in regards to this issue. Also, it should be noted that all the active players on both sides of this debate, with the exception of Germany, are nuclear powers, he added.
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