Is an Attack on Iran ‘Inconceivable’?

Undersecretary John Bolton has pushed – unsuccessfully – for nearly two years to get the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to refer to the UN Security Council what he alleges are violations by Iran of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Unsuccessfully, because the IAEA has concluded after an exhaustive special inspection that there is no evidence that Iran has violated the NPT.

By signing the NPT, Iran had promised not to acquire or produce nukes. Under the Safeguards Agreement they signed with the IAEA, Iran was required to "declare" all their "nuclear materials," however acquired or produced. IAEA inspectors carry out periodic on-site inspections to ensure that there have been no diversions of nuclear materials from peaceful activities to the production of nukes.

Not declaring all "nuclear materials" is merely a violation of the Safeguards Agreement. Diverting "nuclear materials" to the production of nukes is a violation of the treaty.

Sensing that the IAEA Board would not refer the matter to the Security Council – absent a reported flagrant violation of the NPT – last month Bolton got the G-8 Group of Industrialized Nations to try to intimidate the IAEA.

"We deplore Iran’s delays, deficiencies in cooperation, and inadequate disclosures, as detailed in IAEA Director General reports. We therefore urge Iran promptly and fully to comply with its commitments and all IAEA Board requirements, including ratification and full implementation of the Additional Protocol, leading to resolution of all outstanding issues related to its nuclear program.

"We support the suspension of nuclear fuel cycle cooperation with states that violate their nuclear non-proliferation and safeguards obligations, recognizing that the responsibility and authority for such decisions rests with national governments or the Security Council."

But IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei will report that Iran has been fully cooperating and has made complete disclosures. Furthermore, Iran has essentially been operating as if the Additional Protocol had already been ratified. The IAEA uncovered some past failures – of the sort it recently uncovered in South Korea – to promptly and fully declare all "nuclear materials." But there are no outstanding issues to be resolved. The IAEA has found no indication that Iran has diverted or attempted to divert "nuclear materials" to the production of nukes. Therefore, there is no NPT violation for the IAEA Board to refer to the Security Council.


A senior U.S. diplomat – who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity – said that even if the IAEA Board balks, the United States will still seek a referral to the Security Council based on Iran’s "past record of deception on its nuclear activities," and the matter could be referred to the Council “in different ways.”

But, absent an NPT violation, it appears that Bolton will have to convince the Security Council that Iran’s Safeguarded nuclear programs constitute a "threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression." If he can do that, then it will be up to the Security Council to "make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security."

Under Article 41, the Security Council may "call upon the members to impose complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations."

Under Article 42 the Security Council may conclude that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate. It may then call upon members to take "such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security."

If Iran refuses to accede to U.S. demands that they suspend the nuclear energy programs the NPT gives them an "inalienable right" to have, Bolton has reportedly written his counterparts in Paris, London, and Berlin that he expects them to back his request for "action by the Security Council."

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said that Beijing believes Iran’s nuclear issue should be resolved within the framework of the IAEA and that China would likely "veto" any action by the Council.

What to do? Well, apparently the neo-crazies are seriously considering launching – or condoning – a preemptive strike against Iran’s Safeguarded facilities, in flagrant violation of the UN Charter.

Perhaps that is what prompted British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to declare this week that such an attack was “inconceivable.” “I don’t see any circumstances in which military action would be justified against Iran, full stop.”

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.