The EU vs. Iran: Who’s Right?

While making courtesy calls, John Bolton, our newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly "raised possible Security Council action on Iran’s announcement that it plans to resume enriching uranium, said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity."


Here we go again.

President Bush accuses an Islamic state of pursuing an illicit nuclear weapons program.

Bush then refers the issue to the UN Security Council and demands "action."

The International Atomic Energy Agency conducts an exhaustive search and finds no indication of a nuclear weapons program.

The Security Council refuses to authorize a preemptive attack against the nuclear weapons program the IAEA says doesn’t exist.

Bush launches a preemptive attack anyway, claiming that reliance by the United States "on further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone" will not "adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq."

Or Iran.

But wait a minute.

Iran hasn’t announced any plans to resume enriching uranium.

Iran hasn’t even finished manufacturing the several thousand gas centrifuges it hopes to eventually employ in a uranium enrichment pilot plant.

What Iran did was inform the IAEA [.pdf] that it had "decided to resume the uranium conversion activities" at the facility in Isfahan and request that the IAEA "be prepared for the implementation of the safeguards-related activities in a timely manner prior to the resumption of the UCF activities."

Here is what State Department acting spokesman Tom Casey told reporters the same day.

"It is critical to us that Iran maintain its suspension [on all enrichment-related activities, including uranium conversion], that it maintain its adherence to the Paris Agreement [.pdf], and that it not take any steps that would be in violation of that. Obviously, as we said yesterday, if they were to break that agreement, then the next steps would, to our way of thinking, be a referral from the IAEA board to the Security Council."

If Iran "breaks that agreement" – to which neither the U.S. nor the IAEA is a party – we intend to get the Board of Governors of the IAEA to refer the "breaking" to the Security Council for "possible action"?

Now, the IAEA statute does provide for the Board to refer an egregious breach of an IAEA Safeguards Agreement to the Security Council for possible action. But Iran is in full compliance with its full-scope safeguards agreement.

And the EU-Iran Paris Agreement was merely to begin negotiations on a mutually acceptable agreement that "will provide objective guarantees" to the EU above and beyond the existing full-scope IAEA safeguards agreement, that "Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes" and that the EU "will equally provide firm guarantees" to Iran "on nuclear, technological, and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues."

On March 23, 2005, Iran offered a package of "objective guarantees" that included a voluntary "confinement" of Iran’s nuclear programs, to include

  1. Forgoing the reprocessing of spent fuel and the production of plutonium;
  2. A ceiling on enrichment at reactor fuel level;
  3. Limiting the extent of the enrichment program to that required for Iran’s power reactors;
  4. The immediate conversion of all enriched uranium to fuel rods to preclude even the technical possibility of further enrichment;
  5. An incremental and phased approach to implementation of the uranium-enrichment program, beginning with the least sensitive aspects – such as uranium conversion.

The Iranians also proposed that there be an unprecedented "continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors at the conversion and enrichment facilities."

Now, as a consequence of the EU failure to respond in a timely manner to the Iranian offer, the Iranians have announced they will resume uranium conversion.

Well, that announcement did finally elicit an EU response, which included an offer of an "assured supply of fuel over the coming years." But in return, the EU would require Iran to make "a binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities other than the construction and operation of light water power and research reactors."

"The [EU] proposals are unacceptable,” Iranian negotiator Hossein Moussavian said, describing them as a “clear violation” of the Paris Agreement.

Will the IAEA Board refer the resumption of uranium conversion to the Security Council for possible action?

Not likely. You see, the Board itself has already explicitly recognized that the Iranian suspension was “not a legally binding obligation.” Furthermore the Iranians are right. "The Board of Governors has no factual or legal ground, nor any statutory power, to make or enforce such a demand, or impose ramifications as a consequence of it."

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.