In the latest move in the wrestling match with the international community, Iran is being pushed back to the UN Security Council.  Iran’s unwillingness to negotiate over the recent international incentive package was too much for France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even Russia and China to take.  This is not the last move, however, and it is important that the international community not waver on the need for Iran to  resume without further delay suspension of uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.

We say this because in Washington and elsewhere, the erroneous and unhelpful impression was being promoted that the United States is the actor holding up negotiations with Iran.  Seymour Hersh’s insightful article in the July 10 & 17 issue of The New Yorker begins by reporting that the Bush Administration’s offer to join talks with Iran was conditioned on the President’s demand that “‘the Iranian regime fully and verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.’”  Hersh continues that in essence “Iran, which has insisted on the right to enrich uranium, was being asked to concede the main point of negotiations before they started.”  Herein lies a damaging fallacy.

The facts are that the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors has called for Iranian suspension nine times in resolutions between September 2003 and February 2006, and the UN Security Council Presidential Statement of March 29, 2006 also calls for Iran to re-establish “full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development”.  In each case, the demand is for immediate Iranian suspension.  The logic follows the November 15, 2004 Paris Agreement between the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom) and Iran, whereby Iran agreed that “the suspension will be sustained while negotiations proceed on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements”. The aim of the agreement was to provide objective guarantees that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, while meeting Iran’s interests in developing peaceful nuclear technology and gaining the economic benefits of ties with Europe and the security benefits of broader rapprochement in the Middle East.  Iran broke that suspension last August before it bothered to consider an offer of incentives by the EU-3.  It is risible that Iran now says it needs months to analyze and respond to the more ambitious incentive package offered by the EU-3 and supported by the US, Russia and China. 

In other words, the call for Iran to suspend enrichment now is an international demand, not an exceptional American one, and it does not prejudge the outcome of subsequent negotiations. 

IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, hardly a hardliner, explains that Iranian suspension is to be a “rehabilitation period…a probation period, to build confidence again, before [Iran] can exercise [its] full rights.” During two decades Iran has deliberately violated numerous safeguards obligations and, after more than 3 years of intensive investigation the IAEA has been unable to gain answers that would determine whether Iran’s nuclear activities are solely for peaceful purposes.  Without certainty that all of Iran’s nuclear activities are and have been solely for peaceful purposes, Iran’s rights to obtain the benefits of international nuclear cooperation are forfeited.  Resuming immediate suspension of sensitive fuel cycle activities and implementation of the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA is the most germane way for Iran to establish its bona fides.

To be sure, the EU-3, the U.S., Russia, China, and the EU leadership also seek to persuade Iran to forego uranium enrichment on Iranian soil as a long-term result of negotiations.  But the suspension called for now is not posited as a given outcome of negotiations – it is a confidence-building measure to facilitate negotiations whose ends are undetermined. 

It has been suggested that, in order to provide Iran the possibility of testing whether the EU and the U.S. are serious about negotiations and are willing to address Iran’s security concerns, the suspension period could initially be limited to a period of, say, 12 months. Such a limitation should however not be envisaged, unless Iran commits to “implement transparency measures… which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol” as requested in the IAEA Board resolution on 4 February 2006.

Few, if any, countries distrust each other more than the United States and Iran.  Achieving trust is too much to ask for in the short term, but removing major threats is not.  This is what statesmen do.  Negotiations are the only way to establish reciprocal, observable steps that contending parties can take to achieve their interests and build confidence that they can live together while they continue to express their differences and pursue their competitive interests. 

The United States’ willingness to join negotiations with Iran on the package of incentives offered by the EU-3 is enough for any well-intentioned government to meet half way.  The terms under which such negotiations should begin have already been established multiple times by the international community.  If Iran is not willing to begin negotiations under those terms, Tehran will be responsible for the consequences.