Not for the first time, the IAEA Board of Governors on Thursday afternoon passed a resolution on safeguards implementation in Iran which said a few things that its sponsors neglected to point out when they explained the results to the Vienna press corps minutes after the vote was taken behind the closed doors of the M Building at the VIC.

The Iran resolution, the brainchild of the P5+1, more or less sailed through drafting prior to Wednesday when the board took up the Iran agenda item. A flurry of consultations and a delay in voting on Thursday was triggered by objections to the draft text raised by South Africa, but prima facie this had more to do with procedural issues than any matters of substance: the changes in the text inspired by Pretoria’s intervention were in fact hardly worth the candle. But they were significant from the point of view that the P5+1, in their zeal to demonstrate unity in the draft text, may have overdone it a bit by presenting the results to the NAM members in the group somewhat late in the game–giving them an opportunity to hold things up long enough for the point to register with the veto powers that the NAM, too, has a stake in this issue.

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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The 31-1-3 vote in support of the resolution was not a surprise. Certainly Cuba’s lone nay vote didn’t shock; Ecuador’s abstention, in the light of recent diplomatic interactions between Quito and one Western P5 country about a totally unrelated affair, could not have been unanticipated by GOV/48′s sponsors; likewise Egypt’s and Tunesia’s coolness to the resolution had roots in recent political developments. The resolution in the end had weighty support: South Africa, having made its point, joined it, and Indonesia likewise was, at the eleventh hour, also on board.

Thanks to the good offices of Fredrik Dahl at Reuters, this morning I listened to the tape of what US DCM Robert Wood told reporters yesterday evening after the resolution was passed. The resolution, Wood said, testified to “increasing and intensifying” pressure on Iran and he asserted that Iran’s “isolation is growing” related to its failure to cooperate with the IAEA. Thus the American narrative.

Wood concluded his brief talking points by saying that “We hope that Iran understands the message” which was sent by the resolution.

But there were in fact three messages sent by GOV/48. Two messages were for Iran. The other was a message to Israel.

A Message for Israel

Consider that GOV/48 in preambular paragraph (d) reiterates support for a “comprehensive negotiated, long term solution, on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach, which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program consistent with the NPT,” and that it says farther down in operative paragraph 5 that the board is committed to a “constructive diplomatic process which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach and conssittent with the NPT.” Underscoring the importance of the diplomatic process was considered important enough by the P5+1 that the drafters wrote that point into the resolution twice. Doesn’t happen every day.

But GOV/48 went even further.

The last board resolution on Iran, GOV/2011/69, passed last November, in operative Paragraph 4 expressed “continuing support for a diplomatic solution…” GOV/2012/48 added to this language “continued support for a peaceful resolution of the international community’s concerns…”

That, and the above cited text from paragraphs (d) and 5, was clearly a message directed at Israel, which especially in recent weeks, with dusky warnings about “red lines,” has tried the patience of the White House.

Two Messages for Iran

Then there is the language in GOV/48 concerning the board’s position on Iran itself. Operative Paragraph 3 “expresses [the board's] serious concern regarding the continued enrichment and heavy water-related activities in Iran, contrary to the relevant resolutions of the BOG and the UN Security Council.” If we go back to last November’s GOV/69, we find instead an expression of “deep and increasing concern.” Now, eye-dotters and T-crossers will point out that GOV/48 refers to different activities than the sensitive PMD matters referenced by GOV/69, but no matter–all these activities are cited in UNSC resolutions as grounds for sanctions.

The main point here is that GOV/48′s drafters judiciously did not choose inflammatory language (“deplore”, “condemn”…) to express their overall verdict, indeed they slightly de-escalated the war of words, regardless of the clear message sent by the IAEA’s report to the board on Iran last month that Iran is not cooperating with the agency in addressing outstanding issues. Why did they avoid an escalation? Because if the P5+1 agree on one thing, it is that escalating would be risky and counterproductive in the run-up to the U.S. Presidential election. Contrary to the views expressed in this piece , the IAEA resolution was informed by the perspective that as long as Iran doesn’t know who will be in the White House next January, it can’t be expected to seriously negotiate with the P5+1 on a long-term solution that would require that the U.S. make some firm commitments to Iran. These would include, for example, permitting Iran to continue enriching uranium after the IAEA, implementing Additional Protocol-plus, delivers an imprimatur that Iran’s nuclear program is clearly dedicated to peaceful use.

So in fact GOV/48 has three messages: Two are for Iran. One of these is, as Wood pointed out: “You are on notice: We will not let this issue go away.” The other however is “Let’s kick this can down the road until after November 6″ (the IAEA governors will meet on November 29). The resolution’s third message is for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: “Cool it. Diplomacy may resume in earnest in about three months.”

Finally, a note about vaunted P5+1 unity. There wasn’t a lot of trouble–sans some Chinese difficulties for a couple of days in getting their ducks to line up in the same direction in Beijing and Vienna–in getting all six countries to agree to this text. After all, this was in effect a lowest-common-denominator product, and the main intention of this resolution was to emphasize that the diplomatic process should continue and that the war of words should not intensify. Does that imply that the P5+1 are overcoming the kind of differences which, since 2003, have bedeviled formation of common positions on Iran? No. As Iran edges closer to a de facto nuclear weapons capability, a meeting of the minds of the six powers may become more likely. However there are some serious nuclear nonproliferation and verification issues dividing Moscow from most of the others in the group. Some of these issues will play out during the IAEA General Conference beginning on Monday.

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.