Is Iran being victimized by sanctions it doesn’t deserve?

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A security official talks to journalists in front of Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran.

A security official talks to journalists in front of Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran.

By : Yousaf Butt

Iranian officials met this week with their six-power counterparts to try to hammer out the outlines of a comprehensive nuclear deal set to last for several years. But its precise duration remains undecided.

Reaching an agreement will be a monumentally challenging task because all the parties have veered away from international law and are trying to make ad hoc arrangements. They should instead aim for a permanent, straightforward and legal solution whose basis already exists. Successfully sealing a deal with Iran may also help Western efforts to stabilize the situation in Iraq, where Iranian and Western interests align.

Late last year, the United States, Britain, China, Russia, Germany and France reached an interim deal with Iran to freeze and roll back some of its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. These interim arrangements are set to expire July 20. According to the agreed “Joint Plan of Action,” another six-month stopgap deal may be signed after the first one expires. But a comprehensive long-term agreement should be reached within a year, by late January 2015.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wait for the begin of talks in Vienna.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wait for the begin of talks in Vienna.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wait for the begin of talks in ViennaThough there was a great deal of optimism initially, the negotiations have recently bogged down, with the duration of the comprehensive deal a sticking point. Tehran appears to favor a three-year timeframe, while Washington insiders have suggested a 10-year or 20-year agreement.

The timeframe is important because, according to the existing Joint Plan of Action, after the comprehensive deal expires, “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty” — meaning leniently.

So whatever is decided will be temporary — by design.

Up to now, one main point of contention has been the number of centrifuges, used in the enrichment of uranium, that Iran will be allowed to have. Such limits are important, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, because they would lengthen the time needed for Iran to “break out” and enrich uranium to weapons-grade in any presumptive race to build a bomb. But because the comprehensive deal would be temporary by design, this is hardly a lasting solution.

Others have suggested that such limits are meaningless. As one commentator said, “This is completely wrong. Breakout is precisely the wrong measure of whether a deal is successful,” because the Iranians, according to this argument, would use a covert facility to break out if they wanted to do that.

Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Reza Najafi attends a news conference at IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Reza Najafi attends a news conference at IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA Najafi attends a news conference in ViennaInstead of obsessing over breakout capability, more emphasis on verification and intrusive inspections above and beyond what is codified in international law has been suggested.

There are two problems with these approaches. First, they are ad hoc requirements imposed on Iran that are not based on any international law. Second, the proposed solutions are not lasting. They may sound like they are harsh on Iran, but they evaporate after an undetermined number of years.

A better solution is to craft a lasting agreement based on existing frameworks in arms control law.

One such framework is the Additional Protocol. This is a legal document complementing Iran’s existing safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (AIEA). The protocol enables “the IAEA not only to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material but also to provide assurances as to the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a state.”

Although it is far from perfect — even with this protocol in force, a nation could fool the IAEA if it wanted to — the protocol is a step above the “bare” safeguards agreement between Iran and the IAEA.

There may be some risk that Iran would cheat on this protocol, but the historical record suggests otherwise. Iran has never been accused of manufacturing nuclear weapons. The IAEA did determine that Iran was in “non-compliance” with its safeguards agreement in 2005. But this was a technical matter dealing with accounting for nuclear materials. “Non-compliance” did not mean that Iran was making nuclear weapons.

For example, South Korea, in 2004, and Egypt, in 2005, also violated their safeguards agreements. But these U.S. allies were never even referred to the United Nations Security Council, let alone targeted for sanctions. Pierre Goldschmidt, a former deputy director of safeguards at the IAEA, has noted the “danger of setting bad precedents based on arbitrary criteria or judgments informed by political considerations” at the IAEA.

In any case, a decade ago Iran did not have the enriched fissile material needed to make bombs. Even if it wanted to. Hans Blix, a former head of the IAEA, has stated: “Iran has not violated the [Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons].” He added, “there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.”

In 2011, following his more than decade-long tenure as the director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said that he had not “seen a shred of evidence” that Iran was pursuing the bomb. “All I see,” ElBaradei said, “is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.”

IAEA records show that all substantial safeguards issues raised in 2005 had been resolved in Iran’s favor by 2008. So Iran was again in compliance with its safeguards agreement at that date.

All U.N. Security Council sanctions ought to have been dropped at that point. Yet Iran’s nuclear file still remains tied up at the Security Council due largely to the IAEA’s and Security Council’s mishandling of the case. The poor quality of the scientific evidence against Iran – some of it possibly fabricated – does not justify continued U.N. sanctions.

Out of all the countries it inspects, the IAEA spends the second-highest amount of money on nuclear inspections in Iran. Only Japan, which has a vastly larger nuclear infrastructure, accounts for a larger amount. About 12 percent of the IAEA’s $164 million inspections budget is spent on Iran, but that percentage has increased to 17 percent during the interim deal because of the even more intrusive — and therefore expensive — inspections being carried out. On a “per nuclear facility” basis, in fact, the IAEA spends the largest amount of its inspections budget on Iran.

Comprehensive deal or not, the IAEA will continue to conduct in Iran one of the most thorough and intrusive inspections it carries out anywhere.

Given this history and the critical situation in Iraq today, it makes little sense going for broke trying – and failing – to get a very stringent but temporary deal. Getting Tehran to agree to ratify the Additional Protocol permanently would be a far more meaningful and sustainable accomplishment — and would have the benefit of being within existing arms control law.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, serves as senior scientific adviser to the British American Security Information Council and is director of the Emerging Technologies Program at the Cultural Intelligence Institute. The views expressed here are his own.

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