The recent report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions from the International Atomic Energy Agency describes in greater detail than ever before the weapons-related work carried out by Iran before 2003. The IAEA also highlights the likelihood that some of that work, including research into explosive triggers and warhead design, has subsequently resumed and may be continuing.
The upshot: Iran remains in clear violation of its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as the Additional Protocol which it signed in 2003.
As for the international response, the IAEA’s Board of Governors will meet in two weeks to review the report and to determine whether to recommend a United Nations resolution. Iran, of course, already faces numerous sanctions because of its nuclear violations. And based on recent comments from Russian and Chinese leaders, it seems unlikely that the U.N. Security Council will recommend a further round of sanctions. But more can be done by the United States and its partners to tighten existing sanctions, especially those aimed at preventing Iran’s access to components and technology for its nuclear program.
The focus on Iran’s human rights violations (for which the U.S.-backed creation of a special UN human rights monitor for Iran was a major step forward) should be increased. Both the United States and the European Union are considering further economic sanctions against Iran, but there are concerns over the effects that such measures could have on the Iranian people, and that they could exacerbate the global economic crisis.
As for efforts to change Iranian behavior, an episode from the 1990’s may be instructive. In her recent book Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, Iranian-American author Roya Hakkakian recounts a terrorist attack by Iranian regime elements in Berlin, and the strong international reaction against Iran that resulted from the pursuit of legal claims and the perpetrators. “Nobody had to bomb Tehran in 1997, but the regime did suffer at the time the greatest blow that it had ever suffered at the hands of the international community,” Hakkakian said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “Far more was achieved than anything that we have managed to do in all the years of these belligerent non-confrontational confrontations.”
Beating the diplomacy drums may not be as satisfying to some as beating the other kind, but it remains the most effective way to protect the United States and strengthen international resolve toward changing Iran’s course. It is vitally important that we maintain focus on the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, but it is also important for us not to talk ourselves into hysteria about what such a weapon could mean. Claims that an Iranian nuclear weapon would radically reorient the entire Middle East are asserted far more often than demonstrated, and are unconvincing. The fact is the United States remains the far stronger player on the international stage, and has contained and deterred far larger adversaries in the past.
Before that point is reached, however, the United States must continue to maintain international pressure over Iran’s refusal to answer the IAEA’s questions sufficiently. The new IAEA report provides an excellent impetus for doing that. It’s clear that for the global Non-Proliferation Treaty to matter it must have teeth. There must be consequences for violations by its signatories. At the same time, the United States should reiterate its offer to talk to the Iranians. Even though such talks have not yet yielded a solution to the nuclear issue, the demonstrated willingness to engage has functioned as an important force multiplier for the administration’s other efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.
The international community has a vital interest in maintaining a strong international nonproliferation regime. A strategy that continues to isolate and contain Iran in response to its refusal to abide by its obligations, but which also keeps open the door to a negotiated solution, is the best one.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress and the Director of the Center’s Middle East Progress project.