The US/EU fail on Iran at the IAEA


The US/EU set out to persuade the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iran to the Security Council over its nuclear activities, at the Board meeting in Vienna during the week beginning 19 September 2005.  They failed.


It is true that, after a week’s pressure by the US/EU, the 35-member Board formally declared Iran to be in “non-compliance” with its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.  This was in a resolution passed on 24 September 2005.  However, Iran was not referred to the Security Council.


Jack Straw’s press statement of 24 September 2005 summarised the situation reasonably accurately, as follows:


“Today, the IAEA Board has just passed a resolution finding Iran not compliant with its Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, whilst deferring Iran's report to the Security Council.”


(By contrast, the Guardian’s report of the affair on 26 September 2005 was inaccurate: over the headline Iran hits back over UN nuclear censure, it told its readers:


Iran threatened yesterday to curb UN inspections of its nuclear projects in retaliation for the decision by the UN nuclear watchdog to take the nuclear dispute to the security council in New York.”


It has yet to correct this inaccuracy, which it repeated on its front page on 6 October 2005, despite being informed about it by me.)


The resolution was passed by 22 votes to 1 with 12 abstentions, Venezuela voting against; Russia and China, though strongly opposed, merely abstained (see BBC report here).  India voted for the resolution (of which more later) along with the US and the EU states.


The usual practice in the IAEA Board is that resolutions are passed by consensus – reservations about a resolution are rarely pressed to a vote. That was true of all the earlier resolutions about Iran.  Only twice in recent years, in 1993 and 2003, has the IAEA Board voted on an issue instead of adopting it by consensus: on both occasions the issue was North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  I don’t know why Venezuela chose to press its opposition to a vote on this occasion.


Iran in “non-compliance”?

Paragraph 1 of the resolution, which declares Iran to be in “non-compliance”, reads as follows:


“[The Board of Governors] Finds that Iran’s many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement, as detailed in GOV/2003/75, constitute non compliance in the context of Article XII.C of the Agency’s Statute;”


GOV/2003/75 was a report to the Board by the IAEA’s Director General, Dr Mohammed ElBaradei, entitled Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  It was presented to the Board nearly two years ago, on 10 November 2003, and therefore doesn’t give an accurate picture of the situation today.  Dr ElBaradei has presented other such reports since, the latest being GOV/2005/67 on 2 September 2005.  This gives a list of outstanding issues between the IAEA and Iran today, but it also says:


Since October 2003, good progress has been made in Iran’s correction of the breaches, and in the Agency’s ability to confirm certain aspects of Iran’s current declarations, which will be followed up as a routine safeguards implementation matter (particularly in connection with conversion activities, laser enrichment, fuel fabrication and the heavy water research reactor programme).”  (paragraph 43)


The resolution itself acknowledges this in paragraph(f) of its preamble, which says:


“Recalling that the Director General in his report to the Board on 2 September 2005 noted that good progress has been made in Iran’s correction of the breaches and in the Agency’s ability to confirm certain aspects of Iran’s current declarations”


It is not obvious what purpose was served by formally declaring that Iran was in “non-compliance” two years ago, when the situation has changed in the interim.  Could it be that the US/EU couldn’t persuade the Board to declare that Iran is in “non-compliance” today?  Be that as it may, the end result was to give the US/EU a small crumb to put in a press statement at the end of an unproductive week.


It is only a small crumb, since it merely repeats in more formal terms what the IAEA Board said, on 26 November 2003, shortly after it received report GOV/2003/75 from its Director General.  Then it passed a resolution unanimously, saying:


“[The Board of Governors] Strongly deplores Iran’s past failures and breaches of its obligation to comply with the provisions of its Safeguards Agreement, as reported by the Director General;” (paragraph 2)


US lies about reference to Security Council

So small was the crumb that Nicholas Burns, the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, had to lie in order to construct something that was serviceable for a press statement, where he welcomed:


“ … the September 24 decision of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors to find Iran in violation of its nonproliferation obligations and to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council.”


But the IAEA Board did not refer Iran to the Security Council.  It is not wholly accurate even to say, as Jack Straw did in his press statement, that the resolution passed by the IAEA Board had the effect of “deferring Iran's report to the Security Council”.  This implies that a decision was taken in principle, which will come into effect automatically at some later date.


There is nothing of that ilk in the resolution and, if there had been, the resolution would not have been passed – otherwise the US/EU would have proposed such a resolution and got it passed.  The plain fact is that there wasn’t a majority on the IAEA Board for referring Iran to the Security Council either immediately or at a later date – otherwise the US/EU would have got what they wanted.


And there is no doubt that they wanted Iran to be referred to the Security Council forthwith.  On 21 September 2005, the UK representative on the IAEA Board delivered a statement to the IAEA Board on behalf of the 25 EU states (plus Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Iceland, Norway and Moldova).  It said plainly:


“In the EU view there is something that the Board can and should do.  The Board should draw the attention of the UN Security Council to the safeguards breaches and failures first reported to the Board in November 2003 and to the questions which have arisen in this connection that are within the competence of the Security Council.” (paragraph 13)


The Board didn’t do so.  It is true that the resolution it passed states that Iran’s behaviour in these matters has “given rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council, as the organ bearing the main responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” (paragraph 2), but it didn’t go any further than saying this.


ElBaradei confirms

At a press conference afterwards, Dr ElBaradei made it clear that the issue remains with the IAEA (see transcript here):


“I think what I heard today at the Board is encouraging. Everyone acknowledged that the issue remains very much here in Vienna, that there is ample room here, still, for negotiations, that the issue has not been deferred to the Security Council and that a number of countries have indicated their readiness to work with Iran and with the European Union to try to find a way for Iran to go back into the negotiating process with the European Union.”


Later in answer to a question, he repeated the message:


“I am encouraged that the issue has not been deferred to the Security Council, precisely to give time for diplomacy and negotiation. So all of us need to explore this window of opportunity, from now until November, to make sure that we are moving toward a comprehensive settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue.”


The next regular meeting of the IAEA Board is in November.  It remains to be seen if there is a majority on the Board for reference to the Security Council then, assuming the US/EU are still pushing for this course of action.  But, even if this happens, it is by no means obvious that any action will be taken by the Security Council, since China has a veto, and Iran is China’s largest supplier of oil.


Iranian President’s speech at UN

US Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, put the “success” of the week’s work in Vienna down to Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s speech to the UN General Assembly on 17 September 2005.  Burns described this speech as “excessively harsh and uncompromising”, emphasising three times Iran’s determination to have a uranium enrichment programme.  As a result, according to Burns, there was a “stiffening” in international opinion against Iran on this issue, which bore fruit at the IAEA.


It is true that President Ahmadinejad’s speech (see Islamic Republic News Agency here) was uncompromising in its assertion of Iran’s “inalienable right” under the NPT to have a uranium enrichment programme.  But, he did propose an additional measure – outside the requirements of the NPT – to lend confidence that the enrichment process would not be used for weapons purposes.  He said that Iran would be prepared to invite foreign, public or private, partners to help in the implementation of the enrichment program:


“Technically, the fuel cycle of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not different from that of other countries which have peaceful nuclear technology.


“Therefore, as a further confidence building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran.


“This represents the most far reaching step, outside all requirements of the NPT, being proposed by Iran as a further confidence building measure.”


The IAEA would be involved in negotiation with partners:


“In keeping with Iran's inalienable right to have access to a nuclear fuel cycle, continued interaction and technical and legal cooperation with the IAEA will be the centerpiece of our nuclear policy. Initiation and continuation of negotiations with other countries will be carried out in the context of Iran's interaction with the Agency.”


He then went on to explain why Iran couldn’t rely on importing nuclear fuel for power generation from other states:


“International precedence tells us that nuclear fuel-delivery contracts are unreliable and no legally binding international document or instrument exists to guarantee the delivery of nuclear fuel. On many occasions such bilateral contracts stopped altogether for political reasons.”


That cannot be denied.


Overall, while insisting on Iran’s “inalienable right” under the NPT to a uranium enrichment programme, the Iranian President bent over backwards in proposing objective means (over and above IAEA inspections) whereby assurances could be provided to the outside world that enrichment would not be used for weapons purposes.  Needless to say, his proposals barely got reported, let alone taken seriously by the US/EU.


India shifts ground?

A BBC report of the outcome of the IAEA Board meeting contained the following rather cryptic sentence:


India, which has close ties with Iran, denied that its decision to vote in favour of the motion was due to US pressure.”


India’s vote pleased the US administration greatly.  In his press statement, US Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, said:


It's very significant to the US that India voted with the majority. That is a blow to Iran's attempt to turn this debate into a developed world versus a developing world debate. Peru, Ecuador, Singapore and Ghana also voted with the majority against Iran. So we're very grateful for India's support and it's significant that India is now working very closely with the United States and Europe to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.”


The US is seeking to present India’s vote as the first fruits of an agreement between the US and India signed in Washington on 18 July 2005, which Nicholas Burns himself described at the time as “a broad, global partnership of the likes that we've not seen with India since India's founding in 1947”.  The prize for India in the agreement is that the US administration undertook to attempt to persuade Congress to alter US law so that civil nuclear technology can be exported to India.


Iran was greatly displeased by India’s vote, which it regarded as a significant shift in India’s stance, and threatened trade sanctions against India (and other states that voted for the resolution).  There is a lot at stake here for India, which in January 2005 signed a deal with Iran to supply it with five million tonnes of liquefied natural gas annually for 25 years beginning in 2009 (see BBC report here).  A plan is also afoot to build a gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan (see BBC report here).  The US is opposed to this project.


At the time of writing, it looks as if relations between Iran and India have returned to normal (see BBC report here), perhaps because on close examination it isn’t clear that India has shifted its ground at all on the issue.  Of course, the US administration is anxious to give the impression that India has adopted the US position on Iran’s nuclear activities – Nicholas Burns statement quoted above rejoices that India voted for a resolution “to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council”.  It didn’t, since there was no such resolution.


In fact, India seems to have shifted ground very little on the issue.  On 11 August 2005, it went along with the previous EU-sponsored resolution on Iran (which urged it to resume its suspension of all enrichment related activities).  This was passed without a vote.  However, judging by The Guardian report the next day, it voiced some objections to it.


(The statement in my article, Iran’s “inalienable right”, last month that “15 out of the 35 members of the Board, including India, South Africa, Brazil and Malaysia, voted against” this resolution was incorrect.  It was based on the Guardian report, which said that “the EU formula, however, was opposed by the IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, and met stiff opposition from 15 members of the 35-strong IAEA board”.  Stiff opposition there may have been, but no votes were actually cast against.)


India explains its vote

An Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) briefing of 24 September 2005 explained India’s policy on Iran’s nuclear activities.  It begins as follows:


“It will be recalled that Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had emphasized two major preoccupations on the part of India. Firstly, we were not for the Iran nuclear issue being referred to the UN Security Council. Our preference was to deal with the issue within the IAEA itself. The EU-3 agreed to take our concern on board. The resolution has kept consideration of the issue within the purview of the IAEA itself.


“Secondly, we were keen that sufficient time should be given to the parties concerned to continue to engage in intensive consultations so that an outcome satisfactory to both Iran and the international community as a whole, could be evolved. The draft resolution has conceded that by deferring any decision till a further consideration of the matter at the next Board meeting in November 2005. We have thus gained time for further consultations.


“We would have preferred to have a consensus resolution since the previous resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue had been adopted by consensus. However, the EU-3 draft enjoyed the support of a significant majority of delegations in the IAEA Board and was arrived after extensive consultations between them.”


In an Explanation of Vote statement on 24 September 2005, the MEA even stated categorically that Iran should not have been declared “non-compliant”:


“There are elements in the draft which we have difficulty with. For example, the draft recognizes that ‘good progress has been made in Iran's correction of the breaches and in the Agency's ability to confirm certain aspects of Iran's current declarations’. In view of this, finding Iran non-compliant in the context of Article XII-C of the Agency's Statute is not justified.”


True, but in that case it is absurd for India to have voted for a resolution the most significant element of which is a finding that Iran is “non-compliant”.  Abstention would have been reasonable, but voting for the resolution does not make sense.  The vote must have been cast to please the US and must be linked to the nuclear deal signed in July.


The Indian Government felt obliged to deny any such linkage, saying:


“Nothing could be further from the truth. India takes decisions on issue[s] based on its own independent assessment and in consonance with the country's national interests. The Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement stands on its own, based as it is on a mutual recognition of Indian energy requirements, its global impact and on an our acknowledgement of India[’s] impeccable record on non-proliferation. The resolution we have voted for is a EU-3 initiative and our decision is the culmination of very intensive and high level consultations with the German, French and the British. Their objectives and ours are similar and there has been a willingness on their part to take on board our major concerns.”


US expects …

As yet, there is little evidence that India has shifted its ground on Iran as a result of the agreement with the US.  The US wants Iran to be referred to the Security Council; India does not.  That was the position before the agreement, and it is still the position now.


The US/UK may tolerate Iran having a civil nuclear power programme.  But they won’t tolerate Iran having uranium enrichment facilities so that it can manufacture nuclear fuel for a power programme from indigenous sources of uranium, and not have to rely on outside sources.  Neither of the MEA documents mentioned above specifically support Iran’s right to have uranium enrichment facilities, contrary to the US/EU position.  The MEA Explanation of Vote statement of 24 September 2005 goes so far as to say:


Iran has the inalienable right to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy programme and we must respect that right. We are confident that in the coming days, we would be able to find a way to reconcile Iran's need for nuclear energy for its development with the international community's concern over proliferation.”


That is reconcilable with the EU position that Iran may have a nuclear power programme, as long as it imports the necessary nuclear fuel.  It remains to be seen if India shifts its ground to effect such a reconciliation, post its own nuclear agreement with the US.


There is no doubt that the US administration, and the US Congress, expects India to shift its ground as a quid pro quo, expects Indian support on this critical policy issue for the US.  And if it isn’t forthcoming, the US Congress may not do what is necessary to allow civil nuclear technology to be sold to India.


The moment of truth is coming for India.



David Morrison

Labour & Trade Union Review


9 October 2005