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The Iranian Strategy: No News is Good News

The headline reads “Iran, Russia Reach Nuclear Agreement, says Asefi”. This prompts a rapid and curious closer look at the article put forth by Iran’s state-run media, the Islamic Republic News Agency, with much curiosity about which parts of the Russian Proposal on uranium enrichment have been tweaked. Answer: None.

The agreement announced by Asefi had nothing to do with any nuclear fuel cycle and everything to do with rhetorical approach. What they agreed to is that, since the matter has left the IAEA and now sits atop the Security Council’s ‘To Do List’, the Iranian Nuclear Crisis “should be settled within the framework of the UN nuclear watchdog IAEA.

The problem is that the ‘watchdog’ has no teeth. The cooperation the IAEA receives from any nation is based upon a combination of general agreement in nuclear standards and practices and perception of consequences. Those consequences, firmly within the framework of the IAEA, come in the form of handing off dossiers irresolvable by the IAEA, powerless in enforcement on its own, to the UN Security Council for remediation. This is where we are right now.

Yet, Iran has demonstrated no general agreement in nuclear practices and continues to demonstrate their perception that Security Council consequences will be nill to weak, at best.

What this agreement essentially says is, now that the Security Council – who formally requested that the IAEA refer the case to them – has the case, it should be unceremoniously sent right back down for the IAEA to resolve. That the IAEA, lacking any real internal enforcement mechanism(s), could not resolve the matter is of little apparent concern.

This is not a ‘nuclear agreement’. Or is it?

Continuing with the failed IAEA attempts to gain cooperation and compliance is, in the eyes of the Iranian regime, clearly a nuclear agreement. For, the Iranian nuclear program continued to proceed throughout IAEA presence and international negotiations, inconvenience notwithstanding. For Iran, no action is action and no news is good news. If the matter is simply kicked back to the IAEA, ‘strongly worded statement’ or not, it’s back to business as usual and progress as expected.

But the British and the French have put forth a forceful proposal to the UNSC demanding that Iran have 14 days to halt uranium work and come into full compliance with the IAEA demands. Clearly, China and Russia are vehemently opposed to any such time constraints and language, including the text “to re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development” and a request for Iran to ‘reconsider’ the building of the Arak heavy water plant, crucial to plutonium production.

While the plan has some time flexibility built in, it is expected that Britain would insist on an agreement to tangible consequences via targeted sanctions for failure to abide. Any proposal with such teeth will surely never pass muster among all members of the Security Council.

On targeted sanctions, the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee voted 37-3 to put forth a measure expanding existing sanctions on Iran, including extending them to include blocking aid to any country extending assistance to the Iranian energy sector, which clearly includes both China and Russia, permanent members of the UN Security Council and currently opposing any measures against Iran.

Both President Bush and the State Department took issue with the measure, calling it too sweeping and counterproductive. State Department legislative affairs chief, Jeffrey Bergner, in a letter to the House Speaker said that such a move would “create tensions with countries whose help we need in dealing with Iran and shift the focus away from Iran’s actions and spotlight differences between us and our allies.” While it is important that the legislative representatives take the Iranian nuclear threat seriously, as clearly this vote indicates, this specific approach may likely be a measure that could be summed up as ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.

In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists that pressures on Iran aim only to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He said that this will never happen and that Iran will never lose focus on the Palestinian issue, adding, “All Iranian people and world free nations declare their hatred of the criminal acts of the US and Zionists by chanting slogans of `Death to the US’ and `Death to Israel’.”

With support for the mullahs’ nuclear weapons sprint increasingly questioned by both the Mejlis (parliament) and everyday citizens, this rallying call focusing on a more unifying cause is to be expected. The Iranian regime may not perceive any Security Council sanctions as likely, but it increasingly makes Iranian citizens nervous. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, while Iran is determined to resist any pressure from the Security Council over its nuclear program, it is becoming clear that little real pressure on the Iranian regime from that body exists, real or perceived.