Iranian Non-Compliance with the IAEA

By Mark S. Williams | 2009-04-01 12:00:00

Hans Morgenthau wrote in his article "Death in the Nuclear Age" nearly 50 years ago that "man had transcended death" with the invention of atomic weapons.[1] Nuclear death would be unique in its horror because it would mean the end of civilization, the forfeit of memory, and ultimately loss of the meaning of life. The Cold War included both a nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States, and also political projects to restrict the proliferation of these weapons. The nuclear standoff between the superpowers may have ended, but proliferation has become more dire during the last eight years than during the 1960s, when China became nuclear. The top issue today is whether or not Iran is in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The answer is not entirely clear. In an interview, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself sounded uncertain. "So they have to tell us exactly what provisions of the NPT they're speaking of which they believe we have not abided by. There's no such case. They are interested in getting more information. And we're ready to cooperate with them and provide them with all information within the framework of international law."[2]

History of Non-Compliance

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed on 1 July 1968, calls for the safeguarding of peaceful nuclear activities. It obliges Iran to accept the Safeguards Agreement, which entered into force on 15 May 1974. The IAEA prescribed it in order to ensure that Iran's nuclear program would be for peaceful energy, not for developing nuclear weapons. The international community must not impede Iran's right to research, develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The issue of Iranian non-compliance with the NPT arose when the deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Said Esmail Khalilipour, sent a letter sent a letter to the IAEA on October 9, 2003 stating that Iran had not been in compliance with its Safeguards Agreement since the early 1980s. Subsequent correspondence between Iran and the IAEA, as well as an IAEA visit to Iran, revealed the extent of the non-compliance.

This history of admitted non-compliance generated the current skepticism surrounding Iran's present compliance with the NPT.

Current Non-Compliance

Four resolutions were passed through the UN Security Council between 2006-2008 attempting to pressure Iran into complying with its NPT Safeguards Agreement. On 3 March 2008, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1803, which reaffirms that Iran must halt enrichment and show the IAEA and the UN Security Council that the Iranian nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Last September, the IAEA Director General, Dr. Mohammad ElBaradei, reported that Iran has not complied with that resolution in two ways. First, it has continued running its centrifuges despite IAEA requests that Iran suspend uranium enrichment until it can be established that it is in compliance with the NPT. The NPT does affirm the right of a signatory state to enrich uranium for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This inalienable right however, is contingent on evidence that the program is in fact for peaceful purposes.

Article II of the NPT obliges non-nuclear states, "not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." The IAEA has ordered Iran to suspend uranium enrichment but without stating that Iran has been proven to be in violation of Article II. It expressed concern because Iran has failed adequately to address its alleged nuclear-weapons program, and is therefore in violation of its Safeguards Agreement on failure to disclose information putting Iran in violation of Article III of the NPT. The controversy about this non-compliance involves questions about the military aspects of the nuclear program:

Iran has dismissed these three issues, suggesting that the latter two are only conventional military projects and that the existence of a green salt project was fabricated.

ElBaradei also reported that Iran had failed to provide the IAEA with proper access and information on its centrifuges and its development of uranium enrichment. Further, Iran had denied IAEA inspectors any opportunity to interview officials and technicians connected to these allegations.

The report points out that the peaceful purpose of Iran's nuclear activity has become questionable because of its prolonged lack of transparency and its deliberate concealment of nuclear activities. ElBaradei insists that Iran must comply with UN resolutions in order to dispel doubts concerning its nuclear activity, but so far it has not complied with the IAEA, NPT, and the UN Security Council requirements.

UN Sanctions Resulting from Non-Compliance

For these reasons the Security Council has increased its sanctions against Iran. It seeks to impose financial and diplomatic isolation on Iran unless it becomes compliant. These sanctions include:

Resolution 1717 required states to report the arrival or transit of individuals involved in the nuclear program. Then when non-compliance continued, Another resolution banned the travel of persons of interest whom the IAEA identified.

Six nations are leading the discussions with Iran: China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the USA. They have been trying to balance the incentives for Iran's compliance against the sanctions for its noncompliance. China and Russia have argued that more incentives, including security guarantees, would make Iran more willing to comply with the international community. The USA has been hesitant to offer security guarantees, for that might put the security of the USA in the hands of the international community. Yet there is little prospect of a solution unless the Iranian concerns about security are addressed.

Resolution 1737 discusses regional security only in one passage. Long-term guarantees of Iranian compliance with the international community require that its security problems receive higher priority.

Most recently, Ayatollah Kashani attacked what he called "American arrogance" and claimed that the USA has taken a "hostile stand against Iran's nuclear energy, which is a scientific, technological and academic and not a military subject."[3] Iran's government argues that any demand by the international community for Iran to halt enrichment would violate Iran's rights as a sovereign state. It has rejected all incentive packages therefore and is developing its own package to give to the six nations.

Negotiating Compliance

ElBaradei is sensitive to all these diplomatic complexities. While it is his role to find a peaceful solution to the situation over Iran's nuclear program, he says that does "not mean that we will be soft with Iran, it does not mean that we will be blind to what we see."

ElBaradei must assess Iran's intention for its nuclear program and the risk it poses. He must gauge whether to trust that the Iranian nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Several factors are highly suggestive of the military context of Iran's nuclear program. Iran has not signed the Additional Protocol under the IAEA to allow unannounced visits from inspectors. Iran has, however, signed and ratified the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere and underwater. Iran also signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Theory (CTBT) but its refusal to ratify the agreement raises further questions regarding the purposes of its atomic energy program.

The issue is complex because of the fifty years of mutual mistrust between Iran and the West, going back to the Western-supported coup against Mohammad Mossadegh during the 1950s.

ElBaradei's vague approach to Iranian non-compliance with the NPT reflects institutional reluctance at the UN to declare violations in stark legalistic terms that could be used as a pretext for intensifying tensions. These could result in a "Resolution 1441" situation (the 2003 resolution on Iraq), where a Security Council decision could be used as a legal pretext for war.

Applying greater international pressure on Iran might necessitate a re-examination of the political deal that was the basis for the NPT. It was a bargain between the five nuclear powers (the Security Council P5 -- the USA, the UK, France, Russia, and China) and those states agreeing not to proliferate. According to J. Marshall Beier, "The deal at the centre of the treaty is that non-nuclear powers would agree not to compound the problem of proliferation if the nuclear powers commit to a serious and sustained movement toward nuclear disarmament."[4]

US Troops on its Borders

The Iranian nuclear program does not exist in a political vacuum. Infamously derided by Bush as part of the "axis of evil," Iran currently has US troops on both its eastern and south-western borders. With the US media openly debating a war with Iran, the Islamic Republic is facing an existential threat. At the same time, however, President Ahmadinejad has isolated his own country with his rhetoric against Israel and the USA, suggesting that a nuclear Iran would destabilize the Middle East. This has augmented the importance of Iranian compliance with the NPT.

The strongest influence that might now be exerted on the Islamic Republic of Iran is to alter the political context that set the tone for its nuclearization. Iran must now try to rebuild the confidence of international society toward itself. However, international society must also build confidence within Iran. This requires that they alter the status quo in ways that may be seen as a trade-off. Accept the failures of the status quo and negotiate a program for compliance with the NPT that recognizes Iran's security interests, or prepare for a disruption to the status quo when Iran begins to test its nuclear capabilities.

Upon launching its first satellite into orbit on February 5, Iran claimed that it is for peaceful purposes.

The launch, however, shows the pace of Iranian rocket and missile development and is a sombre reminder of the stakes riding on a diplomatic reconciliation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the International Atomic Energy Association.

Mark Williams is a PhD candidate in International Relations at McMaster University.


1 Hans Morgenthau, "Death in the Nuclear Age" in Hans Morgenthau Politics in the Twentieth Century, vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
2 "Ahmadinejad: Why is US so pro-Israel?" Interview with President Ahmadinejad.
3 "Iran condemns U.S. arrogance," Middle East Times.
4 Interview with J. Marshall Beier, Director of Innovation in Arms Control, 2 Nov 2008.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009, page 21. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Mark Williams here

Peace Magazine homepage