By Jamie M. Fly
The events of the past week pose a challenge to President Obama's vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Last week in Vienna, the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met to discuss Iran and Syria's continued stonewalling of IAEA investigations into illicit nuclear activities carried out by each country.
On November 16, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei submitted reports on both countries to the members of the Board. His report on Iran was perhaps the strongest IAEA report on Iran to date. It found that Iran violated its safeguards obligations by not reporting the existence of a covert enrichment facility near Qom. The report also noted that Iran continues to not cooperate with the IAEA's investigation into Iran's pre-2003 covert weaponization program. It was a damning final report from ElBaradei, who retired at the end of last week having spent much of his twelve years at the helm of the IAEA trying to cajole the Iranians into coming clean, often undermining U.S. and Western efforts to pressure in the process.
President Obama has relied heavily on ElBaradei to try to broker a deal to transfer a significant portion of Iran's stockpile of low enriched uranium out of Iran for processing into fuel for Iran's research reactor. Despite reportedly agreeing to a deal last month in Geneva, Iran has since backed away from the deal, reverting to its traditional negotiating tactics.
It had been almost four years since the Board of Governors passed a resolution condemning Iran's actions, even as Iran has flouted successive United Nations Security Council resolutions and stymied ElBaradei's IAEA. On Friday, the Board reacted to the recent revelation of Qom and Iran's continued stonewalling of the IAEA investigation by approving a resolution calling on Iran to suspend construction at Qom and expressing concern that Iran's recent actions as well as its failure to implement the Additional Protocol limit the IAEA's ability to verify that Iran's nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
The Bush administration tried repeatedly to push the board to pass such a resolution last year as Iran's noncompliance became more and more egregious. Unfortunately, the administration backed down quickly (too quickly in my view), when it became clear that Russia and China did not support such an action. The fact that Russia and China supported last week's resolution is a positive sign, but there are already debates among experts about how strong the resolution was and whether it is tantamount to a second referral of the Iranian nuclear file to the United Nations Security Council. It is likely that the Obama administration agreed to water down the resolution to keep Russia and China on board. Russian and Chinese acquiescence in Vienna does not mean that they will support meaningful sanctions in New York early next year.
However, if Iran's initial reaction to Friday's resolution is any indication, Iran could be the Obama administration's greatest ally in getting China and Russia to support sanctions. A conservative Iranian member of parliament threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). On Sunday, President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would build ten more uranium enrichment facilities. The second threat is likely just that, a threat. Iran lacks the capacity to build large scale enrichment facilities very quickly -- witness the fact that Qom was still not operational despite reportedly being under construction for years. The threat to withdraw from the NPT however, is more troublesome. If Iran were to do this, it could be a trigger for Israeli military action. If the IAEA is unable to verify the location of Iran's nuclear material, Obama administration officials may have to consider U.S. military action or risk diversion of nuclear material to covert facilities.
On Syria, the Board last week missed an opportunity to send a message to the Assad regime. ElBaradei's latest report makes clear that Syria has adopted the Iranian playbook on handling IAEA investigations. The report says that Syria has not responded to the IAEA's questions about its former covert nuclear reactor at Al Kibar even though some of its early answers contradict information that the IAEA has obtained from other sources. Syria has also refused to give the IAEA access to other facilities related to Al Kibar, claiming that these are sensitive military sites even though the IAEA has reminded Syria that under its safeguards agreement, this is not a reason to deny the IAEA access. In addition to unanswered questions about Al Kibar, the report raises new concerns about illicit activity at Syria's declared research reactor near Damascus.
Unlike Iran, Syria at the moment is experiencing a renaissance in its relations with the United States as well as Europe. This will have to change if the international community is serious about upholding the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The Board of Governors, which has largely been silent on the Syria nuclear issue, should have sent a strong message to Damascus that unless the Assad regime begins to share information, it will be subject to the same treatment as Iran (including eventual referral to the Security Council for further action).
The issue is not that Syria has an ongoing nuclear program (although it is difficult for the IAEA to verify this given Syria's lack of cooperation), but it is about the sanctity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the message that needs to be sent to other countries thinking about shirking their commitments. The lesson cannot be that such countries will be slapped on the wrist but then quickly forgiven, only to receive increased trade and diplomatic relations from the United States and Europe.
How President Obama handles these two issues in the coming months will say much about how serious he is about his supposed goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. As Obama said in his April speech in Prague after North Korea violated several United Nations Security Council Resolutions by conducting a missile test, "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."
Last week's IAEA Board resolution on Iran was a start, but there is much work to be done before he can turn this rhetoric into reality.
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