IAEA and Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will hold its fall Board meeting this week, and as usual Iran’s nuclear program will be on the agenda. Though some news reports have played up the Agency’s latest assessment as final proof that Iran is on the fast track to a nuclear weapon, others have pointed out that the IAEA’s indicators reveal a program that is moving more slowly than intended, including a lack of progress on testing and installing new centrifuges.

The general conclusion: Iran still needs to be more transparent and cooperative with the IAEA, including following through on its Additional Protocol, but its nuclear program has not reached the point of efficiency for rapid nuclear weapons break out.  

Thus, there is still time for diplomacy. But what about the political will for diplomacy?

General thinking is pessimistic. The U.S. presidential election season is already upon us, when tougher stands are to be expected, with even less patience for arms control methods.  Republican debates have paid scant attention to the issue (except for one interesting exchange led by outsider Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) during the debate in Iowa in which he criticized over a half-century of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran). As for the President, his focus is on the domestic front and economic challenges, and is likely to avoid new foreign policy initiatives.

However, despite change across large swaths of the Middle East, the Iranian government under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears stable. Sanctions and sabotage may have presented some challenges to Iran’s nuclear efforts, but may also strengthen Iranian resolve to redouble their efforts. Many Iranians see the nuclear program as a source of pride and a symbol of independence in the face of unfair treatment by foreign powers. It enjoys overwhelming support across political opinion.

The usual assumption is that movement takes U.S. leadership, however, U.S. distraction may have a positive side.  It could create diplomatic space for regional players. The moves to discuss steps that could lead to a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are an important focus, potentially offering a more equitable approach to regional security fears. BASIC last week held an informal Track 2 meeting with participants from key states. The IAEA has announced that it will hold a gathering related to such a zone on November 21-22 in Vienna.

Even though the Arab Spring is also a significant distraction, there remains a keen desire among the relevant diplomats to get the process going. In the medium to longer term the regional transformation, focused as it is on democracy, fairness and transparency, could well prove a decisively positive influence on the possibilities for regional disarmament and non-proliferation. An atmosphere of change could break the cynical complacency and provide a wider opening for new moves. Such steps do not require trust among the parties at this point if representatives choose to move beyond rhetoric and focus instead on common interests.  The zone itself would eventually require quite radical changes and acceptance and pressure among peers, but for now diplomacy merely requires quiet and positive engagement.

Chris Lindborg

These are the personal views of the author.

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