Coralie Pison Hindawi writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion (a war unleashed following twelve years of the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever adopted by the UN Security Council), it is particularly ironic to read the numerous reports documenting the worrying impact sanctions are currently having on the Iranian economy and population. Some of us who followed the debate on the use of sanctions in the 1990s thought that the heavy price paid by the Iraqis at the time, particularly by the most vulnerable of them, had at least had the benefit of raising awareness on the dangers of wide-ranging economic sanctions. By March 1998, and according to the most conservative assessments, in Iraq above 200 000 children under 5 had died as a result of the sanctions. This indeed showed unmistakably that economic coercion could, in some instances, prove even more destructive than military force. In the late 1990s, the struggle within the UN Security Council to end the sanctions was nourished by numerous initiatives promoted by Western states to develop tools to assess the humanitarian impact of sanctions better.
In one of the strange twists of fate with which international politics are replete, the very same states are now increasing the economic pressure on Iran, unilaterally adopting measures that go well beyond the UN Security Council’s sets of sanctions and are now seriously harming the Iranian population. US President Barack Obama proudly declared a couple of months ago that Iran is now facing the ‘toughest sanctions in history’ – and as we speak, they have become even tougher. Meanwhile, analysts comparing polls over the years stress how, it seems, the Iranian population’s support for the nuclear program has been progressively shrinking, suggesting it is only a matter of time until the cost of the program either leads the Iranian decision-makers to bend or the Iranian people to turn against the regime.
Of course, these are the traditional arguments upon which coercive economic measures are based. Of course, it is obvious that these measures have so far led to the opposite result in the Iranian case, pushing the regime to move forward with its nuclear activities. But, as the theory goes, it is because the cost has only been increased recently and will increase further. If sanctions are allowed ‘to bite’ for long enough – which they no doubt will – the desired outcome may be achieved. That such a belief is refuted by existing scholarship on sanctions should not preoccupy us excessively as, I would like to argue, there is an even more fundamental problem.
Sanctions are designed to compel Iran to do something it would otherwise not do. But what is that? Essentially, Iran is being pressured to:
– Comply with existing UNSC resolutions that asked the country to stop a wide range of nuclear activities, among which is uranium enrichment.
– Ratify the Additional Protocol that grants the International Atomic Energy Agency (AIEA) the right to conduct inspections beyond the declared sites, enabling the international agency to verify that Iran is not conducting undisclosed –and prohibited – activities.
– Cooperate fully with the IAEA in order to allow it to get an accurate and complete picture of past Iranian nuclear activities.
A quick reminder may be needed for some at this stage: the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime regulates the use and transfer of nuclear technology, and it divides the world into two broad categories: the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) (an exclusive club that only accepts states that got their nuclear weapons before the treaty was adopted in the late 1960s and which therefore comprises the 5 permanent members of the Security Council) and the Non Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) (all other states party to the NPT treaty). What is often presented as the big bargain of the NPT is that the NNWS commit not to seek nuclear weapons and the NWS not to share the nuclear military technology in exchange for a commitment by the latter to:
– help NNWS benefit from the civil use of military technology on a non discriminatory basis (which is considered a right) and
– (as the treaty says) ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament …’, which, as the International Court of Justice has since clarified, ‘is an obligation to achieve a precise result – nuclear disarmament in all its aspects …’.[i]
Beyond the difficulty of getting the nuclear weapon states to engage seriously in disarmament, the other major ambiguity of the legal regime is the fact that it facilitates the spread of nuclear technology for civil purposes while aiming to avoid its military use. Given that the techniques and equipment used for the former are easily converted into a military program, one understands how tricky the NPT bargain actually is. For example, while uranium enrichment, if practiced long enough, can provide a state with enough fissile material suited for a bomb, it is at the same time a technique that is needed to produce low enriched uranium used in nuclear power reactors.
Within that challenging framework, the IAEA is the international, supposedly neutral, body that is charged both with helping states exploiting nuclear technology for civil purposes and checking that they are not engaging in military activities. Given that the whole regime is, as almost all international rules are, based upon state consent, the IAEA’s ability to access a state’s nuclear facilities and guarantee the absence of prohibited activities depends upon the type of safeguard agreement that this state ratified. While the Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement (designed in the 1970s) allows the IAEA to inspect only the sites and materials declared by the state, the strengthened safeguard system, that was introduced in the mid 1990s with the so-called Additional Protocol, grants the IAEA more rights and also enables the agency to access undeclared facilities, thereby reducing the risk of undisclosed military programs running in parallel to declared civil activities (as happened in the case of Iraq during the 1980s).
But let us go back to the Iranian case:
Iran, being a NNWS, has committed not to seek or develop nuclear weapons. Being party to the NPT, the IAEA Statute and the Comprehensive Safeguard Agreement, Iran has to keep records and inform the IAEA of its nuclear activities (be they related to nuclear materials, facilities or research).
The current crisis started in 2002, when an opposition group disclosed that Iran had undeclared nuclear facilities and that it had imported fissile material without informing the IAEA. These revelations, as well as additional aspects of the Iranian nuclear program that had previously been concealed and that Iran later acknowledged, showed that Iran has breached its obligations under the safeguard agreement. This raised concerns that it may have been involved in military research (a breach of its NPT obligations), which is why the IAEA started asking for full cooperation in order to gain a complete understanding of Iran’s nuclear program and to restore confidence.
By the Fall 2003, Iran declared having adopted a policy of full disclosure and, following an agreement with France, Germany and the UK, decided to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities, as well as to sign the Additional Protocol and start applying it in advance of its ratification.[ii] These measures were portrayed by all parties involved as designed to restore confidence, pending the resolution of the outstanding issues related to Iran’s past activities. In the following months, the IAEA acknowledged good progress in its understanding of the Iranian program. By mid 2004, the list of unexplained questions had shortened and there seemed to be two main issues outstanding that the IAEA wanted to clarify: the origin of high and low-enriched uranium contamination found in some nuclear facilities, as well as Iran’s efforts to import, manufacture and use P1 and P2 centrifuges.[iii] Reading the IAEA reports at the time, the resolution of these issues was presented as ‘of key importance to the Agency’s ability to provide the international community with the required assurances about Iran’s nuclear activities’.[iv] This gave the impression that the resolution of these issues would lead to the closure of the file.
Interestingly, though, and we are gradually approaching the core of the problem, what triggered the IAEA Board of Governors to loose patience in September 2005, declare that Iran was in ‘non-compliance’ with its safeguard agreement (while it was clear by mid-2003 that Iran had breached the agreement, but had worked since with the IAEA to make up for that) and refer the matter to the UN Security Council – thereby letting Iran fall into the Chapter VII trap – was not a new disclosure about concealed actions, but the fact that Iran had restarted its enrichment and reprocessing activities.
There is an irony here, and it is one that had also appeared in the Iraqi case a decade before: it is the fact that, in spite of the cooperation displayed by the Iranians from late 2003 until 2005, the pressure on that state was not decreased, but progressively increased. The fact that several times, increased cooperation actually led to harsher resolutions or, for the post-2005 period, further sanctions.[v] The fact that almost each time one file has been closed by the IAEA, new issues have been raised, based upon new intelligence made available by third states to the agency. While it has now become a cliché, it is difficult not to think of the Iraqi case, in which a very coercive disarmament process went on for twelve years, growing increasingly confrontational and ultimately providing the best justification for the invasion of the country, whereas nobody can now refute that the vast majority of the Iraqi WMD and programs had been destroyed or dismantled at the latest by the mid-1990s.
This major paradox in the case of Iraq can neither be explained by the so-called failure of US intelligence, nor by the various motives of the Bush administration to launch an unnecessary war (since the crisis related to the Iraqi WMDs started and unfolded long before G. W. Bush became president). The thing is simply that the Iraqi disarmament file was never closed in spite of the fact that there were no weapons left because such coercive, Chapter VII-based, WMD arms control processes have the potential never to be closed.
Looking at the Iranian nuclear crisis today, the issue has really very little to do with how high the cost inflicted by the sanctions on Iran must be to force the regime to cooperate, and what the red lines are for both Iran and the ‘West’. Arguably, talks as the recent ones in Kazakhstan, offers of limited relief on sanctions, should the Iranians agree on one move or another, don’t have the potential to solve things either. The file is now on the Security Council’s desk, acting under Chapter VII, and the rationale for the Council’s involvement is the need to regain trust in the peaceful intentions of Iran’s nuclear activities. However, even in the unlikely event that the Iranians would agree to ‘cooperate fully’ with the IAEA and to refrain from pursuing some of the nuclear activities they have been involved in, it is impossible to define clearly what level of cooperation will be considered enough to end the process, what new requirements or questions may be raised, month after month, possibly year after year. There are reasons to fear, borrowing the words of former IAEA Director and Nobel Peace prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, that ‘… nothing would satisfy, short of Iran coming to the table completely undressed’.[vi] I have no doubt the Iranians involved in the process understand well that they are now in the same position as their late Iraqi foe, and that the possibility exists that under its current leadership, Iran may never be considered to have ‘fully complied’ with the Council’s demand.
While the technical and legal issues raised by the Iranian nuclear crisis are related to the ambiguities of the NPT regime and the dual nature of nuclear technology, the ad hoc and coercive approach that has been adopted so far has turned the case into a tussle. The only solution could be a grand, primarily political, bargain between Iran and the United States, possibly including, in one way or another, some of the other permanent members of the Security Council. As unlikely as such a deal may appear, even this would not be a sustainable solution to the broader fundamental questions raised by the case (How to strengthen the NPT regime? What does nuclear proliferation mean today? Shouldn’t fissile material be, worldwide, under international supervision? …).
And short of such a deal, there will be no way out of the Chapter VII trap and the Iranian population will continue to be hurt by drastic coercive economic measures adopted by some of the very states that seemed to be working so hard towards making sanctions ‘smarter’ and more ‘targeted’. Thinking that the sickening price paid by the Iraqis had, at least, taught policy-makers a lesson on the use of economic sanctions did not lessen the anger at the silent carnage of the 1990s, but it had somehow made it more bearable.
[i] Legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, Advisory Opinion of 8 July 1996, ICJ Reports 1996, par. 99, p. 264.
[ii] IAEA Report, 10 November 2003, GOV/2003/75 para 8-19.
[iii] IAEA Report, 24 February 2004, GOV/2004/11 para 71-78; IAEA Report, 1 June 2004, GOV/2004/34 para 43-49.
[iv] IAEA Report, 1 June 2004, GOV/2004/34 para 48.
[v] Compare for example IAEA Report 1 June 2004 with subsequent IAEA Resolution, 18 June 2004 or IAEA Report, 1 September 2004 with IAEA Resolution, 18 September 2004.
[vi] M. ELBARADEI (2011) The Age of Deception. Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, Metropolitan Books; 11-12.
Coralie Pison Hindawi is Assistant Professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut. She is the author of ‘The Controversial Impact of WMD Coercive Arms Control on International Peace and Security: Lessons from the Iraqi and Iranian Cases’ published in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law and of a forthcoming book in French entitled Vingt ans dans l’ombre du chapitre VII (Twenty Years in the Shadow of Chapter VII), by L’Harmattan, Paris, analyzing the forms and implications of two decades of coercion against Iraq.