The case against sanctions on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
As expected, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency,
Mohamed ElBaradei, has issued a report citing Iran's non-compliance with the
requests of both the IAEA's board of governors and the United Nations Security
Council, and this has been widely interpreted as paving the way to UN sanctions
on Iran in the near future. But has it?
Sanctions can be resorted to under Chapter VII of the UN Charter when
considered by the Security Council to be absolutely necessary. To do so, the
council would have to determine, under Article 39 of Chapter VII, the existence
of any "threat to the
peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" caused by Iran's nuclear
Yet, per the admission of ElBaradei in his report, all of Iran's nuclear
activities "are covered by Agency Safeguard containment and surveillance
measures". This, together with the important finding that all nuclear material
has been accounted for, raises a serious questions from the prism of
international law: On what basis can the Security Council invoke Chapter VII
Surely, the IAEA's complaint of Iran's non-cooperation with its requests for
"confidence-building measures" that are voluntary and non-legally binding
cannot possibly suffice to grant the United States' wish for invoking Chapter
VII, for to do so is to substitute superpower exigencies for international law.
Put simply, there is insufficient and/or non-existing evidence, the calculated
disinformation aside, to support Western allegations of an Iranian weapons
build up; these allegations, initially claiming clandestine activities, have
now almost entirely focused on Iran's transparent nuclear activities without,
however, being able to pin-point any discernable signs of military use via
The Israelis, however, are the sole exception. They told the London Sunday
Times that they had evidence of hidden Iranian centrifuge facilities working
overtime to cut the timeline for nuclear bombs shorter. Such alarmist news from
Israel has been heard before aplenty, and distinctly reminds one of Israel's
similar gambit with regard to Iraq in 2002-2003.
Here is the nub of the IAEA/Security Council dilemma: they have both called for
"re-establishing full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and
reprocessing activities, including research and development". And yet, in light
of the absence of any "smoking gun" lending validity to the allegations of
Iran's nuclear-weapon "ambitions", as well as some 2,000 man-day inspections of
civil and nuclear facilities during the past three years, the legal
justification for a permanent suspension of Iran's enrichment-related
activities under the terms of the non-proliferation regime is simply absent.
To insist on this demand based on hitherto unfounded fears of Iran's misuse of
dual-purpose technology is to set up arbitrary red lines that would be
tantamount to legal nihilism.
Ironically, ElBaradei writes that "transparency measures are not yet
forthcoming", this when his own report contains Iran's April 27 letter to the
IAEA pledging to set up a timetable within three weeks to resolve all
outstanding questions. Either ElBaradei is interested in procuring more and
more cooperation with Iran or he is not, for obvious political reasons, and if
he is, then his claim that Iran's transparency measures are not forthcoming
must be revised.
To open a parenthesis here, whereas ElBaradei's report confirms Iran's recent
claim of having successfully enriched uranium, various Washington pundits such
as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies have
dismissed Iran's claim as "vacuous political posturing". Clearly, Cordesman and
other policy pundits listened to attentively by the US government and the big
media need to check their sources before leveling such stupefying allegations
The mere fact that, by ElBaradei's own admission, most of the outstanding
questions, such as regarding the (foreign) sources of contamination of Iranian
equipment with HEU (highly enriched uranium), have been successfully resolved
in Iran's favor represents yet more cold water on the furnace of sanctions on
Indeed, the existence of small "gaps" in knowledge mentioned in ElBaradei's
report hardly reinforces the momentum toward sanctions, in view of the fact
that Iran is not alone and the IAEA's annual reports are filled with complaints
of non-compliance by dozens of member states.
The issue is that Iran should not be subjected to punitive sanctions for
exercising the same rights enjoyed by the Permanent Five members of the
Security Council as well as Germany, Brazil and Japan. To do so would be to
undermine the very legitimacy of the UN and its most powerful organ, which has
yet to recover fully from the United States' Machiavellian manipulations with
regard to Iraq three years ago.
Mindful of such a distinct possibility, Kofi Annan, the UN's secretary general,
has on more than one occasion warned that the Iran crisis could be detrimental
for the United Nations and that the issue should remain within the IAEA.
Similarly, Russian officials have warned that the Security Council should not
try to replace the IAEA.
Also, within the General Assembly, there is considerable opposition to the
ill-advised recommendations for sanctions on Iran which, if implemented by the
Security Council, may in effect negatively affect the UN's global image, as a
surrogate of US power, and its ability to perform its functions with respect to
peace and security in the Middle East and beyond.
Yet, US officials have yet to show any signs of grasping the potentially adverse
consequences, for the UN as well as the future of the Middle East, if their
meritless push for UN sanctions is adopted. Their current drive needs to be
rethought in the light of a more sound grasp of the existing alternatives.
But assuming for a moment that the US and its European allies somehow manage to
get Chapter VII invoked at the Security Council, which is bound to cause
further ire in Iran and, indeed, the entire Muslim world and most if not all of
the Non-Aligned Movement, then Iran's non-compliance with the initial token
sanctions will put the council in serious jeopardy.
Either it will not escalate the pressure with tougher sanctions, in which case
Iran's case will be yet another example of the council's impotence, or it will
seek Iran's compliance by imposing more and more "smart" sanctions that will
be, in effect, legally dumb and, as a result, accentuate the UN's perception as
a superpower pawn. The members of the Permanent Five (China, France, Russia,
the United Kingdom and the United States) and Germany are due to meet this week
to discuss what action to take.
Iran's enrichment knowledge is a fait accompli and Iranian centrifuges
are spinning irrespective of the United States' wish to "stop even one
centrifuge from rotating", to echo a US official at last year's nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference in New York. Henceforth, the world
should accept to live with Iran's nuclear capability and do what is necessary
to make sure that Iran's pledge of non-military diversion of its peaceful
program is verified through the IAEA's instruments. It is noteworthy that last
spring, French President Jacques Chirac, in his meeting with Iran's chief
negotiator, fleetingly consented to Iran's enrichment right, only to buckle
under external pressure.
Of course, the weaknesses of the US-EU's legal hand at the Security Council is
the main reason there is a growing talk of sanctions "outside the UN" by a
so-called "coalition of the willing". Again, any such sanctions would be
contrary to international law and, most likely, incapable of garnering Iran's
forfeiture of its NPT-based right to an independent fuel cycle, only causing
commercial and financial setbacks for any country lured or coerced into this
The possibility that any of Iran's neighbors, including Turkey, which has
burgeoning economic relations with Iran and cooperates with it within the
multilateral framework of the Economic Cooperation Organization, would join
such a coalition is rather remote.
As a result, the US and its European Union allies are about to take the
"unnecessary" Iran crisis to the next level, portending first and foremost a
diplomatic disaster for them, and for the well-spring of international laws and
A more prudent approach would be to use persuasive diplomacy with Iran, to put
Iran's security anxieties to rest and induce greater and greater nuclear
transparency in an atmosphere devoid of military threats. Only then can the
outside world feel reasonably secure that Iran's nuclear-weapon potential will
remain latent; otherwise, if the pattern of escalating pressures continues,
then the most likely scenario will be one of "self-fulfilling prophecy" wherein
a potential nuclear state sets aside its own declared antipathy to nuclear
weapons and embraces them under unreasonable external pressures.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", the Brown Journal of World Affairs,
Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.