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Iran nuclear talks produce a litmus test
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - "We had a long day of meetings and we were able to make progress on the text of the structured approach to resolving the outstanding issues on possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. We have agreed to meet again on the 16th of January of next year where we expect to finalize the structured approach and start implementing the plan shortly after that."
This statement by Herman Nackaerts, Deputy Director for Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), captures the result of the intense one-day meeting in Tehran between an IAEA delegation of seven headed by Nackaerts and the Iranian officials, who have also sounded upbeat about "constructive progress" achieved last Thursday, which coincided
with the US Treasury Department's slapping Iran with new sanctions on seven companies and five individuals, including Iran's atomic energy chief, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani.
According to Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, in a conversation with the author, Iran has no objection to the IAEA's request to inspect a building at the Parchin military complex (just as it has on two previous occasions in 2005) but only within the context of "a mutually agreed modality", the reason being that Parchin "is not a nuclear site" and the IAEA's request is beyond the terms of Iran-IAEA Safeguards Agreement. 
To elaborate on the Parchin issue, the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in his November 2011 report on Iran had put Parchin in the category of "possible military dimensions", claiming credible information that Iran a decade ago had conducted high explosive tests with a nuclear application. Iran has denied this and the related allegation that in the past several months it has conducted an extensive cleaning of the suspected building.
That Tehran feels somewhat frustrated over this particular issue is not difficult to surmise. According to Soltanieh, in January 2005, as a "strictly transparency measure," (ie, not a legal obligation), the agency "selected five buildings and was given free access to those buildings and their surroundings and was allowed to take environmental samples". Ten months later, on November 1, 2005, again "the agency was given access to the buildings requested with the area of interest at Parchin and, again, the agency did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited."
In fact, this was reflected in the February 27, 2006 IAEA report that stated:
"On November 1, 2005, the agency was given access to a military site at Parchin where several environmental samples were taken. The agency did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited, and the results of the analysis of environmental samples did not indicate the presence of nuclear material at those buildings."
What really is behind all the hoopla over Parchin, according to Soltanieh and other Iranian officials, is a concerted effort at disinformation to keep the bogus "Iran nuclear threat" alive, with some unfortunate cooperation by the IAEA, whose aggressive November 2011 report on Iran has been widely criticized for having a biased approach.
Since then, under intense pressure by many member states, particularly those belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement, Amano has somewhat polished his act, but apparently not enough to dissipate suspicion that his primary loyalty is still with the US government, as per a WikiLeaks disclosure quoting him (see Mr Amano goes to Washington, Asia Times Online, November 8, 2011).
Thus, at a recent appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Amano stated his readiness to share with Iran the credible intelligence information on Iran's "possible military dimensions". Yet, this is contrary to the admission of his predecessor, Mohammad ElBaradei, that the agency had no trustworthy information regarding any clandestine nuclear-weapons related activity in Iran.
This was essentially why the IAEA in August 2007 agreed to "normalize" Iran's nuclear dossier after the conclusion of a comprehensive "Work Plan" that addressed all "six outstanding issues" of concern to IAEA, which were fully resolved in Iran's favor. Yet, for purely political reasons, the IAEA failed to honor its written commitment and, instead, suddenly raised the issue of certain "alleged studies" afterward, even though in one of its own reports admitted that "the agency has not detected the use of nuclear material in connection with the alleged studies, nor does it have credible information in this regard."
Lest we forget, in the Work Plan, the IAEA had agreed to "cover all remaining issues and the agency confirmed that there are no other remaining issue and ambiguities regarding Iran's past nuclear program and activities". So the question in Tehran's mind is what happens after the IAEA inspectors, who regularly visit Iran's enrichment facilities and have confirmed time and again that there is no evidence of diversion of declared nuclear material, go to Parchin and, again, come out empty-handed? Will the IAEA then be satisfied or, instead, as it has done in the past, find some new excuse in order to avoid giving Iran a clean bill of health?
Indeed, this is an important question that goes to the heart of the impending "structured approach" about to be signed on January 16, 2013. That is, the Iranian concern that the IAEA cannot and should not constantly hit Iran with extra-legal demands above and beyond the bounds of its protocol with Iran based on any calibrated "intelligence" hurled at the atomic agency.
This could be neutralized by producing a new framework that actually "disciplines" the IAEA to adhere to its own standard norms; for example, stop pretending that it has a mandate to ascertain the "absence of any undeclared nuclear activities".
On a related note, all the Western (and Israeli noise) about Parchin and experimentation a decade ago, reveals a more significant fact about the absence of any evidence to corroborate an Iranian proliferation. For a country that is suffering immensely under "crippling" international sanctions over its purported nuclear-weapons intentions, this is indeed preposterous. In turn, this raises the question of legality of Iran sanctions, particularly those imposed unilaterally by the US, European Union, Canada, and so on.
The unilateral sanctions are strictly speaking illegal from the prism of international law, simply because they go well beyond the realm of UN sanctions imposed under Chapter VII of the organization's charter (ie, as an issue of international peace and security), despite the fact that Iran has never been found to be in breach of its NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) obligations, only "non-compliance" with certain IAEA guidelines that the agency in other cases - such as Egypt or South Korea - did not see fit to report to the UN Security Council, even though those were cases of "serious concern" to the agency and pertained to the import and experimentation with undeclared nuclear material.
In spite of all the talk about Iran's remedial "corrective action", what matters is the need for the IAEA to demonstrate its own capability at self-correction, by treating Iran's nuclear file objectively and without political bias. The planned modality to be signed next January is a litmus test and it won't be too long before we know if the IAEA has achieved a breakthrough in asserting its independence, rather than a pawn of Western powers.
1. 1. See Afrasiabi's interview with Soltanieh: Iran prepares for Moscow, Asia Times Online, Jun 9, 2012.