On September 24, 2005, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) once again failed to reach a decision to refer Iran’s noncompliance under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to the U.N. Security Council.
Working against referral to the Security Council, and for giving this state sponsor of terrorism more time to develop weapons of mass destruction, was U.N. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei from Egypt. ElBaradei said, after the failed U.S. and EU attempt to send the issue immediately to the Security Council: “I am encouraged that the issue has not been referred to the Security Council, precisely to give time for diplomacy and negotiation…” He continued, “time is still available for diplomacy to resolve outstanding issues, for Iran to build confidence, and that the question of reporting to the Security Council could only be discussed at a later date.”
For years, “lack of consensus” was trotted out as the main stumbling block to Security Council involvement. When it finally became clear that a vote at the IAEA would be the only way to move the issue forward, the size of the margin became the new obstacle. In an effort to minimize the opposition, the final resolution stated that Iran had breached the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, its claim of merely peaceful purposes was not credible, but that “the timing and content of the report…and the notification required” to the Security Council would be discussed at an unspecified later date. This wait-and-see resolution produced an IAEA board of governors’ vote with 22 in favor, one against (Venezuela), and 12 abstentions (Algeria, Brazil, China, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Yemen.)
The IAEA statute actually makes referral to the Security Council after a clear finding against Iran mandatory:
Article XII.C: ….The Board shall report the non-compliance to all members and to the Security Council and General Assembly of the United Nations.
Article III.B.4: …if in connection with the activities of the Agency there should arise questions that are within the competence of the Security Council, the Agency shall notify the Security Council, as the organ bearing the main responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security…
But the European Union would not press a resolution that required an immediate referral to the Security Council to a vote. The European penchant for U.N.-etiquette, and its willingness to spin out its role as middleman a while longer, was plainly stated by France. The Financial Times reported on September 23, 2005, “a senior French official… indicated… [that a] ‘resolution referring Iran to the Security Council with a majority that did not include China and Russia would be a complete loss of credibility for us.’”
Only last week during the opening of the 60th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, both the Russian and the Chinese ministers of foreign affairs, waxed eloquent about U.N. “multilateralism,” “coordination,” “cooperation,” and particularly the U.N.’s “essential” role in “ensuring peace and security.” A couple of days later, at the IAEA board of governors meeting, their gaze turned promptly inward. Iran is a major trading partner for both Russia and China. Russia is building a nuclear-power plant in southern Iran. Chinese-Iranian relations include a deal to sell millions of tons of liquefied natural gas to China, increase oil exports to China, and Chinese development of Iranian oilfields.
The United States talked tough in the past. In a statement to the IAEA board of governors back in December 2004, the U.S. representative said:
…this continuing deferral must end, and we must report Iran’s safeguards violations to the Council pursuant to Article XII.C of the IAEA Statute, and its violation of its suspension to the Council under Article III.B.4 as a potential threat to international peace and security. Madame Chair, based on Iran’s past record of denial, delay and deception, the Board must insist on such measures at a minimum…
Way back then, the U.S. even huffed and puffed that it would put the matter on the agenda of the Security Council itself, which the U.N. Charter entitles it to do:
Quite apart from the question of how this Board chooses to handle these matters, of course, the United States reserves all of its options with respect to Security Council consideration of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. After all, pursuant to Article 35(1) of the Charter of the United Nations, any member of the United Nations may bring to the attention of the Security Council any situation that might endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.
Of course talking is what folks around the U.N. do best. They’ve said and heard it all. Which might explain why “stark-raving-mad” or “dangerous lunatic” was not the first thing reported about the Iranian president’s message to the General Assembly last week. The speech included blaming the consequences of Hurricane Katrina on an American society that has “depart[ed] from justice and spirituality,” railing against “nuclear apartheid” and the “illegitimate Zionist regime,” and proclaiming the “[t]he Islamic Republic of Iran is a symbol of true democracy.”
Iran and its partners are so successful at playing the U.N. game, that if and when the matter ever gets to the Security Council, there will undoubtedly be celebrations. But all it will mean is another round of talking. Given the years spent on the first round, Iranian capacity to build nuclear weapons without outside help will be a red line long passed before the Security Council makes a serious move to prevent it.