Mark HibbsThree Messages from GOV/2012/48

Not for the first time, the IAEA Board of Governors on Thursday afternoon passed a resolution on safeguards implementation in Iran which said a few things that its sponsors neglected to point out when they explained the results to the Vienna press corps minutes after the vote was taken behind the closed doors of the M Building at the VIC.

The Iran resolution, the brainchild of the P5+1, more or less sailed through drafting prior to Wednesday when the board took up the Iran agenda item. A flurry of consultations and a delay in voting on Thursday was triggered by objections to the draft text raised by South Africa, but prima facie this had more to do with procedural issues than any matters of substance: the changes in the text inspired by Pretoria’s intervention were in fact hardly worth the candle. But they were significant from the point of view that the P5+1, in their zeal to demonstrate unity in the draft text, may have overdone it a bit by presenting the results to the NAM members in the group somewhat late in the game–giving them an opportunity to hold things up long enough for the point to register with the veto powers that the NAM, too, has a stake in this issue.

The 31-1-3 vote in support of the resolution was not a surprise. Certainly Cuba’s lone nay vote didn’t shock; Ecuador’s abstention, in the light of recent diplomatic interactions between Quito and one Western P5 country about a totally unrelated affair, could not have been unanticipated by GOV/48’s sponsors; likewise, Egypt’s and Tunisia’s coolness to the resolution had roots in recent political developments. The resolution in the end had weighty support: South Africa, having made its point, joined it, and Indonesia too was, at the eleventh hour, also on board.

Thanks to the good offices of Fredrik Dahl at Reuters, this morning I listened to the tape of what US DCM Robert Wood told reporters yesterday evening after the resolution was passed. The resolution, Wood said, testified to “increasing and intensifying” pressure on Iran and he asserted that Iran’s “isolation is growing” related to its failure to cooperate with the IAEA. Thus the American narrative.

Wood concluded his brief talking points by saying that “We hope that Iran understands the message” that was sent by the resolution.

But there were in fact three messages sent by GOV/48. Two messages were for Iran. The other was a message to Israel.

A Message for Israel

Consider that GOV/48 in preambular paragraph (d) reiterates support for a “comprehensive negotiated, long term solution, on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach, which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program consistent with the NPT,” and that it says further down, in operative paragraph 5, that the board is committed to a “constructive diplomatic process which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme on the basis of reciprocity and a step-by-step approach and consistent with the NPT.” Underscoring the importance of the diplomatic process was considered important enough by the P5+1 that the drafters wrote that point into the resolution twice. Doesn’t happen every day.

But GOV/48 went even further.

The last board resolution on Iran, GOV/2011/69, passed last November, in operative Paragraph 4 expressed “continuing support for a diplomatic solution…” GOV/2012/48 added to this language “continued support for a peaceful resolution of the international community’s concerns…”

That, and the above-cited text from paragraphs (d) and 5, was clearly a message directed at Israel, which especially in recent weeks, with dusky warnings about “red lines,”  has tried the patience of the White House.

Two Messages for Iran

Then there is the language in GOV/48 concerning the board’s position on Iran itself. Operative Paragraph 3 “expresses [the Board’s] serious concern regarding the continued enrichment and heavy water-related activities in Iran, contrary to the relevant resolutions of the BOG and the UN Security Council.” If we go back to last November’s GOV/69, we find instead an expression of “deep and increasing concern.” Now, eye-dotters and tee-crossers will point out that GOV/48 refers to different activities than the sensitive PMD matters referenced by GOV/69, but no matter–all these activities are cited in UNSC resolutions as grounds for sanctions.

The main point here is that GOV/48’s drafters judiciously did not choose inflammatory language (“deplore,” “condemn”) to express their overall verdict. Indeed, they slightly de-escalated the war of words, regardless of the clear message sent by the IAEA’s report to the Board on Iran last month that Iran is not cooperating with the agency in addressing outstanding issues. Why did they avoid an escalation? Because if the P5+1 agree on one thing, it is that escalating would be risky and counterproductive in the run-up to the U.S. Presidential election. Contrary to the views expressed in this piece, the IAEA resolution was informed by the perspective that as long as Iran doesn’t know who will be in the White House next January, it can’t be expected to negotiate seriously with the P5+1 on a long-term solution that would require that the U.S. make some firm commitments to Iran. These would include, for example, permitting Iran to continue enriching uranium after the IAEA, having implemented Additional Protocol-plus, delivers its imprimatur that Iran’s nuclear program is clearly dedicated to peaceful use. 

So in fact GOV/48 has three messages: Two are for Iran. One of these is, as Wood pointed out: “You are on notice: We will not let this issue go away.” The other, however, is, “Let’s kick this can down the road until after November 6” (the IAEA governors will meet on November 29). The resolution’s third message is for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: “Cool it. Diplomacy may resume in earnest in about three months.”

Finally, a note about vaunted P5+1 unity. There wasn’t a lot of trouble–sans some Chinese difficulties for a couple of days in getting their ducks to line up in the same direction in Beijing and Vienna–in getting all six countries to agree to this text. After all, this was in effect a lowest-common-denominator product, and the main intention of this resolution was to emphasize that the diplomatic process should continue and that the war of words should not intensify. Does that imply that the P5+1 are overcoming the kind of differences which, since  2003, have bedeviled formation of common positions on Iran? No. As Iran edges closer to a de facto nuclear weapons capability, a meeting of the minds of the six powers may become more likely. However, there are some serious nuclear nonproliferation and verification issues dividing Moscow from most of the others in the group. Some of these issues will play out during the IAEA General Conference beginning on Monday. But that’s a subject for another blog post.


  1. Dan Joyner (History)

    Insightful post as always, Mark. On your point regarding differences between Moscow and the other P5+1 powers, some significant statements have been made recently by Moscow on this point:

    I also think it’s important to understand this latest BOG decision in the full context of the DG reports that it is directly based upon. On that issue, see at the below link my piece in which I argue that the DG reports that have been submitted to the BOG on Iran for at least the past six years have used legal standards for investigation and assessment that are beyond the legal mandate of the IAEA:

    • mark (History)


      Thanks–in fact I was in Moscow at Anton Khlopkov’s important meeting last week, and we talked to Ryabkov about Iran. I’ll be posting about this subject in a few days, when I get into the Russian-Western differences on these issues.

  2. GM (History)

    Thank you, Mark!
    Looking forward to seeing you in Vienna and discussing what seems to me as really strange moves by Russia re INC/MidEast agenda items and Iran’s recent proposal.

    Re Ecuador: it has been edging towards the more ideological end of NAM spectrum for years now (you are right, certainly not because of nuclear matters per se). Note its voting and statement on other occasions, including the INC.

    • mark (History)

      MG, you’re quite welcome, and I’m very much anticipating your arrival here in Vienna and getting down to it on the Russian-spearheaded issues on the GC/56 agenda hinted at in my post and referred to directly by your comment. It will be an interesting week ahead.

  3. Cyrus (History)

    And precisely on what legal grounds does the IAEA Board stand when it demands that Iran abide by an “Additional Protocol Plus”?? Since when did the IAEA Board become entitled to press countries to abide by treaties they (nor any other country) has not signed, and since when did they become authorized to press for this by violating the nation’s existing rights to access to nuclear technology “to the fullest extent possible” as recognized by the NPT?

    • mark (History)


      As you are surely aware, there are two separate tracks on Iran, the IAEA track and the P5+1 track. Any implementation by the IAEA of what I loosely call “Additional Protocol Plus” would be predicated upon a decision by Iran to agree to that measure in order to permit the IAEA to provide confidence to the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. That agreement by Iran would not be made to the IAEA initially but to the P5+1 in the context of those negotiations. In exchange for that commitment by Iran to permit this level of IAEA access to Iran’s nuclear program, the P5+1 would have to commit itself to a specific roadmap for lifting sanctions and perhaps addressing other issues important to Iran. What I refer to in the blog post is decidedly not about the IAEA “violating” anyone’s “rights.”

    • yousaf (History)

      UNSCR 1737 only “calls upon” Iran to ratify the AP.

      That language is softer than the “decides” Iran do so.

      So it is a request by the UNSC and can be no more than that when repeated by the IAEA. My view on why Iran probably is not likely to sign on the AP is given here:

      The recent alleged bombing of the electrical supply to the nuclear facilities, if true, is also unlikely to make Iran sign on to the AP. Probably, rather the opposite.

  4. joshua (History)
  5. yousaf (History)

    Josh, thanks. Re. (1) in the draft resolution there is an interesting legal discussion at:

    I believe that what the IAEA says is absolutely true when they say:

    1) “the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran”; and
    2) “that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

    but it is tautological — (1) and (2) cannot be proved, especially in a nation that has declined the option to ratify the AP.

    The IAEA really should not feel it is being tasked with checking (1) and (2), but it is OK that they decided to put in such a tautological statement. The IAEA also cannot verify (1) and (2) in Brazil and Argentina.

    There are a number of reasons, not limited to alleged bombings, cyberwar, and assassinations that likely argue against Iran signing on to the AP anytime soon.