James ActonTwo cheers for the NIE

First off, let me say hello to the Wonk’s readers. Hello.

So, I have to admit, I have slightly mixed feelings about the NIE. Don’t get me wrong. If it results in a ‘surge of diplomacy’ it is certainly a Good Thing. If it helps to prevent military action it is a Very Good Thing. And, if it gives Iran a way of admitting its wrong-doing and becoming a ‘repentant nuclear proliferant’ (as Jeffrey hopes) it is a Fantastic Thing.

No, my worry is that the NIE will allow Iran to brush aside the fact that it has breached its safeguards agreement and (depending on which lawyer you speak to) the NPT as well. Ahmadinejad has already (somewhat predictably) touted the report as a ‘great victory’. Even BBC radio news was claiming this morning that, according to the report, Iran has abandoned its ‘plans’ to produce nuclear weapons. In fact, the NIE didn’t go quite so far—as the second half of the first sentence makes clear.

The root of the problem is that the debate about Iran has become increasingly centred on the question of why it breached its safeguards agreement. Worryingly few states seem to accept that Iran’s violations are a problem in themselves. (It’s important to realize that there’s a big conceptual difference between identifying violations of an agreement and ascertaining why such violations were committed). In a legal sense, the emphasis on finding Iran’s intention is a problem because it’s not the job of the IAEA to do this (the IAEA’s role is to make a finding of compliance or non-compliance—nothing more). In a political sense, it’s a problem because it politicizes the role of the IAEA even more than need be. But, most of all, in a practical sense, enforcing non-proliferation agreements becomes near impossible if the international community will not act unless it has proof that a state is intending to build a nuclear bomb. Proving that a state has violated its safeguards agreement is hard enough (although the IAEA did it in Iran) but at least it is a fairly objective exercise. Proving motivation as well is even harder and highly subjective (after all, the motivation of a state might be nothing more concrete than the intentions of its leaders). In my opinion, it ought to be the fact that a violation took place that is the trip wire for an international response.

As I hope the start of this post made clear, I don’t take the view that, having violating its safeguards agreement, we must now treat Iran as a pariah from here on in. I hope that Iran will use this opportunity to admit that it had a nuclear weapons programme until 2003 and then permit the IAEA to verify that the programme has been shut down. What worries me is that Iran will use the NIE as a way of vindicating itself. Then it can avoid addressing its numerous violations, stop co-operating with the IAEA and push on with its centrifuge programme and (as Jeffrey is rightly fond of reminding us) its heavy water reactor programme.


  1. James (History)

    You seem to box Iran into an impossible corner. If they don’t admit they had a weapons program, they get sanctions. If they DO admit they had a weapons program, do you honestly believe that this won’t be an excuse for more sanctions? How does one “prove” that something doesn’t exist? Iraq submitted 12000 pages of proof and it did them no good.

    Perhaps, amid the spin that the Iraq invasion scared Iran into ending their weapons program, it’s possible they took away a very different lesson: that no amount of proof will prevent an attack and that the UN can and will do nothing to prevent it. So why cooperate at all?

  2. Geoffrey Forden (History)

    The IAEA has not yet found evidence of any nuclear weapons program, so I don’t think we should require “that Iran [] use this opportunity to admit that it had a nuclear weapons programme until 2003.” Instead, we should require that Iran answer all outstanding questions that the IAEA has to the IAEA’s satisfaction. We should also have faith that such a method will succeed in finding a nuclear weapons program, if one did at one time exist. This is, after all, exactly what happened in Iraq. Inspections work by comparing a country’s declaration with other information they have collected else where.

    An unanswered question resulting from the NIE is what is the current status of the “green salt project” investigation. Lets hear Iran’s answers to those questions before jumping to conclusions about whether or not they had a nuclear weapons program.

  3. Karl Schenzig (History)

    Dear Mr. Acton,

    Your assessment does not address the political context of either the NIE or the wider Iran issue and thus is fundamentally flawed. The context is that Iran will ignore or subvert any criticism or sanction because it has long ago made the decision to seek regional dominance. Therefore, the NIE is a signal to Iran that US military action against will not take place until mid-2009 at the earliest, and this time will be used by the Iranians to consolidate their nuclear R&D programmes. In particular, they will procure nuclear fuel from Russia as soon as is practical, probably a month or so after the Russian elections.

    As to Iran’s long-term plan, it is readily apparent and it is surprising that the US government has not understood a plan of this simplicity. The Iranian plan is acquire a nuclear retaliatory capability, publicise it, generate volatility on the commodity markets and force the US economy into recession. Following this, all Iran has to do is to seize the opportunities that American economic, and hence military, weakness presents, particularly in regard to Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

    To conclude, your opinions are based on the assumption that Iran faces a binary choice between coexistence with America or direct confrontation. It does not, because it can inflict severe, and possibly irreversible, economic damage on the USA without resorting to force.

  4. b (History)

    “Iran will use this opportunity to admit that it had a nuclear weapons programme until 2003”

    Why do you think Iran had such a program. The IAEA does not assert such.

    Iran says it didn’t had one. That may be true. How is it supposed to prove a negative?

    Just like Saddam was supposed to do?

  5. Andy Grotto (History)

    Putin tells Iran to freeze uranium enrichment: Interfax (available at http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5hPp6is6KqkHE_fadGbNQDcmvgaow)

    That’s good news.

  6. PC (History)

    I don’t think Iran will get very far with trying to declare itself vindicated with this NIE, just as it doesn’t seem to be getting far declaring its nuclear file will be closed with this work plan. It certainly hasn’t changed the IAEA’s tune on what Iran needs to do according to ElBaradei’s statement yesterday.

    As for coming clean, maybe this is an opportunity to take another look at Goldschmidt’s proposal for a grace period last month allowing Iran to avoid repercussions as long as it fesses up…

  7. hass (History)
  8. balzar (History)

    If Iran is facing sanctions for having a nuclear program, why is not Israel facing even more sanctions for its nuclear weapons program??

  9. Gridlock (History)

    balzar – because the expertise, uranium, technology and go-ahead didn’t come from DC.

    Well, maybe some of the technology..

    Essentially Israel gets a pass if it fancies breaching the NPT, or The Hague Convention, or the ICC, etc etc.

  10. T-bird (History)

    Balzar, Gridlock:

    Remember also that there are great advantages to being one of the US’s allies in the region.

    Whatever you may think of Iran, it’s lack of credability with the US after 1979 is bringing about many of the current problems.

    (Of course, this opens the pandora’s box of 1953, but that’s another debate.)


  11. Drew (History)

    Israel is not an NPT signatory. Therefore it cannot, legally, be in violation of a treaty to which it is not a party. Iran is a party to the NPT and has signed binding agreements with the IAEA. The question of Israel’s suspected nuclear weapons program is a broader one in terms of ME security, Iran’s motivations, etc., but the narrow international legal issue on Israel vs. Iran is easy.

  12. hass (History)

    Actually, and according to Paul Leventhal back in 1977, Israel obtained uranium by stealing it from the US

    The recently-release Nixon papers confirm this too.

  13. FSB

    When Iran was chummy with the US (1976; President Ford in US and Shah in Iran) it was fine for Iran to have all this technology that is somehow now taboo. Note it is taboo w.r.t. the west — it is perfectly legal under international law. Besides, why is Brazil getting a pass by the “international community” for its enrichment programme?

    Joe Cirincione writes:

    “Declassified memos from the National Security Council show that President Ford in 1976 approved plans for the Shah — installed by Washington after a CIA-engineered coup overthrew democratically-elected President Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 — to build uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing plants.

    The Shah wanted to build 22 nuclear reactors to generate 23 million megawatts of electric power. All this while the country was just as oil-rich as it is today. It is no wonder that U.S. objections today smack of gross hypocrisy to Iranians.”

    Unfortunately for the West, if international law is to be taken seriously it has to be blind.

    Iran is in hot water because the West doesn’t trust her nor like her, and they just don’t want to play until a regime suitably pliant and to the West’s liking is installed. And then, as before, Iran can enrich U up the wazoo.

    Give me a break.

  14. mark F (History)

    Why I like this blog: Read the link to New York Times article (1976) posted by Hass.

  15. hass (History)

    Thank you mark F
    There’s more here

  16. T-Bird (History)


    The NYT article is a historical gem, and something i had not heard about until now. Hats off, and thank you.

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