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The IAEA Resolution: The Test is in the Next Steps

INSS Insight No. 145

The resolution on Iran adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors on November 27 includes important issues that touch upon Iran's lack of cooperation with the agency, and the steep decline in confidence between the international community and Iran. Significantly, the lack of Iranian cooperation on clearing up questions regarding past weapons-related nuclear activity, a recurrent refrain in IAEA reports over the past two years, is raised once again in this resolution.

But in addition to previously raised concerns, there are new important elements included in this resolution - both in terms of substance and regarding the circumstances of the decision - that render it especially noteworthy:


  • The resolution devotes two separate points to the enrichment facility at Qom: it calls for immediate suspension of construction at Qom, and clarifications of the purpose and chronology of construction of the facility.
  • The resolution calls on Iran to confirm that it has not taken a decision to construct or authorize construction of any additional nuclear facility.
  • The resolution was widely endorsed by the IAEA Board of Governors: 25 voted in favor (including all five permanent members of the Security Council), and only three against, with six abstentions, and one absent.
  • This is the first resolution from the IAEA in over three years. Coming from the international body that has the reputation of being most lenient on Iran, the statements carry more weight in the international community.
  • The resolution reflects a sense of heightened international concern with Iran's nuclear program and activities.
  • The resolution requests that the director general report its content to the UN Security Council.

There are, however, aspects of the resolution that are less significant, even if they have been met with much fanfare. The most important in this category is the fact that Russia and China are "on board" with regard to the resolution. In fact, Russia and China were also on board for five UN Security Council resolutions from 2006 to 2008 that called for Iran to cease uranium enrichment activities, three of them with decisions on sanctions. However, to date nothing concrete has emerged from this previous display of cooperation and determination. While Russian and Chinese acquiescence is always an important message to Iran that it must tread carefully, the support of these two states on a firmer approach to Iran - one with potency - is far from guaranteed.

On the issue of sanctions, Russia has made numerous statements over the past two months that both expressed support for, and caution with regard to a decision on additional sanctions. While last week there were reports of further delays in the operation of the Russian built reactor at Bushehr as well as in the supply of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles (Iran is especially upset about the latter), two days after the IAEA resolution statements coming from Russia assured that efforts will be made to step up the pace of Bushehr completion. It is very difficult to appraise just where Russia stands, and essential future support cannot be counted upon on the basis of this resolution.

Another factor to be taken into account is that the resolution also reflects specific anger at Iran's rejection of the nuclear fuel deal, which ElBaradei himself brokered and the P5+1 endorsed with the understanding that they had secured Iran's agreement. Because the credibility of the Director-General and the P5+1 was on the line, they were prompted to assume a stronger response. The resolution could thus be interpreted as punishment for not accepting the deal, more than an expression of increased concern with Iran's dangerous advance toward military nuclear capability.

Two days after it was passed, Iran announced that it will build ten more uranium enrichment facilities. Will it also stop cooperation with the IAEA, as it threatens? Will it withdraw from the NPT as one parliamentarian suggested? In its defiant reaction to the resolution, Iran seems to be taking into account a new trend in Western analysis on Iran since the new US administration came to power: namely, that the harshness of the previous Bush administration only led to a hardened Iranian stance and acceleration of its nuclear program.

In effect, Iran's reaction to a harsh IAEA resolution is defiance in kind. This step could very well be designed to plant in the minds of the P5+1 that if they do decide on harsher sanctions, they can expect that Iran will respond by exiting the NPT. Iran knows that the West fears this outcome, and it probably hopes to encourage those that do not favor sanctions - or at least are debating the issue - by giving them further reason to conclude that harshness will only have the effect of eliciting further Iranian defiance.

As firm as the message of the resolution is, the real test of its impact lies in the next steps taken by the international community. Until Iran actually sees real or imminent serious pressure, it is not likely to consider backing down. Russian and Chinese agreement must translate into support for much enhanced sanctions. Otherwise, the impact of this show of support will be short-lived.

Similarly, if Iran changes course and comes up with a half-hearted attempt at cooperation, this too would not be conducive to the overall effort to stop Iran. If such cooperation is embraced as an achievement in light of the current dire situation - and the need of the Obama administration to present some success for its diplomatic initiative - this will divert attention from the overall goal, which is to stop Iran's advance toward a military capability.

We have witnessed previous attempts by Iran to lower the bar of cooperation to a bare minimum, only to raise it a little and then gain points for showing a more cooperative attitude. This was the case before the October 1 meeting of the P5+1 with Iran. Iran had submitted a proposal whereby it would deal with many global issues, but not its own nuclear program. When the meeting ultimately did focus on Iran's nuclear program - there was of course never any other realistic agenda for this meeting - Iran was praised for cooperating.

Every development that reflects increased international exasperation with Iran is to be applauded, but also assessed realistically in the framework of the ultimate goal which has been defined as stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

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