This commentary is simultaneously published in Middle East Online.
Former ambassadors of major European powers to Tehran, led by the former head of the British diplomatic mission to Tehran, Richard Dalton, recently published a memo, entitled “Iran is not in breach of international law”, in some major British and American newspapers on the current status of nuclear negotiations between Iran the P-5+1 countries, which marks a break from the conventional representation of Iran’s nuclear issue in the West . The memo has been written by the former European ambassadors in recognition of the failure of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue and with a view to offering Western powers a solution to the existing deadlock in their relations with Iran.
The publication of the memo is striking not for the reason that it offers any consistent practical proposals for the resolution of the current standoff between Western powers and Iran but because it makes several rare and daring admissions , which if recognized and followed suit by a wider spectrum of Western political elites, can potentially serve as a basis for a logical solution to Iran’s nuclear issue in the future.
The first admission by the former ambassadors is that they recognize that Iran’s nuclear activities are consistent with international law and that there has been no diversion of nuclear activities in Iran to military purposes. The former ambassadors note “nothing in international law or in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty forbids the enrichment of uranium” and that “the IAEA has never uncovered in Iran any attempted diversion of nuclear material to military use”. The public recognition of this fact by the former European ambassadors to Tehran is praiseworthy, given that the general public in the West are systematically bombarded with contrary claims by mainstream Western media on an almost daily basis.
The former ambassadors further recognize that there is no issue from the perspective of international law with achieving a nuclear threshold status by Iran either, even if this turns out to be Iran’s ultimate goal. The former ambassadors write “ Again, nothing in international law or in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty forbids such an ambition. Like Iran, several other countries are on their way to or have already reached such a threshold but have committed not to acquire nuclear weapons. Nobody seems to bother them”.
In addition to questioning the conventional Western assumptions about Iran’s nuclear program, the former European ambassadors also challenge some of the main practical aspects of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue. More specifically, they denounce the goal of "zero centrifuges operating in Iran, permanently or temporarily," as unrealistic and as a key culprit for the failure of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue. They accurately recall that “in 2005 Iran was ready to discuss a ceiling limit for the number of its centrifuges and to maintain its rate of enrichment far below the high levels necessary for weapons”, and that “Tehran also expressed its readiness to put into force the additional protocol that it had signed with the IAEA allowing intrusive inspections throughout Iran, even in non-declared sites”, and blame Western unrealistic demands for the failure of those negotiations.
While doing an outstanding job of critiquing the main foundations of the current Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue, the memo suffers from some notable shortcomings too. The main drawback of the memo is that the former European ambassadors do not draw consistent conclusions from their own assumptions and arguments and fail to offer any genuinely different solution to Iran’s nuclear issue. They note “The next step should be for the two sides in this conflict to ask the IAEA what additional tools it needs to monitor the Iranian nuclear program fully and provide credible assurances that all the activities connected with it are purely peaceful in intent. The agency's answer would offer a basis for the next round of pragmatic negotiations with Iran”.
The former European ambassadors do not explain why, despite their own assumptions about Iran’s nuclear program, they believe Iran still deserves a discriminatory treatment as compared to other members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Iran’s nuclear activities are consistent with international law and if there has been no diversion of nuclear material in Iran to military use, the question remains unanswered as to why Iran’s nuclear activities would need additional IAEA’s monitoring beyond its existing mandate.
The former ambassadors also do not discuss how to reverse the wrong course that has been taken by Western powers over the past several years towards Iran’s nuclear issue. If Western strategy towards Iran’s nuclear issue has been misguided over the past several years, as the former ambassadors convincingly argue, will it be possible to build a new structure with a view to resolving Iran’s nuclear issue before deconstructing the existing edifice? Is it reasonable to speak of enhanced confidence-building measures by Iran while maintaining enhanced economic sanctions that have been imposed on it by the West over the past several years? While deserving credit for some of their daring and honest statements about Iran’s nuclear issue, it should be clear that the former European ambassadors to Tehran would have made a more persuasive case had they answered a number of hard questions before offering any practical solutions to Iran’s nuclear issue.