The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and “P5+1” international negotiators ended earlier this month with no more than an agreement to resume negotiations at a later date. As usual, pundits on both sides offered their assessments about why the talks did not succeed.
But one factor – UN Security Council resolutions that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related activities” – may play more of a role in fruitless negotiations than most commentators realize.
Since 2006, when the Security Council first made that demand, it has repeated it in three subsequent resolutions, the latest being Resolution 1929, adopted in June 2010. But the demand to cease all uranium enrichment is overly restrictive, essentially denying Iran the ability to develop even peaceful nuclear power. For the negotiation process, this restrictiveness poses several problems.
First, the resolutions are out of touch with the realities on the ground in Iran – namely, enrichment taking place that is not at bomb grade (at least not yet). They are also out of date, neglecting all the developments and understandings that both sides have achieved throughout various rounds of negotiations since 2006.
Today, after years of multilateral negotiations, most negotiating countries seem to have adopted a more pragmatic and practical approach and no longer truly expect a full suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities. Nonetheless, the shadow of the Security Council’s unrealistic and outdated request still looms over the talks.
Second, because of the Security Council’s radical stance on enrichment, world powers cannot legally offer Iran any meaningful relief on international sanctions in exchange for fair and reasonable concessions from Tehran. In the present climate, agreeing to anything short of a full suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities would breach UN resolutions, and that would set a bad precedent and dent the credibility of the UN collective security regime.
Third, because of the legal restrictions that these UN resolutions impose on all states, including on Western states that are in the process of negotiating with Iran, P5+1 negotiators cannot legally offer Iran any technical incentive to secure its cooperation. The Security Council effectively bans most forms of assistance to, and investment in, Iran’s nuclear and energy sector. That restricts the P5+1 negotiators, which are legally bound to maintain the full force of the resolutions, from offering any captivating alternative to Iran.
To illustrate the point, Germany’s Green Party submitted a proposal last year in which the German government would help Iran build a solar energy facility in exchange for Iran curbing some aspects of its nuclear program. Such a proposition, and similar ones, could have been put on the table by the P5+1 to increase the negotiations change of success. But the Security Council renders such creative initiatives irrelevant as their realization would be illegal under its resolutions.
In other words, because of these legal strictures, the P5+1 goes to the negotiation table without having the capacity to offer its counterpart any positive incentive, something that most negotiators would find a handicap rather than a leverage to their advantage.
Of course, despite these legal restrictions, various international actors have occasionally been able to offer promising deals to Iran. For example, in May 2010, Brazil and Turkey persuaded Tehran to ship 1200 kg (2640 pounds) of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey (as a confidence-building measure) based on a proposal that was initially drafted by the Obama administration. However, the United States itself subsequently blocked the bargain on the ground that it still did not meet the restrictive demands of the Security Council.
“While it would be a positive step for Iran to transfer low-enriched uranium off of its soil as it agreed to do last October, Iran said today that it would continue its 20 percent enrichment, which is a direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” the White House said in a statement.
In sum, despite the fact that the UN Charter mandates the world body to encourage and facilitate peaceful settlements of international disputes, it seems that in the case of Iran’s nuclear crisis, the Security Council has had the exact opposite effect.
The way out of this conundrum is for the Security Council to issue a new resolution. The resolution would do two things: It would explicitly acknowledge whatever achievement the P5+1 track has so far produced. And it would promise to lift its sanctions if the parties reach a “reasonable agreement” – notwithstanding previous resolutions.
Such a move by the Security Council would greatly help to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem in a peaceful manner. It would give Iran the long-awaited assurance that its cooperation would be met with some degree of reciprocation. And it would free Western negotiators from the burden of having to work within the unrealistic and outdated UN strictures on enrichment.
It remains to be seen which member of the Security Council is bold enough to propose such a draft resolution.
Reza Nasri is an international lawyer specializing in Iranian affairs and charter and foreign relations law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.