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Either we trust the IAEA's ability to supervise its member states, or we don't

HANS PUNZ

As former European ambassadors to Tehran during the past decade, we have closely followed the development of the nuclear crisis between Iran and the international community. It is unacceptable that the talks have been in deadlock for such a long time.

The Arab world and the Middle East are entering a new epoch. No country is immune from change. The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing the disaffection of a significant part of its population. Everywhere, new perspectives are emerging. Such a period of uncertainty offers opportunities for reconsidering established positions. The time has come to do so on the Iranian nuclear question.

In terms of international law, the position of Europe and the United States is perhaps less assured than is generally believed. Basically, it is embodied in a set of resolutions adopted by the Security Council referring to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes coercive measures in case of "threats to the peace."

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But what constitutes the threat? Is it the enrichment of uranium in Iranian centrifuges? This is certainly a sensitive activity, in a highly sensitive region. The concerns expressed by the international community are legitimate and Iran has a moral duty, as well as a political necessity, to answer them. But, in principle, nothing in international law, nothing in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, forbids the enrichment of uranium.

Is the threat contained in an active clandestine program to build a nuclear weapon? For at least three years, the U.S. intelligence community has put aside this hypothesis. James Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official, told Congress this year: "We do not know … if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons. … We continue to judge that Iran's nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran."

Most experts, including those in Israel, seem to view Iran as striving to become a "threshold country," technically able to produce a nuclear weapon but abstaining from doing so for the present. Again, we may regret it, but nothing in international law or in the NPT forbids such an ambition.

We often hear that Iran's ill will, its refusal to negotiate seriously, left our countries no other choice but to drag it to the Security Council in 2006. Here also, things are not that clear. Let us remember that, in 2005, Iran was ready to discuss a ceiling limit for the number of its centrifuges and to maintain its rate of enrichment way below the high levels of military interest. And it expressed its readiness to put into force a protocol it had signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency that allowed intrusive inspections, even in non-declared sites, on its territory.

But the Europeans and the Americans wanted to compel Iran to forsake its enrichment program. And at least in Iranian minds, the same aim still looms behind the Security Council's insistence on suspending all Iranian enrichment activities. Before accusing Iran of stalling negotiations, one should then admit that "zero centrifuges operating in Iran, permanently or temporarily," is an unrealistic goal.

Of course, a dilemma lingers in the minds of most of our leaders. Why offer the Iranian regime an opening that could help it restore its internal and international legitimacy? Should not we wait for a more palatable successor? Ronald Reagan used to call the Soviet Union the "evil empire," but it did not stop him from negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament. Should we blame him for having slowed down the course of history?

Given the last round of negotiation in Istanbul and the last disappointing exchange of letters, the current deadlock will be difficult to break. On the process, the more discreet and technical the negotiation will be, the better chance it will have to progress. On the substance, we already know that any solution will have to build on the quality of the IAEA's inspection system.

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Either we trust the IAEA's ability to supervise its member states, including Iran, or we do not. If we do, we should ask the IAEA to identify the additional tools needed to fully monitor Iran's nuclear program and to provide credible assurances that all the activities connected with it are purely peaceful in intent. On the basis of its answer, a pragmatic negotiation could get started.

Richard Dalton (United Kingdom), Steen Hohwü-Christensen (Sweden), Paul von Maltzahn (Germany), Guillaume Metten (Belgium), François Nicoullaud (France) and Roberto Toscano (Italy) are former ambassadors to Tehran.

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