Monday, November 30, 2009

Or Else What?

In the wake of a demand from the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop work on its recently-revealed uranium enrichment plant, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to begin construction on ten more nuclear enrichment facilities. And while Iran may not have the capability or will to carry out either threat, the threats in and of themselves highlight the problem the international community faces in dealing with a regime like Iran: How does the international community deal with such intransigence? Iran is clearly in violation of international law as well as of international opinion and sentiment. However, all of the promised inducements, compromises, and incentives, including the recent offer to enrich Iran's uranium outside of Iran to ensure it could not be used for a weapon, have been rejected. Which leaves the international community, the UN, and the US back where it has been for the past several years: Relying on the old mantra of Comply with international law or else.

Or else what?

It's the "what" that is so important here, and that is do difficult for the international community to define. The UN has demonstrated time and time again that it can, occasionally, muster the will to impose sanctions on the most flagrant violators of international law. But, rarely does it know what to do when sanctions fail to yield results.

This is the problem today, just as it was the problem in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. What is the "what"? What will happen to a state that refuses to comply? Even when the Security Council members can overcome their own narrowly-defined national interests to reach a consensus, that's usually as far as they will go. So while Russia and China have been willing to rebuke Iran for its violations of Iran's obligations under the NPT, neither has been willing to discuss, let alone implement, any punishments intended to force compliance. President Obama has not shown a willingness to meld negotiations with punishment, leaving them as separate outcomes, making it possible for the avoidance of even the consideration serious punishment so long as negotiations are proceeding. So when Iran is challenged with a "comply or else" threat, the "or else" is left undefined. Iran doesn't know what will happen, nor does the US, the UN or anyone else.

If the US and the international community are serious in warning that they are "not going to just wait indefinitely and allow for the development of a nuclear weapon [and] the breach of international treaties" (please note that I do not necessarily agree with this position) then the negotiations and the threats need to be combined. The US needs to work to build a consensus with its international partners on what actions are to be demanded of Iran and what consequences will follow if Iran does not comply.

The stakes get higher in Iran day by day as Iran refuses to cooperate with the IAEA. The US needs to act quickly; once Iran develops a nuclear weapon, the whole equation changes.

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