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Pauline Neville-Jones: Iran - A test case for the West

For over three years the Conservative Party has warned of an approaching crisis in the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. 

This crisis has been mounting as the result of the actions of countries like Iran and North Korea, the thriving nuclear black market, the growing nexus between proliferation and non-state actors (including terrorists) and stalemate over the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

And it is a crisis that could lead to an age of nuclear insecurity - to the unravelling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been a key cornerstone of global security and stability for so many years.

The challenges to the international non-proliferation regime are also well-known to this audience.  The excellent livre blanc which was published last year has much to say on the subject.

The livre blanc states that proliferation is not solely the result of state policies but also of the initiatives taken by private and clandestine networks, and that non-proliferation measures are coming under challenge as a result of failures in the fight against proliferation and the non-participation in the NPT regime of important states.  The warning it gives is stark: 'the destabilising impact of proliferation on international security is all the more important today, when it is particularly rife in areas of tension such as the Middle East and East Asia.  This proliferation is both sharpening these tensions and can only increase the long-term risk that these weapons will one day be used'.  I agree.

It is good that France intends to invest in space-based intelligence and surveillance capabilities for early detection, monitoring and warning and to complement human sources.  The Paper also goes on to identify, more broadly, three pillars of an effective fight against proliferation, and I am glad to see that these have much in common with the Conservative Party's proposals for strengthening the NPT and tackling the transfer of illicit materials.  As the British Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has said:

'[It is the] tendency to deal with each proliferation crisis as a one-off that fundamentally hampers our ability to stem the global spread of nuclear weapons.  While all [...] cases are different, they have important features in common - including how these countries acquired their technology, how they hid their activities, and how they successfully held off international pressure for many years.  With every prospect of the pace of nuclear proliferation increasing, we must lift our gaze to look at the coming crises, not just the current one.'

The international community is, of course, at a pivotal diplomatic moment in relation to Iran's nuclear programme.  So the questions I want to cover during my remarks this morning are:

  • the prospects for convincing Iran that it does not need an indigenous capability for uranium enrichment;
  • the effect of Iran's response  on the international non-proliferation regime overall, which is under serious strain; 
  • the implications for international security more generally. 

To put it simply: what is at stake for the West?

<h2>Why is Iran a test case for the West?</h2>

In Britain, after the fall of the Berlin wall, it fell out of fashion to talk about the West.  And in certain respects in a globalised world, it is a concept of only limited relevance.  But in the case of nuclear issues, it seems to me to make eminent political sense. 

For me, the term implies both values and power.  Nothing could so pre-eminently express the link between these two than the role countries across the North Atlantic region have in sustaining the purpose of the non-proliferation regime.  Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in a world lacking balance of power or, outside Europe, regional security arrangements, is important because of the direct risk to security. 

But sustaining the non-proliferation regime is not just about the security of our countries.  Nuclear states living up to commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which includes recognising the rights of non-nuclear weapons states, is also important because this is the surest way to encourage multilateral approaches to the challenges the international community faces.

The entire credibility of the NPT is at stake.  Imagine the consequences if it is not renewed.  A world of nuclear blackmail that puts the rule of law in international relations at severe risk.  It would undermine the policies and structures for the management of international affairs that the Western world has sought to build up since the Second World War.  Even if it did not result in the horror of nuclear engagement it would present a challenge to Western - specifically but not only - American leadership, the like of which we have not hitherto experienced.  The Gulf and the Middle East generally would not just be an unstable place.  It would be highly dangerous, with the risk of a nuclear arms race and further proxy activity.

The case of Iran embodies all of the challenges to the credibility of the NPT and we need to make a significant and sustained effort to deflect events that will otherwise follow.  A great deal is therefore at stake.  Iran has the right to civil nuclear power but only under NPT and IAEA rules, and its nuclear programme therefore tests our capacity for strategic understanding, our political will and determination.

So where are we now?

The policies pursued by the EU 3 plus 3 during the Bush Administration showed little sign of changing the Iranian course towards steadily increasing nuclear capability.  It could be argued that it was not well judged, at least from the Western point of view, to have few carrots and feeble sticks: the half hearted sanctions were never such as to make life really uncomfortable for the regime.

Under Obama, American policy has changed gear. Despite the background of deep distrust and evidence of cheating, the latest in a long line being the revelation of the existence of the facility outside Qom, uncovered only because Western intelligence had discovered it, an offer by the Americans to negotiate 'without preconditions' is on the table - that is to say without Iran having first to suspend enrichment.  The counterpart of the soft opening terms, of course, needs to be much tougher sanctions should the Iranians fail to engage seriously.

<h2>What has been achieved through engagement?</h2>

The Conservative Party supports this new approach, as does the British Government, which we hope might open up a more productive policy track.  But have we gained anything so far and what are the prospects?

On the plus side there is the current, relatively united position amongst the P5 plus one.  We must reckon however that even if Tehran decides to play ball over enrichment abroad, they will seek to undermine P5 unity of purpose.  The Chinese have shown their capacity for toughness over North Korea which is on their doorstep and has little to offer Beijing other than trouble.  But will they see the nuclear threat from Iran in the same straightforward way?  They have oil supply contracts with Tehran. They fear the imposition of sanctions over human rights issues and routinely oppose them.  Beijing may nevertheless feel uncomfortable on an issue of this importance if isolated, so the position taken by Russia could be crucial.  Russia has so far balanced the view that a nuclear Iran would be contrary to its interests with its other interests in things like arms exports and energy co-operation.  For this reason it has tended to stand against further sanctions but has been unable to propose alternatives.

On the face of it and following the revelation of the second facility at Qom, both Russia and China have adopted a tougher stance on the issue of new sanctions against Iran.  The shift in Russia's position may partly result from Obama's decision not to go ahead with the Bush Administration's missile defence plans in Eastern Europe.  Any concern Moscow may have had about Iran's nuclear programme seems to have been outweighed by the determination to prevent the appearance of missile installations of the kind envisaged by the US in Eastern Europe.  While Russia still tends to treat international relations as a zero sum game, it is possible that there might now, and in relation to preventing the acquisition by Iran of a nuclear capability for military purposes, be an alignment of interests.

The wider reception of the Obama Administration's policy has been mixed. It has been received positively-not to say with relief-in many Western, especially European, capitals. The reaction has been more equivocal among many of the United States supporters and clients in the Middle East itself.  The Israelis find it hard to conceal their anxiety that it represents weakness - a feeling which feeds on hardline opposition to the policy in the United States itself.  The Gulf States have seen in a robust stance on the part of the US to Iran's pretensions in the region and Shia troublemaking, reassurance that their security interests are not being sacrificed.  So all are watching- watching to see whether the initiative results in a process which at least makes it much harder for Iran to progress to a nuclear weapons capability and which increases stability.

So what are the achievements so far? The process - the dual track of informal as well as formal negotiation-is potentially a promising technique permitting informal discussion of sensitive issues before firm positions are taken.  But certain conditions must be met and we should be realistic.  We are in the foothills of a big mountain. 

The deal proposed to Tehran is technical and does not stop the process of enrichment.  In other words the deal is only a limited confidence building measure which, while it may turn out to be a sign of Iranian seriousness of intent, does not of itself lead to further agreements that are needed and which would have to be negotiated afresh.  Still in front of us are a whole series of difficult issues: the potential military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme; Iranian enrichment capability; the possibility of further secret facilities in Iran; the need for Iran to accept the Additional Protocol and toughened inspections. 

So we have only just begun.  The fact that it is not at all clear that Iran is willing even to begin to unclench the fist in response to the extended hand.  There is no clear message - or even a clear hint of a message - coming from Tehran.  The indications are that this ostensibly technical step has generated an argument inside the regime.  One can imagine it: the hardliners arguing against what they will see as a slippery slope of losing control over a capability which guarantees their position in power and Iran's ability to dominate her neighbours on her terms. Who will win?

One of our problems is that we simply do not know what goes on in Qom. The regime has already been destabilised by the events following the dubious elections and it is not clear how the prospect of negotiations with Western powers will play out. It could strengthen the pulling power of the reformists. But they have to contend with those who portray willingness to negotiate as weakness and who argue against Iran ceding any of her hard won nuclear prowess.  It is certainly not to be excluded that in the short term positions taken by Tehran could actually harden.

There is a further risk.  While we may value time gained, it itself also provides Iran with the scope to string us along. And even if the agreement is struck- and in the future other, more important agreements with Iran are arrived at, we cannot entirely eliminate the risk of cheating. Iran operating an agreement while pursuing alongside enrichment activities in clear breach of it. Every undertaking or agreement must be capable of verification. And the threat of sanctions must be credible. We must be ready for, and indeed prepared at any stage, to switch gear if bad faith becomes apparent.

<h2>Next steps for the West</h2>

So what should the next steps for the West be? 

The negotiations with Tehran are rightly and necessarily centre stage at present.  They should be pursued clear sightedly and with determination.  But prepare - diplomatically - for the worst while planning for the best. At the UN we need to pursue building a significant sanctions package with a powerful coalition behind it.  The more credible it looks, the less likely it is that it will have to be implemented. Steps should also be taken through the EU.  Member states must be willing to adopt measures which they been visibly reluctant to contemplate in the past, such as a ban on new export credit guarantees, a ban on new investment in Iranian oil and gas, further bans on Iranian financial institutions and mirroring the US bilateral sanctions on Iranian companies. 

We do however also need to get other international activity going. The way forward is to make Iran part, but only part, of a wider agenda appealing to a wider audience.  Tehran gets attention with her claim that that she can only assert her right to nuclear energy by behaving the way she does - the implicit charge being that nuclear nations do not honour the bargain at the root of the NPT treaty: the availability of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

So alongside putting together a sanctions package and coalition we need also a positive policy.   As part of the wider agenda I have mentioned, the gaps in the international non-proliferation regime need addressing.   It is time, for many reasons, not least those connected with climate change, to agree a mechanism to bring the nuclear fuel cycle under international control so that the spread of nuclear energy generation does not simultaneously increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.  This could be achieved through partnerships of a small number of states producing nuclear fuel or a 'network' of fuel banks. This part of Western thinking, which is quite widely discussed, needs fleshing out in detail and the link with non proliferation made clear. In the ideal scenario, the treatment of Iranian enriched uranium would become a model of how the nuclear fuel cycle could be brought under international control.  Recognising that it occupies a significant place in a key region, Iran should be encouraged to play a responsible role.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

Let me conclude.

The Party is committed to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.  The present situation could open up a positive route forward.  The Conservative Party supports President Obama's approach and the current talks which need to be given time to succeed.  But just like the US, the UK's patience is not open ended and the time may be coming for tougher sanctions which must be implemented in the hope and expectation of pressure changing Tehran's behaviour. The use of force would have very high risks, though it would be unwise take it off the table. 

How Iran is handled affects stability in the Middle East as well as the chances of the renewal and expansion of the NPT regime. And, as I mentioned at the outset, how well the Obama Administration manages to handle Iran will be one of those things which helps define its reputation.  Frankly, we all have an interest in this and in the success of the Obama Administration in succeeding in one of the early challenges to its authority.

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