Derailing Disarmament: US Senate Hinders Negotiations with Iran

A resolution sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey with both Republican and Democratic Senators as co-sponsors — Nuclear Weapon-Free Iran Act (S1881) —sits as a ticking time-bomb in Senate desk draws, which could explode after the January 28 State of the Union message.  The resolution has the potential to hinder, perhaps derail, the difficult negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.  A six-month interim agreement reached in Geneva among Iran and the P5 plus one (US, Russia, China, France, UK and Germany) is to start on January 20, 2014 for six months.

In the agreement reached, Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond five percent — a level sufficient for energy production but not for military use.  Iran’s current stock of uranium enriched to a weapon-grade twenty percent will be diluted or converted.  These promised actions will be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In exchange, the major powers will suspend certain sanctions on Iran and stop pressuring other countries to limit trade with Iran.

During the six months, negotiations for a more permanent agreement will continue. The building of trust between Iran and the P5 and the fulfillment of the conditions of the interim agreement are crucial for the continuing negotiations. Currently, there is a minimum of trust and confidence about the level of good faith on both sides.  Within Tehran and Washington, there are hardliners who distrust on principle and who would not be unhappy to see negotiations fail, perhaps opening a door to military action.

The proposed US Senate resolution with its twin floating around in the House of Representatives is both unnecessary and potentially a major hindrance to good faith negotiations — a good example of the wrong methods proposed to meet appropriate goals.

A nuclear-weapon free Iran was first proposed in 1974 by the government of the Shah of Iran at the time when the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was created.  The Shah called for making the entire Middle East a nuclear-weapon free zone on the model of the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco for Latin America — negotiations having started among Latin American states shortly after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the early 1970s, the dangers of nuclear-weapon proliferation in the Middle East were real.  Israel already had nuclear weapons; Libya had nuclear ambitions.  There was talk of nuclear-weapon interest in Iraq.  Egypt had technical knowledge, and Saudi Arabia had the funds to import nuclear technology. A nuclear-weapon-free Iran was to be a major element in the creation of a Nuclear-weapon Free Middle East.

Thus in 1974, Iran along with Egypt proposed in the UN General Assembly the creation of a Middle East Nuclear-weapon Free Zone.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has continued, after the end of the Pahlavi regime in 1979, to call in yearly General Assembly resolutions for such a zone.

The establishment of nuclear-weapon free zones is both a regional non-proliferation and security-building measure and a step toward the eventual global elimination of nuclear weapons.  Nuclear-weapon free zones normally include binding regional de-nuclearization provisions, verification, and compliance mechanisms.  Thus, they rid entire regions of the specter of nuclear weapons and increase regional security.

It is understood that Iranian leadership on a Middle East Nuclear-weapon Free Zone is part of its ambitions to play a role of regional leadership.  However, it is also true that no other Middle East state has had such a consistent policy on the issue with the possible exception of its General Assembly partner, Egypt. Now is the time to work with Iran for a true non-proliferation regime as an edifice of treaties, norms, safeguard mechanisms and institutions.  A minor but useful first step is to bury the irresponsible Senate resolution.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.