Iran Attempts an End-Run around the IAEA

"Chutzpah" is probably not a term often batted around inside Iran's diplomatic corps. But how else to describe Iran's latest effort to sidestep the offer from President Obama for negotiations on its nuclear-weapons program?

Iran, its semiofficial news agency Fars has announced, is seeking a U.N. resolution banning military strikes against nuclear targets. A letter to this effect has reportedly gone to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna—the U.N. agency with oversight of nuclear activities. Iran wants its demand to be considered at the next IAEA meeting in September.

Wait a minute. Iran hid its nuclear programs from the IAEA for a decade. Now, with its efforts revealed, Iran refuses to give the IAEA anything like a full account of its nuclear facilities; it refuses to give it unfettered access to those facilities, or to Iranians involved in this work; and it has rejected multiple efforts by the agency to broker a compromise deal whereby all of Iran's facilities would come under heightened IAEA monitoring.

But suddenly, fearing an Israeli strike on its facilities, Iran wants U.N. protection against the consequences of its intransigence. (Why Tehran thinks a U.N. resolution would deter Israel, which has ignored U.N. resolutions for years, is, of course, baffling.)

The irony is that if the purpose of Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful, as the government insists, then its facilities already enjoy the protection it now seeks. Article 56 of Additional Protocol One to the Geneva Convention of 1949 bars military attacks on "nuclear electrical generating stations"—and presumably, by extension, attacks on related sites (such as those enriching and fabricating fuel rods for those power stations). So what have the Iranians to fear? Simple: Article 56 excludes nuclear plants "in regular, significant, and direct support of military operations."

Efforts to extend the prohibition—to include strikes against any nuclear plant whose destruction could spread radioactive particles—have been stymied for years in the U.N. Committee on Disarmament in Geneva. The advocates of this extension have declined to meet two reasonable demands by Western powers: first, any ban must be accompanied by another on the production of radiological weapons; and second, protection can be given only to nuclear sites under full IAEA inspection. Iran knows this; it's been a party for years to these discussions in Geneva. Iran's letter to the IAEA is an effort to short-circuit them.

It's safe to say that this request to the IAEA will get nowhere. It's true that IAEA members, including its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, harbor deep suspicions of what they see as America's nuclear hegemony. But ElBaradei steps down in November, to be replaced by a Japanese nuclear expert with stronger views on the need to stop proliferation. Moreover, the IAEA secretariat, having felt burned by Iran's refusal to give inspectors full access, is unlikely to give Iran a sympathetic hearing.

But the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is up for review at a conference under United Nations auspices in New York next May, and Iran may reasonably hope for a more supportive audience there. A sizable bloc of "nonaligned" nations use these NPT reviews to target the nuclear programs of the United States and Israel. Capitalizing on this sentiment, Iran had a big hand in reducing to chaos the last review conference in 2005. President Obama has been clear about his desire to see the 2010 conference agree to tougher measures against nuclear proliferators—with Iran and North Korea explicitly in his sights. (One of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's more consequential missions on her trip through Africa was to persuade South Africa's government to support Obama's goals for next year.) The realists' bet must be that Iran's letter to the IAEA is the first shot in its campaign to derail Obama's agenda in New York.