Iran's Nuclear Ambitions are a National Security Issue that Go Beyond the Purview of International Institutions

Report Middle East

Iran's Nuclear Ambitions are a National Security Issue that Go Beyond the Purview of International Institutions

May 5, 2006 5 min read

Authors: James Phillips and Baker Spring

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on April 28 issued a mildly worded and understated report to the United Nations Security Council on Iran's failure to comply with the Security Council's March 29 statement. That statement urged Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and fully cooperate with the IAEA. The IAEA's kid-glove treatment of Iran, after two decades of Iranian deception and duplicity concerning its nuclear program, is inconsistent with the IAEA's mandate to serve as a watchdog on the nuclear programs of non-weapons states under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). 


The IAEA did not issue a hard-hitting report detailing Iran's failure to comply with international demands to curtail its uranium enrichment program and failure to honor its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Iran's failures in these regards are clear and incontrovertible. The report, both in its content and tone, is more consistent with an attempt by the IAEA to position itself to mediate or arbitrate the disagreement between Iran and Western powers, primarily the United States, France, Great Britain and Germany, over Iran's nuclear program. This makes it consistent with the IAEA's past behavior regarding Iran's nuclear program.


The IAEA's behavior, unfortunately, is also consistent with what is becoming a habit among international organizations to stray from their mandates in service to an ambition to assume the trappings of global government. In this regard, it is critical to remember the specific mandate the NPT assigns to the IAEA. Specifically, Article III of the NPT states,

Each non-nuclear weapons State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards, as set forth in an agreement to be negotiated and concluded with the International Atomic Energy Agency in accordance with the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Agency's safeguard, for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfillment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

Iran has violated this safeguard agreement. The IAEA report acknowledges this fact, but it flinches from the direct condemnation that would be consistent with its NPT-mandated role as a watchdog against nuclear weapons proliferation. 


As important as what the NPT says about the IAEA is what it does not say. The NPT does not assign the IAEA a role of mediation or arbitration.  IAEA Director General ElBaradei should stick to his job, to provide timely warning of  Iranian attempts to divert nuclear energy programs to weapons purposes. It is not his job to set himself up as some kind of diplomatic facilitator to defuse the long-simmering crisis over Iran's nuclear duplicity. 


Iran already has made clear that it will continue to defy international demands that it comply with its legal obligations under the NPT and the IAEA safeguards agreement.  President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed on April 28 that Iran will continue its nuclear program despite the possibility of U.N. Security Council sanctions, saying that Iran "won't give a damn about such useless resolutions."


The United States should cite such contemptuous Iranian statements as yet another reason that the Security Council must confront Iran's irresponsible behavior and not relegate the issue to the IAEA, the U.N.'s toothless watchdog, as Russia and China have advocated. The United States and its allies should

  • Push for a Security Council resolution that imposes targeted economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Iranian regime if it continues its nuclear weapons program.  Iran has been allowed to get away with too much for too long. If Russia or China block this effort in the Security Council, then the United States must lead a coalition of the willing to impose sanctions outside the U.N. framework.
  • Propose supplemental inspections of Iran's nuclear program. The Bush Administration should press the United Nation's Security Council, as it considers sanctions against Iran, to assign to the U.S. and Israel the responsibility to undertake inspections in Iran to supplement those done by the IAEA. These should be anytime, anywhere inspections. The Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation of the Department of State, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter, should be assigned the lead role for the U.S. in conducting these inspections. Although Iran is likely to deny these inspections, this proposal would likely face less opposition in the United Nations Security Council than sanctions and bolster the prospects for concerted opposition in the Council to Iran's nuclear program. The main reason to pursue this option, however, is to initiate an effort to break the IAEA's monopoly on sensitive nuclear inspections.  When the vital national interests of the U.S. are at stake, the IAEA should not be allowed to make determinative judgments regarding Iran's nuclear program that are based on assertions that those judgments are purely a technical matter. The United States must reserve the right to determine for itself whether it faces a threat to its vital interests.
  • Declare that the U.S. will invoke its right to individual and collective self defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter in response to a nuclear-armed Iran. Clearly, the U.S., along with Israel, is the most likely target of an Iranian nuclear weapon. By invoking this right, the U.S. will make it clear that no international body, including the United Nations Security Council, possesses a veto over the ability of the U.S. to defend itself or the U.S. and Israel to defend themselves together. Article 51 recognizes that self defense is an inherent right of U.N. member states. This declaration neither implies that the U.S. intends to take immediate military action against Iran nor concludes that military action is necessarily the best option for the U.S. at this time. Rather, it makes clear that, in the aftermath of the United Nations Security Council's bungling prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. does not require a Security Council resolution to use force legitimately against Iran, if such force is determined to be prudent and necessary. This declaration will serve to restore the authority of Article 51, which has been eroded in recent years.


The U.S. government, not the IAEA or the U.N., is  responsible for safeguarding the nation's security, and the Iranian attempt to obtain nuclear weapons is a major threat to U.S. security. Accordingly, the U.S. should look to international institutions such as the IAEA and the United Nations to help rein in Iran, but cannot rely on them to meet vital national security requirements.  The nation's leaders cannot afford to let the political ambitions of the leaders of international institutions limit U.S. security options.  These international leaders have no responsibility or inclination to protect the American people and cannot be expected to do for the U.S. what the U.S. does not do for itself: act to provide for the national defense.


Baker Spring is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and  James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.   


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy