Iran Dodges Nuclear Accountability As World Order Wanes – OpEd

By Mohamed Chebaro

Have the world’s attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear program failed? The short answer seems to be yes. This answer is indicative of a weakened international system, to say the least. The world’s scrutiny and work to limit nuclear proliferation have failed, perhaps sending a signal to other aspiring nuclear weapons powers, with all that a renewed nuclear race would mean for the peace and security of the planet.

The above conclusion is based on the fact that Western powers are today avoiding censuring Iran for its lack of cooperation with the UN’s nuclear watchdog for fear of aggravating the current geopolitical tensions.

Ahead of its board of governors meeting this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran’s cooperation with the agency remained poor on several outstanding issues related to its nuclear program, which Tehran continues to maintain is for peaceful purposes. The areas the agency’s quarterly report pointed to were Tehran’s expansion of its nuclear work, the deactivation of the IAEA’s surveillance devices that remotely monitor Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s continued barring of field visits by senior agency inspectors.

The so-called E3 group, composed of France, Germany and the UK, had initially planned to censure Iran for its lack of cooperation and had drafted a resolution to that end, only for the group to shelve it, since the international geopolitical picture is very complex due to what is happening in Ukraine and Gaza. The E3 decided it was not the right time to criticize Tehran.

The Western powers’ decision not to escalate matters with Iran forms part of what many in the Middle East believe to be a type of appeasement of Tehran. Over the years, this has only emboldened and encouraged its continuous posturing in the Middle East and beyond.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi last month decried the “loose talk” by current and former Iranian nuclear program officials, while reiterating his concerns about the potential risks of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. He said that, while he has no information that Iran is making a nuclear weapon, he is tuning into what is being said by Iranian officials who are boasting about their country’s nuclear capabilities.

In a statement on last month’s 45th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, the former chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed that his country had crossed “all the thresholds of nuclear science and technology.” He hinted that Tehran had succeeded in manufacturing and building all the necessary components for “the car” (a euphemistic reference to a nuclear bomb), claiming that all that is left to do is assemble it.

In nuclear terms, enriching uranium up to 60 percent is a short step away from enriching to the 90 percent level needed to build a bomb. This is well above the 3.67 percent threshold agreed with Tehran under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tehran has gradually broken away from its commitments under this agreement after the US unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018, when President Donald Trump was in the White House. In the summer of 2022, the EU tried but failed to get Iran back into compliance as part of a deal that would have seen Washington return to the agreement.

Over the years, the containment of Iran has proved elusive and, if anything, has laid bare the limitations of international diplomacy and laws and the weakness of international institutions, which have become polarized in an increasingly conflictive world, split between two widening visions of peace, security and prosperity. The Western nations are in one camp and, in the other, one can see a loose assembly of Russia, China and some nations that represent the growing Global South, including Iran and North Korea.

The Iran nuclear deal — despite its numerous critics believing that it failed to address Iran’s threat to regional and global peace through its propping up of nonstate actors and groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Yemen — was thought to be part of the long game to trim Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Recent events related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict show the potent role Iran could play in the region, although indirectly and with a large degree of deniability, through its many proxies, such as holding to ransom shipping traffic in the Red Sea.

UN Security Council Resolution 2231 became the execution arm of the deal that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, its missile production, arms trade and its conventional weapons arsenal, setting “sunset clauses” between 2020 and 2041 in return for the lifting of US and EU sanctions. For example, UN restrictions on Iran’s missile program expired in October 2023, its use of advanced centrifuges for uranium enrichment is due to be allowed from July 2024 and even the UNSC resolution itself, which allows for so-called “snapback” sanctions, is due to expire in January 2026.

For all it stood for, the JCPOA did not seem to hamper Iran’s ability to deploy all the tricks in the book in order to circumvent its clauses. Tehran has worked to flout the restrictions related to testing, developing, building and delivering missiles and drones. The sanctions regime was only nominally effective, as many proscribed people and entities later changed roles, while shell companies continued to procure items for Iran’s many banned weapons development projects.

Instead of containment, the world woke up two years ago to see Iranian drones and missiles raining down on Kyiv via Moscow, as well as on cargo vessels in the Red Sea courtesy of the Houthis, while Hamas’ long-range missiles bear the hallmarks of Iran’s military assistance and know-how.

The IAEA’s recent report points to the failures of containment. Worse still, the meeting in Vienna this week exposed the limitations of the current international order. It seems like Iran will continue to claw at a world order that is waning, meaning it is free from accountability and living in a world where only might makes right. Impunity is slowly becoming the rule of the game in a polarized, fragmented world.

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.