The world inched closer to confrontation with Iran today, but it is not yet clear what will happen next. One huge problem for security analysts is the question of Iran’s motives. Would Iranian want to pass a bomb to terrorists, use one or more against great powers, or perhaps versus Israel?

Patrick has argued in an academic work with Ronald Krebs that scholars, at least, cannot discern states’ motives. He notes that Hans Morgenthau agreed with this position, though the typical realist response to this dilemma is for national policy elites to make worst-case assumptions about the motives (and likely actions) of virtually all other state rivals. Of greatest concern to realists, of course, are the material capabilities of states.

To a great extent, the international nonproliferation regime too avoids the question of state motives by focusing on capabilities. In the current dispute, the problem is that the International Atomic Energy Agency might not be observing all of Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, it cannot really tell what Iran might be able to do.

Iran’s known actions to date, save for some failures to report all of its nuclear activity, are legal. However, as India demonstrated back in 1974, a nuclear energy program provides information critical to bomb-making. Legal uranium enrichment, in particular, is only a short hop from illegal aquisition of material for the bomb.

Apparently, more and more national leaders may believe that the time for worst-case planning is fast approaching.

Everyone already knows about the words emanating about Iran from the United States. Iran has been demonized by the US since the Shah fell in February 1979, and the current Bush administration considers Iran the main state supporter of terrorism. Iran is evil, literally, according to the President’s public speeches.

Other states may be ready to embrace the American view. New German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted by Reuters, February 4:

“Looking back to German history in the early 1930s when National Socialism (Nazism) was on the rise, there were many outside Germany who said ‘It’s only rhetoric — don’t get excited’,” she told the assembled world policy makers.

“There were times when people could have reacted differently and, in my view, Germany is obliged to do something at the early stages … We want to, we must prevent Iran from developing its nuclear program.”

…”Iran has blatantly crossed the red line,” she said.

“I say it as German chancellor. A president who questions Israel’s right to exist, a president who denies the Holocaust cannot expect to receive any tolerance from Germany.”

She was welcoming guests, including Donald Rumsfeld, to the annual Munich security conference.

The IAEA, however, has not traditionally made blind worst-case assumptions about state motives. It requires evidence of non-peaceful nuclear activity.

Essentially, to date, the IAEA cannot prove that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, but it likewise cannot prove that Iran is not. This is from an interview of IAEA’s Mohamed ElBaradei by Christopher Dickey ofNewsweek, posted on January 12:

ELBARADEI: I am not yet in a position to make a judgment on the peaceful nature of the [nuclear] program. We still need to assure ourselves through access to documents, individuals [and] locations that we have seen all that we ought to see and that there is nothing fishy, if you like, about the program.

What can be done?

Since December 2003, Iran has been observing an “Additional Protocol” to the NPT that it signed at that time, but has not ratified (the US ratified it only in March 2004). The Protocol allows the IAEA to make more intrusive and surprise inspections, even of undeclared facilities, and requires that the agency produce an overall assessment of a state’s nuclear program. Historically, the IAEA merely issued statements about the known quantities of nuclear material obtained via monitoring of a state’s declared nuclear facilities.

Basically, the IAEA wants Iran to continue making concessions that it is not technically obliged to make:

DICKEY: But there´s another problem. Even if the declared nuclear research is all that Iran has going, there´s nothing in the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself to prevent them from enriching uranium – which they say is their right. They could get to the point of producing their own nuclear fuel, or bomb material, then tell you, “We´re pulling out of the treaty.”

ELBARADEI: Sure. And if they have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far – a few months – from a weapon. We need to revisit the treaty, because that margin of security is unacceptable. But specifically on Iran, the board is saying, “You have a right under the treaty to enrich uranium, but because of the lack of confidence in your program and because the IAEA has not yet given you a clean bill of health, you should not exercise that right. In a way, you have to go through a probation period, to build confidence again, before you can exercise your full rights.”

Iran has been responding to the recent escalation of the public dispute with threats to end its cooperation with the inspections regime and to cut short the diplomacy with Russia that potentially promised a peaceful resolution to the dispute. Most importantly, Iran warns that it will begin enriching uranium, which much of the rest of the world (especially the world’s major powers) views as very threatening.

Given that 27 of the 35 states on the IAEA Board voted Saturday to report Iran to the UN Security Council, it is important to keep in mind where the current pathway might lead. Back to the interview:

DICKEY: What if the Iranians are just buying time for their bomb building?

ELBARADEI: That´s why I said we are coming to the litmus test in the next few weeks. Diplomacy is not just talking. Diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases, by force. We have rules. We have to do everything possible to uphold the rules through conviction. If not, then you impose them. Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it.

DICKEY: You´re angry.

ELBARADEI: No, I´m not angry, but I´d like to make sure the process will not be abused. There´s a difference. I still would like to be able to avoid escalation, but at the same time I do not want the Agency to be cheated; I do not want the process to be abused. I think that is clear. I have a responsibility, and I would like to fulfill it with as good a conscience as I can.”

Clearly, even the IAEA Director wants at least the threat of force as a lever over Iran. How many states, however, are actually willing to employ even coercive sanctions?

For now at least, no action will be taken by the UN Security Council until at least March 6, when ElBaradei files his next report about Iran’s nuclear program. Just about everyone in the world has an interest in the peaceful resolution of this dispute. Let’s hope that the diplomats can do it.

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