Efforts to allay concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are in danger of failing. Last week, by offering counterproposals, Iran essentially refused the international community’s proposal to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) as a confidence building measure. Iran’s rejection, due to domestic reasons or miscalculation, means that its Supreme Leader feels no urgency to rebuild confidence with the international community. This is a mistake. Iran fails to recognize that the lack of transparency of its program, its continued rule-breaking, and its disingenuous negotiations will further unify the major powers against it and increase the skepticism of others. If the major powers cannot convince Iran to reconsider, they should mobilize the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Security Council to ensure serious consequences result from Iran’s continued non-cooperation.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) acknowledges Iran’s right to enjoy the benefits of atomic energy. It also requires activities like low-level enrichment of uranium for civilian use to be safeguarded. Since the discovery of covert nuclear activities in 2002, the UN Security Council has demanded Iran remove doubts about the peaceful nature of its program. To deescalate the growing crisis and test Iran’s claim that its program is exclusively peaceful, the IAEA, working with the US, France and Russia offered Iran a deal.

Their proposal requires three-quarters of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) be sent to Russia for further enrichment and then to France to be made into fuel for the TRR which creates medical isotopes used to diagnose and treat diseases. Iran’s stockpile of LEU, estimated to be enough to develop one nuclear bomb, is enriched far below the 19.75% needed for the TRR. The proposed arrangement would hinder Iran from quickly turning its stockpile into fuel for a bomb.

Iran, reportedly reluctant to ship a majority of its LEU in one batch by the end of this year, is instead proposing that smaller batches be sent over a longer period of time or that Iran simply purchase the reactor fuel outright without any impact on its stockpile of LEU. If true, the reports indicate that Iran continues to pursue its strategy of depicting itself as a righteous power engaging in legal activities, persecuted by the West. In a speech delivered last week, Iranian President Ahmadinejad said, “Nuclear fuel supply for the Tehran reactor is an opportunity to evaluate the honesty of the powers and the [IAEA].” If the major powers refuse the counteroffer, Iran will claim it is being treated unfairly. The major powers should avoid this trap and Iran should reconsider its ploy.

Iran’s tactic of insisting that its “nuclear file” is closed took a severe blow when the country was forced to reveal in September the existence of a secret enrichment facility near Qom. Until then, Iran had avoided serious consequences by dividing China and Russia against France, the UK and the US. The revelation led the major powers to craft a unified position for the October 1 talks in Geneva. Since then, they have worked hard to maintain solidarity.

Iran has also counted on the backing of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). That support was already on shaky ground before Iran informed the IAEA of the new facility. At the IAEA General Conference, Iran failed to secure consensus support from the NAM for a resolution prohibiting attacks against nuclear sites. Several NAM members, who had until then kept an open-mind about Iran’s nuclear activities, have become skeptical. With Iran’s refusal to take reasonable steps to dispel mistrust about its program, that skepticism will only spread.

Before making irrevocable decisions, Iran should reevaluate its reaction to the original proposal. In many ways, the proposal is a significant victory for a state that cares about recognition as a righteous and law-abiding power. It redefined UN Security Council demands in ways that Iran has long sought because it could be interpreted as legitimizing Iranian enrichment. In refusing to “say yes,” however, Iranian leaders fail to discern that the proposal was one part of a broader effort. Progress could have spurred further productive negotiations whereas refusal strengthens support for a punitive approach.

The major powers constructed a two track approach that prioritizes engagement, but agreement on the desirability or effectiveness of sanctions remains tenuous. Iran, by bucking efforts to assuage concerns, may unify the major powers to adopt harsher legal and economic measures. Russian and Chinese reluctance to impose sanctions creates a vested interest in seeing the engagement track yield results. Iran should not antagonize them.

If Iran does not reconsider, the IAEA must take swift action. In light of Iran’s maneuvers, the IAEA Board of Governors at its November meeting should determine that Iran has once again violated its Safeguards Agreement and is in noncompliance with its NPT obligations. Such a move will have serious ramifications for Iran’s future strategy. 

First, it would damage Iran’s position that its activities are legal. In the past, IAEA Director General ElBaradei has faced criticism for giving Iran the benefit of the doubt. ElBaradei should ensure that the IAEA is seen as fit for its purpose and not rendered impotent by political maneuvering. The secret enrichment facility’s construction is a clear violation of Iran’s legal obligations. The results of recent inspections will be presented before the Board convenes on November 26 in Vienna. The Board will have the evidence to act.

Second, the Board’s vote would highlight Iran’s further isolation. Previously, the IAEA deemed Iran noncompliant in September 2005. At the time, 21 countries supported the decision, 12 abstained and only Venezuela voted against. China, Russia and several NAM members abstained. The current composition of the Board includes 12 states that supported the decision before, five who abstained, Venezuela who voted against and 17 new states. China and Russia may be forced to vote yes.

Third, a noncompliance determination strengthens the hand of the UN Security Council. The day before President Obama announced the existence of the secret enrichment facility, he chaired an historic session of the Security Council. During it, the Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1887. It calls for a “situation of non-compliance with non-proliferation obligations” to be brought to the attention of the Security Council, which will determine if that situation constitutes a threat to international peace and security. It also highlights the Security Council's primary responsibility in addressing such threats. Although the resolution is non-binding, it still indicates support for these principles from the major powers and other states. This is bad news for Iran.

There is still time for Iran to correct its mistake before the IAEA meeting. Perhaps the prospect of another noncompliance determination, tougher UN Security Council action, and the cost to its reputation may alter Iran’s course. The major powers should persuade Iran to reconsider and failing that, they should ensure the international system of institutions and rules impose serious consequences for continued defiance.

That system is designed to address seemingly intractable conflicts when they pose a threat to international peace and security. Iran’s activities are inconsistent with a state that has an exclusively peaceful nuclear energy program, looking to rebuild confidence with the international community. Instead, Iran is pretending to extend a hand, when it is in fact turning its back. Iran should reconsider or the international system should work as it was intended.