It's time once again to deal with the knottiest problem in world politics today: what to do about Iran?
On July 31, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1696, demanding that Iran stop all activities involving the enrichment of uranium (a process that can lead to the production of nuclear weapons) and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect all their nuclear facilities.
The resolution set a deadline of Aug. 31. On that date, the IAEA issued a report to the Security Council, noting that Iran was still enriching uranium (though in small quantities) and still refusing access to certain records and facilities.
Back in July, the members of the Security Council agreed to impose at least some economic sanctions if Iran was found to be in defiance of the resolution. But when the deadline came, Russia, China, and even some of the European nations backed away, saying penalties would be "premature" and might damage the chance of negotiations.
Many had predicted this would happen. The Russians have supplied Iran with a nuclear reactor. The Chinese and some Europeans are dependent on Iranian oil. (The United States receives no oil from Iran.) Sanctions could hurt them as much as the Iranians.
In the meantime, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while calling for broad nuclear talks, insists he will never surrender what he calls the "inalienable right" to enrich uranium.
Is uranium enrichment really an "inalienable right"? Does the Iranian program pose an imminent danger? Are there alternative penalties besides sanctions?
Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—which Iran has signed—does state that the treaty's parties have the "inalienable right … to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination."
However, Article III of the treaty obliges signatories to accept "safeguards," including IAEA inspections at all sites involved in nuclear activities, to verify that materials aren't being diverted for military use. In 1997, an amendment, called the "Additional Protocol," expanded the IAEA's powers by letting its agents inspect not only sites officially declared to be nuclear facilities but also sites that the IAEA suspects might involve clandestine nuclear programs.
In other words, this "inalienable right" is not as permissive as Ahmadinejad suggests. First, there is no explicit right to enrich uranium. (Enrichment can be part of a program to produce peaceful nuclear energy, but it's not a necessary element.) Second, the right is granted, in any case, only to those who comply with safeguards—and, according to the IAEA, Iran is not fully complying.