ASSOCIATED PRESS  (photo credit)

An Iranian schoolgirl holds up a placard proclaiming: Nuclear energy is our indisputable right, at a pro-nuclear rally in the city of Torbate Heydarieh last year.

The United Nations Security Council consensus on Iran is a major achievement, except that it may turn out to be the wrong consensus at the wrong time.

Iran's failure to comply with the council's unanimous demand that it suspend all uranium enrichment, a failure again confirmed in the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has become the focus of a rapidly escalating international confrontation, even though an end to Iranian enrichment activity is not anyone's formal objective. The Security Council's most recent resolution says clearly and simply that the aim is to "guarantee that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes."

Both the IAEA and the Security Council introduced the call for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment as a confidence-building measure, not as an end in itself. The challenge is to recognize when that call becomes a confidence-sapping measure and undermines pursuit of the real objective, which is complete and unfettered inspections to enable the IAEA to provide the guarantee of peaceful purposes that the Security Council and all who support nuclear non-proliferation seek.

The Security Council does not dispute Iran's claim that it has a right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to conduct uranium enrichment. At the same time, Iran has not challenged the fundamental principle of transparency or its legal obligation to be in full compliance with NPT-mandated IAEA safeguards. It is currently in violation of both the principle and the obligation, but Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, recognizes that must change: "What should be important," he said recently, "is to have Iran's activities within the framework of the IAEA and under the supervision of the inspectors of the Agency."

In other words, the long-term obligation under the NPT is not to block enrichment but to allow the IAEA the access it needs to confirm that any enrichment is for peaceful purposes.

But at the moment, Iran is being asked to suspend a legal activity, uranium enrichment for civilian purposes, as a precondition for remedying its illegal activity, flouting IAEA safeguards. Iran's refusal to make the goodwill gesture of suspending enrichment is at the very least short-sighted, but it is in no one's interests to elevate a gesture not made, even one mandated by the Security Council, into a global confrontation and tripwire to a military showdown.

Increasingly, elements of the non-proliferation community doubt the wisdom and question the motives behind the single-minded focus on a suspension of uranium enrichment. It is time to refocus on the real objective -- that is, to ensure that Iran does not use its growing capacity in nuclear technology for weapons purposes. "What matters," says Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group (ICG), "is not whether Iran has full enrichment capability, but whether it has nuclear weapons."

The ICG has called for a change in diplomatic strategy by which the international community would explicitly acknowledge that it is Iran's prerogative under the NPT to enrich uranium to fuel civilian nuclear energy plants, provided it meets stringent inspection requirements. In what the ICG calls a "delayed limited enrichment plan," the international community would require Iran to confine itself to its current, limited, experimental level of enrichment and only gradually phase in industrial level enrichment as the international community develops confidence that Iran is in compliance with a full and effective inspections regime.

Earlier, the German defence minister, Franz Josef Jung, expressed a similar view, namely that Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium if it remained for now at the experimental level and if it was under the reliable scrutiny of the IAEA: "One cannot forbid Iran from doing what other countries in the world are doing in accordance with international law. The key point is whether a step toward nuclear weapons is taken."

If suspension of enrichment were taken off the table and replaced by a requirement that enrichment initially be confined to research levels, the international community would be in a position to call Iran's bluff - to see whether Iran, with the challenge to its right to enrichment technology removed would indeed honour its obligation of full disclosure and unfettered IAEA access, including adoption and ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol and the more intrusive inspections it facilitates.

It would, of course, be best if Iran neither pursued nor acquired any of the sensitive fuel cycle technologies that are potentially adaptable to weapons purposes. But that will not be achieved by singling out Iran. Restrictions on such sensitive technologies will have to be non-discriminatory. The IAEA has been exploring plans whereby all enrichment and reprocessing for civilian purposes would be brought under international control to produce fuel for an IAEA fuel bank from which the operators of civilian power plants in need of such fuel would be supplied.

Until that happens, however, the Iran-specific restriction on uranium enrichment remains a confidence-building measure -- a symbol of co-operation rather than an essential element of compliance. As such, it should not be allowed to create a standoff in which civilian enrichment becomes defined as a fundamental challenge to Security Council authority and thus grounds for military action.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.