Why does Congress want to make us blind in Iran?
WASHINGTON — As the world ratchets up pressure on Iran because of its nuclear activities, there’s one key international organization that deserves most of the credit for showing us what Iran is — and is not — doing. That’s the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations.
The IAEA is responsible for promoting safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technology around the world, and its work is universally respected. Our efforts on Iran directly benefit from a strong, effective IAEA with robust American participation in the organization.
This was most recently demonstrated by a report the IAEA just released on the extent to which Iran was developing a nuclear weapons program before 2003 and the activities that may have continued since then. The report has helped American policymakers on all sides of the political debate on Iran by shedding clear light on these activities.
Having the IAEA’s information is critical, as it is directly in the national security interest of the United States to contemplate further action against Iran that is based upon real information, real data and real analysis.
The IAEA plays an indispensable role in our ability to understand what is really happening with the Iranian nuclear program. Unlike the United States, which doesn’t have diplomats on the ground in Iran, the IAEA actually goes to Tehran. It inspects Iranian nuclear facilities. It reviews information provided by governments who know what is happening in Tehran. In short, without the IAEA, we would be blind in Iran.
So why is the IAEA on the precipice of losing its funding from the United States?
It’s simple. Two decades ago, Congress passed two laws prohibiting U.S. funding for any affiliated organization of the United Nations if that organization grants the Palestinian Liberation Organization membership status.
These laws had a major impact just a few weeks ago, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) approved a Palestinian request for membership in a 107-14 vote. The Obama administration, which does not support these Palestinian moves, promptly withdrew its $65 million contribution to UNESCO, leaving the United States without either voting rights or influence at the organization.
So, what happens if the Palestinians take the same route with the IAEA, apply for membership there, and are successful? The United States will have to stop funding the organization. This means that the IAEA would no longer have American support, at just the precise moment that the United States is relying on its work more than ever.
But withdrawing our $110 million contribution, one quarter of the IAEA’s budget, wouldn’t just harm the organization’s bottom line and its ability to do its critical work. It would also eliminate our ability to influence the work of the organization, as we would lose our seat at the management table.
It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive policy for American efforts to stop an Iranian bomb.
Such self-destructive behavior cannot be blamed on the Palestinians, as some would like to do. The Obama administration is opposing the Palestinian moves at the United Nations at every turn, but as witnessed by the UNESCO vote, has a very tough road to hoe. Cutting off funding to the United Nations is a purely American policy decision.
This is because Congress has always been concerned about the Palestinians going to the United Nations to seek statehood recognition, knowing that they would get a warm reception for such an effort. So, seeking to create leverage against potential U.N. support for the Palestinians, Congress has chosen to use the power of the American purse to force the world body to block Palestinian aspirations. But this pressure tactic is not working, and in the case of the IAEA, is extremely counterproductive.
The irony of this policy is that it will undermine the American objective of understanding the Iranian nuclear program at the precise moment that such information is being disseminated by the IAEA. The Iranian government must be thrilled at the prospect of the United States undercutting the IAEA at this sensitive moment.
With clear national security interests at stake, it is time for us to maintain a strong IAEA, not to defund it. The last thing we need is to lose our understanding of what’s really going on inside of Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, we need to know more, to avoid a dangerous military outcome based upon faulty information. This is what happened in Iraq, where we were blind and without inspectors at critical moments in the run-up to the war. We don’t need to see a repeat of that disastrous history.
Therefore, it’s time for Congress to change the law and to recognize that protecting our national security is its most sacred duty. Congress must find other ways to convince the United Nations to not support Palestinian statehood, if that’s its goal. But undermining our security to get there just doesn’t make sense.
(Joel Rubin is the director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund; the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)