There's a week left to the ultimatum that the Bush Administration and its European friends gave to Iran to respond to the "freeze for freeze" proposal under which for six weeks Iran would freeze the expansion of its enrichment program and the U.S. would freeze the expansion of sanctions. Under the proposal, during the six weeks of the "freeze," pre-negotiations would take place that could lead to formal talks.
The catch from the Iranian point of view is that the Bush Administration has not changed its position that in order for formal talks to start, Iran must suspend the enrichment of uranium. Furthermore, the Bush Administration has not changed its position that the goal of the talks is to shut down all uranium enrichment by Iran, regardless of whether such enrichment could be verifiably confined to enrichment for a peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program.
Thus, many in Iran and elsewhere question whether there is an offer of real negotiations on the table from the U.S., or whether "Recent talks the United States held with Iran are aimed at creating legitimacy for a potential attack against Iranian nuclear facilities," as Israeli defense officials suggested to the Jerusalem Post.
Francis Boyle, Professor of International Law at the University of Illinois, proposes that Iran sue the United States, Britain, and Israel in the World Court, seeking the "international equivalent of a temporary restraining order" to compel the U.S. to abandon threats to attack. Boyle notes that threats to attack Iran violate the UN Charter, and that there is a relevant precedent for effective action by the World Court:
There is a precedent here; [in]1992 ...the Bush Senior Administration started to blame Libya for the Lockerbie bombing ... in 1988...President Bush Senior then sent the Sixth Fleet on hostile maneuvers off the coast of Libya, [and] had US jet fighters penetrating into Libyan airspace in order to provoke ... a confrontation...
..we filed papers with the International Court of Justice in the Hague, on behalf of Libya against the US and the UK, we demanded an emergency hearing of the world court, and a temporary restraining order against the US and the UK, prohibiting the threat and use of force...after we filed the papers, and the court made it clear we were going to get our hearing, President Bush Senior ordered the 6th Fleet to stand down. They ended their hostile military maneuvers off the coast of Libya, the matter was submitted to the ICJ, there were hearings, a lawsuit, a judgment. And eventually that World Court judgment led to a peaceful negotiated solution of the Lockerbie dispute between the US and Britain on one hand and Libya on the other. And today there is normal diplomatic relations between these three countries... I think the same could be done here...
Furthermore, Professor Boyle notes that the lawsuit itself could force the commencement of real negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, as it did in the Libyan case:
If the United States government is not prepared to engage in reasonable direct unconditional good faith negotiations with Iran, then my advice is the Iranian government go forward with these lawsuits...if someone isn't going to talk to you, you sue them. And then they have to talk to you. And indeed it was during the course of the World Court lawsuit proceedings with Libya that the proceedings themselves were used to start negotiating a peaceful resolution of that dispute between the lawyers handling the lawsuit, because there were no diplomatic relations at that time between the United States, Britain, and Libya. So, again, the same could happen here...
Professor Boyle notes that publicly stated Iranian positions provide ample room for negotiation if the Bush Administration were compelled to negotiate:
If you read the Iranian position...their previous response to the IAEA, Iran indicated that although Iran would insist upon its rights, under the NPT, to engage in nuclear reprocessing on its own territory, nevertheless it would be prepared to have that nuclear reprocessing under the auspices of an international consortium. Now certainly that could be negotiated in such a way as to lend some degree of control of the reprocessing to the international consortium, and also the question of transparency, that everyone would know that the reprocessing there stays at a level of reactor fuel, which it currently is. Secondly, Iran has indicated that it would be prepared to continue to observe the IAEA Safeguard Agreement that it does have and has complied with. Third, Iran has indicated it would be prepared to accept the additional IAEA protocol on inspections, snap protocol, and a more stringent regime of inspections for its nuclear reprocessing activities. It seems to me that is a reasonable basis upon which negotiations should proceed. But if the US government is not going to do that, then Iran should sue them at the World Court and protect itself, and then by means of the World Court proceedings, force negotiations, which Iran can do, as Libya did before it.
What finally brought about real negotiations in the Korean case was when the Bush Administration publicly conceded that it would not attack North Korea militarily. When the illusion of the possibility of military action was dropped, the discussion about negotiations became serious.
If we want to see real negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, then Congress -- hopefully with some assistance from the World Court -- should take the threat of military action off the table. In particular, it should reject House Concurrent Resolution 362, which effectively demands that the President work to impose an embargo on Iran's imports of gas. You can ask Congress to oppose this resolution here.
Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst at Just Foreign Policy.