EXCLUSIVE: Even as the United Nations tries to use sanctions to block Iran’s developing nuclear weapons program, one of the U.N.’s own organizations has quietly green-lighted the Islamic Republic’s proposal to build a “disaster information management center” that could, some experts fear, advance its ballistic capability.
The decision puts the U.N. seal of approval on a controversial project that the United States has, until now, successfully blocked since Iran first proposed it in 2006.
As if to underscore its victory, Iran this week announced that it had launched its own observation satellite, Rassad-1, which will remain in orbit for the next two months.
The decision to approve the Iran proposal was taken without a vote on May 25 by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the self-described “regional development arm of the United Nations for the Asia-Pacific region.”
Establishment of the center was not mentioned in the ESCAP press release after the meeting where the vote was taken. The release said only that the commission “adopted a set of resolutions on issues ranging from bridging wide development and infrastructure gaps within the region, to cooperation for energy security and disaster preparedness.”
While little-known in the U.S., ESCAP is a major player in Asian development. Its membership includes 62 nations, among them China, India, Pakistan, Russia and North Korea, and its mandate covers a huge swath of territory, from Turkey across the Pacific. There are a sprinkling of Western nations and their Commonwealth allies on the ESCAP roster, including France, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the U.S.
“This is a very clever move by Iran,” said Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush Administration, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “It’s outrageous that a country that has been denounced repeatedly by the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency should be rewarded in this fashion.”
Abrams was responding to an inquiry from Fox News, which learned of the unannounced ESCAP decision
“We are trying to make them into a pariah state, and this sends the opposite message,”Abrams said. “ It will require lots of visits to Iran by other governments. And there are always concerns that some aspect of this will help their military or intelligence agencies.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, a Fox News contributor, when informed of the development, said he found the decision “unbelievable. This puts Iran in a very high profile. What technology Iran will get as a result I don’t know, but it would give their people more experience with satellite imagery. It’s like being involved with peaceful nuclear power: just having your people involved gives you more experience that can be turned to non-peaceful uses.”
In New York, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told Fox News that “our records indicate that there was no advance notice to the Security Council Sanctions Committee regarding the creation of the center (nor an ex post facto endorsement thereof), and there were no notifications or requests for exemption regarding the provision of any items to the center.”
The U.N. endorsement of Iran’s disaster center was a diplomatic defeat for the Obama Administration, which strenuously opposed the proposal at the commission’s forum in Bangkok. The U.S. has managed to block several previous attempts by Iran to establish the facility on its territory.
“The United States and our allies have fought hard to prevent the center,” a U.S. State Department spokesman told Fox News. “We did not and do not support this.”
The controversial facility is described in ESCAP records as a “regional center for information, communication and space technology-enabled disaster management In the Islamic Republic of Iran,” to be installed as a “subsidiary body” of ESCAP. Its aim, according to a detailed Iranian proposal supporting their plan, is to enhance early warning of impending calamities, and provide data collection and analysis for disaster recovery, among other things.
The Iranian document cites the country’s relatively low capability in sending and receiving satellite observation data, especially in disaster recovery situations, as a reason to support the institution, in order to fill “gaps” in regional coverage.
In response to questions from Fox News, ESCAP’s Executive Secretary, Noeleen Heyzer, declared that despite the references to space-satellite technology in the Commission’s documents, “the focus of the center is on disaster related information sharing and does not have a role with regard to space or satellite technology.”
A U.S. statement issued at the Bangkok meeting argued that the Iranian proposal “did not clearly articulate a vision for the center, define existing gaps the center would fill, identify the geographic focus of the center, explain how the center would work with existing bodies to avoid overlap and duplication of effort, or set out the human and technological resources needed to operate the center to fulfill its mission.”
The U.S. strategy of opposition at the meeting, was based on “legitimate management concerns,” in the State Department spokesman’s phrase, rather than concerns about Iran’s weapons intentions.
That said, the spokesman agreed that there were “other concerns” about the center, then added, “a lot of those, we can’t get into.”
When asked by Fox News about such issues as technology that might also be useful in Iran’s missile programs, or the possibility that the center could be used as a “cover” for other ballistic missile work that has been banned by the U.N. Security Council, the spokesman declared, “Those are all legitimate questions. But we can’t talk about them.”
One reason, perhaps, is that “disaster management” has become a major theme at many U.N. gatherings around the world, usually with U.S. backing, in part because of the role that climate change has been assigned in wreaking havoc with humanity. In Asia, the suffering has been particularly acute, due to typhoons and the ravages of earthquakes and massive tsunamis. The idea of notion of linked disaster preparedness centers, backed by sophisticated information from advanced satellite observation, is now a mainstay of humanitarian and development relief.
The spokesman in effect said the U.S. had been out-maneuvered by Iran at the Bangkok meeting, as Iranian diplomats “repackaged” their proposals so that they managed to “chip away” at the bloc opposing the idea. Among other things, the Iranians emphasized “gaps” in regional disaster management efforts and offered to pay the entire $50 million cost of the center for its first five years of operation.
The spokesman declined to identify which nations changed sides as a result of the Iranian diplomatic offensive.
In the end, however, the State Department itself stood aside as ESCAP made the decision, because “we do not want to stand in the way of the long tradition ESCAP has of adopting resolutions by consensus,” according to the statement issued at the meeting.
The U.S. instead declared that it “dissociated” itself from the decision. “Dissociation is a practice the United States employs to allow consensus to occur while ensuring the text is not binding domestically,” according to the statement.
Indeed, the State Department spokesman in Washington argued that the diplomatic defeat was actually a victory. He claimed that the U.S. had actually “prevented” creation of the center, because the resolution that allows Iran to “initiate the process for the establishment of the [center]” also calls for an “evaluation” by ESCAP of the need for the facility and the benefit of creating it as a “subsidiary body” of ESCAP—in 2013.
In reply to questions from Fox News, ESCAP’s Hayzer also emphasized that so far the center is not an official Commission “subsidiary body.”
Or, as the State Department spokesman put it, the center “does not exist at least for the next two years,” the spokesman said.
Iran doesn’t see it that way. A proposed timetable for establishment of the center, included in a 28-page technical report submitted by Iran at the meeting, calls for getting all the legal, administrative and regulatory arrangements for the center out of the way by February, 2012.
The Iranian timetable calls for construction, equipping, hiring staff, and everything else to be out of the way in time for the opening of the center in November, 2012—the time of the next U.S. Presidential election.