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Nuclear Enrichment Impasse Looms Again

by SHAHRAM CHUBIN

04 Dec 2010 13:3619 Comments

Prospects for Geneva talks face huge obstacles.

NatanzSign.jpg[ opinion ] Negotiations between Iran and its critics are rare. They are always welcome, although they have seldom been productive. The talks in Geneva on December 6 and 7 face the same huge obstacles as past diplomacy.

First, the two sides -- Iranian officials on one side of the table and American and European diplomats on the other -- have different goals.

The world's six major powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- want to test Iran's flexibility in limiting its nuclear program, especially in light of new international sanctions and recent technical difficulties with its nuclear program.

For Iran, the talks are a way to demonstrate that Tehran does not reject diplomacy, though it is not willing to make substantive concessions to make it productive.

Besides longstanding mutual mistrust, their approaches are incompatible too. The major powers want to begin with small steps to build confidence and provide a temporary compromise, to be followed with an enduring solution to the controversy over Iran's nuclear controversy.

In contrast, Iran sees any form of compromise, even short-term, as denoting weakness that could in turn set dangerous precedents, challenge its sovereignty and even undermine the regime's standing at home. Tehran instead wants to be sure of the entire game plan, the end point, and the road map toward an eventual grand bargain, before committing itself to anything.

Complicating diplomacy, the two sides do not agree on their respective power positions. Each is convinced the other is weakened and, if pressed, will make concessions.

Both sides are also politically constrained. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has scorned his predecessors for attempts to meet the West halfway. His domestic critics, both conservative and reformers, are in no mood to reward him now by supporting his own attempt at overtures to the West, which could strengthen his position at home.

The Obama administration also has limited diplomatic wiggle room. It fears domestic criticism, especially after major Republican gains in November elections. And its key foreign allies, notably Israel, are increasingly outspoken about the dangers of Iran's nuclear program.

In principle, a deal is possible. It would probably center on a balance between engagement with Iran while also criticizing its human rights abuses and support for terrorism. It would also probably require accepting Iran's rights to determine its own political system and some level of enrichment, but with intrusive international inspections.

But the outline of Iran's position is also clear: No Iranian government is likely to accept the renunciation of the right to enrichment, although a temporary "voluntary" freeze is conceivable under certain conditions.

And for the major powers, anything short of a halt to enrichment is unlikely to create the necessary confidence in Iran's intentions.

Even if Iran and its Western interlocutors agree on an interim deal, it would not deal with the underlying issue or guarantee its resolution. An interim agreement would probably center on a swap of nuclear materials: Iran ships out a high percentage of its low-enriched uranium in exchange for fuel rods provided by the West for the Tehran Research Reactor, which makes radioisotopes for medical purposes. Such an agreement would reduce Iran's fissile stockpile temporarily, but it would be buying time to give space for diplomacy.

The issue, however, may not simply be the time required to find a diplomatic solution. After eight years of diplomatic attempts, the real issue is the "will" of the two parties to settle matters peacefully.

Shahram Chubin is a Geneva-based specialist on Iranian politics and a nonresident senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

Related reading by Shahram Chubin | The Politics of Iran's Nuclear Program

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19 Comments

This is interesting:
https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/science/04nuke.html

It seems to be something along the lines of what was envisaged for Article IX of the IAEA Statute. Yukiyo Amano comments here.

Ian / December 4, 2010 4:41 PM

Do these plans such as the one mentioned in nytimes include U.S., U.K., Israel, Russia, and other potential users? Or is it another political cause rather than a solution? Is double standards a thing of the past?

Niloofar / December 4, 2010 10:17 PM

Niloofar,

Why don't you actually take the time to read the NPT? Your last few comments have been equally ignorant.

Ian / December 5, 2010 12:02 AM

"...The major powers want to begin with small steps to build confidence and provide a temporary compromise, to be followed with an enduring solution to the controversy over Iran's nuclear controversy..."

Of course, the "small steps," being the continuation of the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, and the "enduring solution," being the imposition of another round of fresh and crippling sanctions in perpetuity.

Haven't we heard this saga before?

In simple terms: dependence on the west is tantamount to succumbing to the west; plain and simple.

Observe Asange! The poor man can't even withdraw private donations that belong to his organization only because PayPal servers are US based and some in the US government consider him to be a risk - let alone if nuclear fuel has to be purchased from abroad while some in the US government consider the Iranian government a risk.

All of this posturing is to justify the enormous paychecks the IAEA and UN officials receive each month, and year after year, and to create enough tension and uncertainty about Iran so as to destroy her non-US based economy.

Iran will continue to enrich uranium and the rest of the world is going to have to trust her and live with that reality.

Ekbatana / December 5, 2010 12:26 AM

"Why don't you actually take the time to read the NPT?"

I will. Why is it ignorant to ask a question?
Are you better than everyone else? Ignorant was your response that is totally uncalled for.
Also, how do you explain this double standard?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbjgDERSuiI

A little humility goes a long way.

Niloofar / December 5, 2010 3:36 AM

There

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_Non-Proliferation_Treaty

Please do take time to read it everyone. Then come back to tell me that the same five who have given themselves the veto power at U.N. do not have the same exclusivity under NPT, that those who chose to turn their backs on NPT have not walked away scot-free, that when it comes to disarmament vague is not the central word.

The 3 Pillars:

1- non-proliferation
2- disarmament
3- the right to peacefully use nuclear technology

"The third pillar allows for and agrees upon the transfer of nuclear technology and materials to NPT signatory countries for the development of civilian nuclear energy programs in those countries, as long as they can demonstrate that their nuclear programs are not being used for the development of nuclear weapons."

Conclusion:
Either show up with solid proof that Iran is engaged in developing WMD or get humble and do shut up old boy.

Niloofar / December 5, 2010 4:04 PM

Niloofar,

You have it in a nutshell when you quote Wikipedia’s interpretation of the NPT to mean that [non nuclear weapons] states should “demonstrate that their nuclear programs are not being used for the development of nuclear weapons”. This is done in accordance with established principles – IAEA inspections and requests for information.

Iran has, of course, failed this test: I refer you to the latest IAEA report (23rd November 2010), in particular sections F, G, H & I. Section I begins as follows:

“While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran, Iran
has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the Agency to confirm that all nuclear material in
Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Iran has a long history of secrecy and of playing fast and loose with the rules, having not only breached its own Safeguards Agreement vis-a-vis the Subsidiary Arrangements modified Code 3.1 (see section F of the linked report) but also arguably having breached the NPT by (as it has admitted) receiving information useful in making a bomb. Its current refusal to cooperate with the IAEA in several areas has resulted in six UN resolutions.

When confronted with these facts, all Iran and its apologists do is scream loudly and pseudo-legalistically that everyone else is to blame (pointing at those who already have nuclear weapons), whilst refusing to come clean by answering questions and allowing the kinds of rigorous inspections that the other NPT signatories have absolutely no problem agreeing to. If Iran wants a civilian nuclear power programme, it must abide by the rules that everyone else in the NPT plays by – these rules are what stand between the current state of relative stability, and a far worse state where everyone (not just the few who already have them) gets nuclear weapons.

So, coming to your point about “double standards”, in that the NPT states which already have nuclear weapons are allowed to keep them – for the time being – whilst other states are being prevented from gaining them, this is a necessary situation since those countries already had nuclear weapons at the time of signing the NPT. Those countries recognised in that agreement that although they want to disarm, they would be insane to do so until there were a global framework of rigorous inspections to ensure that other countries can’t gain nuclear weapons in the future and hold everyone, once disarmed, to ransom. Nevertheless, the aim of the NPT is to lead to a situation where these states can, safely, disarm. The NPT is thus a very good thing, and deserves respect and support, and should be strengthened and enforced by all means possible so that the entire human race can rid itself of these hideous weapons forever. There is nothing we can do about those five countries having nuclear weapons now, but if the NPT holds and is strengthened (to give one example, by North Korea caving in), then in the long term the pressure will mount and mount for them to disarm, and they will eventually have to concede.

Thus it is that real proponents of a nuclear weapons free world should be all the more insistent that Iran fulfil its obligations. However, it seems to me that Iran and its supporters either do not understand what nuclear non-proliferation is, or they simply don’t care, because they believe wrongly that it is to Iran’s advantage to gain nuclear weapons. It would give Iran a short-term advantage, particularly in confronting Israel and the Arab states (hence the attitude of Arab states, which has so incensed a certain TB writer), but it would to be everyone’s long-term disadvantage (including Iran’s) because it would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East which could make the Cold War look like a cakewalk, and might result in the destruction of the human race.

“But I want an ice cream too!” I hear the massed ranks say...

Ian / December 5, 2010 6:36 PM

And

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbjgDERSuiI

???

Niloofar / December 6, 2010 2:41 AM

Ian - You try to cover your anti-Iran bias by wearing a cloak of objectivity using quotes that support your thesis. This is not a very clever way of moving things forward. And of course you have nothing to say about NPT members such as the US who both overtly and covertly back and support both the Israeli and Indian nuclear programme.

Rather than scape goating a smaller regional power like Iran or North Korea, why do we not see you start a campaign to force Israel to sign up to the NPT and let there be 24/7 inspections of their nuclear facilities and IAEA inspectors, with links to the Hezbollah, who under the cover of objective verification can spy on their facilities.How about the US ask the Israelis to allow full access to all its nuclear sites and be totally upfront about it?

And let us see you campaigning against Obama's recent deal to help India further its nuclear programme when it is not even prepared to sign up to the NPT.

Let the IAEA have 24/7 cameras and carry out intrusive inspections on its major members such as the US and Britain and then see how they react.

What stinks is the sheer hypocrisy and the double standards of the US and its allies.

rezvan / December 6, 2010 5:05 AM

rezvan,

> You try to cover your anti-Iran bias by wearing a cloak of objectivity
> using quotes that support your thesis.
Of course, objectivity has a well-known anti-Iran bias!


> Rather than scape goating a smaller regional power like Iran or North
> Korea, why do we not see you start a campaign to force Israel to sign up
> to the NPT and let there be 24/7 inspections of their nuclear facilities
> and IAEA inspectors
Absolutely, I think Israel should sign up for inspections in the very near future, whilst a process of integrating Israel, Pakistan and India into the NPT is worked out by the diplomats. There is a non-binding UN resolution, sponsored by Iran, calling for this in respect of Israel (though why Iran singled out Israel, I wouldn’t care to speculate!), to which the IAEA has urged Israel to acquiesce. However, I think this is to sidestep the question of Iran’s non-cooperation/non-compliance with the NPT and with IAEA inspections/requests, although it is hard to separate the two entirely since Iran’s efforts seem to be a proliferation effect of Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

However, you seem to be suggesting that because some states who are not NPT members (e.g., Israel) have already got weapons, therefore NPT signatories should take their obligations – at least rhetorically – less seriously. This is not a valid argument, and in fact it would be a foolish and dangerous path which would vitiate the NPT as a whole. The NPT must be enforced in all cases regardless of what non-NPT signatories do or don’t do, not only for the principle of the thing but because if it isn’t rigorously enforced then other countries will follow Iran’s example, and the world will be in deep trouble. This is why it is all the more necessary to be tough on Iran: so that other NPT signatories don’t get the same idea. So far, the NPT has been successful in preventing nuclear proliferation, with the exception of North Korea, which withdrew from the treaty just before it went nuclear, causing grave damage to the credibility of the NPT – something which can’t be repeated. But in the case of North Korea, it’s looking increasingly likely that sometime in the not-too-distant future that position can be reversed (if the regime collapses) and the genie put back in the bottle (there is a precedent for this in the case of South Africa). But with Iran fomenting discontent and stirring up regional antipathy, things are on a knife-edge right now. We will either end up with a nuclear-armed world, or we can gradually work to eliminate these weapons. It is simply not good enough to say “I want an ice cream too!” – Iran’s ambitions are thoroughly dangerous in this respect.


> And let us see you campaigning against Obama’s recent deal to help India
> further its nuclear programme when it is not even prepared to sign up to
> the NPT.
India can’t yet sign up to the NPT because its position as a nuclear weapon state wouldn’t be recognised, and it would have to give up its weapons, which it can’t realistically do because of Pakistan. However, it has signed up to an Additional Protocol and is being responsible about things (much more so than Israel, for instance) – to the extent that it is reasonable to give them support in their civilian programme (this is one of the keys to non-proliferation generally).


> Let the IAEA have 24/7 cameras and carry out intrusive inspections on
> its major members such as the US and Britain and then see how they
> react.
The UK, being an NPT depository state, and being one of the arch proponents of nuclear non-proliferation does of course cooperate fully with the IAEA and has an Additional Protocol in force which allows for immediate access to, and video monitoring by, IAEA inspectors (although more politely they would give 24 hours notice). Whether the measures you propose would be useful, or merely a form of harassment, is subject to interpretation; but the IAEA could demand them if it wanted and if it were appropriate, subject to the following:

“[...]the Agency must take into account in the implementation of
safeguards the need to: avoid hampering the economic and technological development of the
United Kingdom or international co-operation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities; respect
health, safety, physical protection and other security provisions in force and the rights of
individuals; and take every precaution to protect commercial, technological and industrial
secrets as well as other confidential information coming to its knowledge;

[...] the frequency and intensity of activities described in this Protocol shall be
kept to the minimum consistent with the objective of strengthening the effectiveness and
improving the efficiency of Agency safeguards”

So, basically, if there were a reason for the IAEA to want to do what you propose, they could do; and in fact there are routine inspections anyway. The same goes for the USA.


> [... IAEA inspectors] with links to the Hezbollah, who under the cover of
> objective verification can spy on their facilities
Countries can veto inspectors whom they disapprove of, although this doesn’t amount to an absolute veto to block all inspectors from gaining access. This hasn’t stopped Iran from trying to take advantage of this perceived loophole; but other countries who are antagonistic to each other seem happy to allow inspections, so why not Iran? It would be absurd if the IAEA were used as a cover for non-nuclear weapons states to gain access to weapons technology, but surely you’re not suggesting that the USA is trying to steal Iran’s nuclear technology? It’s been largely supplied by France and Russia, so I don’t quite see your point, unless perhaps you think it’s so advanced that the the USA is jealous. That's wishful thinking.


> What stinks is the sheer hypocrisy and the double standards of the US
> and its allies.
There are double standards in that the UK, USA and other countries respect their obligations to the IAEA, whilst Iran feels it shouldn’t have to; in fact these countries push for more rigorous standards, and seek for countries like India to sign up for rigorous inspections whilst doing what they can to prevent, e.g., Pakistan’s nuclear material falling into the wrong hands. As for Israel, it seems Israel is demanding a peace deal before considering the nuclear issue, and that is being pushed, though not hard enough in some people’s eyes. The continuing détente between the Western powers and Russia is also very positive, although things haven’t been altogether easy of late. In my view, if you’re looking for reasons why the world should close its eyes whilst Iran builds secret facilities and receives bomb-making information, etc., then you’ll have to look elsewhere: the safety and peaceful intent of Iran’s nuclear programme is the responsibility of Iran to demonstrate to the world.

Ian / December 6, 2010 5:47 PM

Ian,

Ignoring the question about Israel does wonders to your credibility.

Niloofar / December 7, 2010 3:30 AM

Niloofar,

I clearly didn't ignore the question, and it seems you are unable to respond to my criticism except with dismissive one-line comments.

Ian / December 7, 2010 2:41 PM

I have not dismissed anything Ian. I would like my specific question answered and please do not give me an exaggerated response. This is a very important issue for the majority of Iranians and requires a specific answer. This is your moment, do not back down.

Niloofar / December 7, 2010 10:47 PM

Niloofar,

What, precisely, is the question from "rezvan" -- or from yourself -- that you feel I haven't answered?

Ian / December 8, 2010 1:53 AM

Rezvan speaks for Rezvan, not I.

I have asked you twice to view this link and explain to us how Israel is justified to deceive the world community and can away with it while Iran a signatory to NPT is being put to test. This is a prime example of double standards. The Israeli leadership at the time was labeled terrorist by your own very government.

Additionally, let's assume there is a pro western government in Iran within 6 months from now. Would the West change her policy towards Iran? Would Israel change her policy towards Iran?

Ian, don't play me either, answer my questions.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbjgDERSuiI

P.S.

I have personal reasons to despise the Barbaric Republic, but I am an Iranian American.

Niloofar / December 8, 2010 4:24 AM

Niloofar,

> I have asked you twice to view this link and explain to us how Israel is
> justified to deceive the world community and can away with it while Iran
> a signatory to NPT is being put to test. This is a prime example of
> double standards. The Israeli leadership at the time was labeled
> terrorist by your own very government.

I refer you back to a previous comment to rezvan where I addressed the question of how Israel plays into the current equation, and why it is foolish and wrong to cite Israel -- or North Korea, Pakistan and India -- as a reason to ignore the NPT; but if you want a more direct answer then I think it's fair to say that the fact that some states were/are not signatories to the NPT has given some countries all the reason they wanted to turn a blind eye to their nuclear programmes, which has turned out (in the case of Israel) to be advantageous to the USA. Unfortunately it is not possible to turn back the clock and get Israel, Pakistan and India to ratify the NPT; but the post-Cold War environment is such that it is probable that, should Iran be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, it would then be possible for enlightened nations to pressure Israel to come clean on the nuclear front. It's only necessary to bring peace to the region first, so no problem there then ;-)

As to whether the above amounts to "double standards", I think it's better to say that Iran was much more responsible in the 1970s by ratifying the NPT, and therefore does have higher standards to live up to. So yes, Iran has the moral high ground over Israel as long as they do actually live up to those standards, though at the moment they are not. And from the perspective of other countries' attitudes, I don't think there are double standards because Iran is behaving in precisely the duplicitous manner that Israel did vis-a-vis Dimona, but because Iran is an NPT member state there is a legal framework to get them to stop whereas there wasn't with Israel. That is an important fact which you seem not fully to appreciate, perhaps assuming that the West just ignores the rules when it suits them so why don't they ignore them with Iran now? Not a very convincing argument.

I should note that South Africa, India and Pakistan also "got away with it" -- all non-NPT signatories at the time. It doesn't mean there's some big conspiracy, just that those countries put self-interest first. Presumably Iran regrets being more responsible at the time, and yes Iran has sacrificed self-interest in just the same way that other countries have done in order to build a safer world. Nobody should apologise for holding Iran to that promise.


> Additionally, let's assume there is a pro western government in Iran
> within 6 months from now. Would the West change her policy towards Iran?
> Would Israel change her policy towards Iran?

You are asking me whether (e.g.) the UK, Israel, the USA and others would respond favourably to a friendly Iranian government? I assume such a government would ratify the Additional Protocol and stop acting in such a beastly way to its own people and to other countries in the region, so obviously the answer is "yes, of course things would change": sanctions would be lifted and Iran could resume its place as a respectable nation in the eyes of the world, being given access to credit sources and receiving all the benefits of being able to trade freely with developed nations. Care and grief would pass away, the leopard would lay down with the lamb and the region would become like the Garden of Eden, at the very least. The alternative is that everyone gets tooled up with nukes, and it could bery possibly be the end of the world as we know it.

Ian / December 8, 2010 3:06 PM

The hypocracy of "democracy":
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/dec/08/wikileaks-cables-trident-nuclear-us

Ekbatana / December 9, 2010 11:13 AM

Ian- Give us your evidence, not allegations, that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb. To date no intelligence estimate that I have come across has proven this beyond doubt. Iran did sign an Additional Protocol during the Khatami era which it did observe, but the promises that were made to it were not kept by the US and its allies. Therefore there is a trust deficit. How do you propose to overcome that?

rezvan / December 13, 2010 5:09 AM

rezvan,

> Give us your evidence, not allegations, that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb.
The IAEA has done this. So far, no reply ;-)

> Iran did sign an Additional Protocol during the Khatami era which it did
> observe, but the promises that were made to it were not kept by the US
> and its allies.
Iran did sign an Additional Protocol, but it was never ratified, and if it can be claimed that it was ever "observed" then that would be because secret activities were kept secret till later. Not sure what you mean about the US and its allies breaking promises.

Ian / December 14, 2010 9:36 PM