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February 26, 2007

A Diplomatic Solution to Iran's Nuclear Program


by Muhammad Sahimi

The deadline that the UN Security Council Resolution 1737 imposed on Iran for suspending its nuclear program passed without Iran complying with the resolution's demands. Tension in the Persian Gulf has also risen, after President Bush threatened Iran for its alleged meddling in Iraq. The question is, is there a path to peaceful resolution of the looming conflict between Iran and the U.S.?

For such a path to develop, both Iran and the U.S. must make concessions to address the legitimate concerns of the other. Iran must provide objective guarantees that its nuclear program is peaceful. The U.S. and its allies must offer Iran a deal that respects its dignity as an old nation with many contributions to human civilization, addresses its need for energy sources other than oil and gas, and guarantees its national security and territorial integrity.

The U.S. and the troika of Britain, France, and Germany of the European Union insist that Iran must first suspend its uranium enrichment program before any serious negotiations can start. However, given that the negotiations themselves are supposed to be about Iran's nuclear program, and that, as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to the enrichment program, suspending it would represent a major concession. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Iran would agree to freeze its enrichment program, even if for a short period of time, without being offered an important concession in return. At the same time, dignified treatment of Iran as an old nation and a major regional power would also entail offering it a concession, even if a symbolic one, in return for suspension of its uranium enrichment program, and before the negotiations start.

The fact is that Iran did suspend its enrichment program for over two years while negotiating with the EU troika, but the negotiations did not produce any concrete results because the EU did not present any long-term solution to the problem; it only demanded indefinite suspension of the program. The West's proposal that, in return for the suspension, it would help Iran to set up a network of light-water nuclear reactors, without addressing concretely where the fuel for the reactors would come from and at what cost, cannot be taken seriously. At the same time, given that the real intention of the Bush administration may be regime change in Iran, no proposal that does not include concrete guarantees for Iran's national security and territorial integrity will be accepted by Iran.

A vast majority of Iranians despise the ruling hardliners, but they support Iran's nuclear program because, above all, it has become a source of national pride. Unless Iran is invaded and occupied by the U.S. forces and a puppet government is put in power in Tehran, no Iranian government, regardless of its political leanings, would dare to abandon Iran's nuclear program. At the same time, though, internal opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is becoming increasingly louder, as Iranians are recognizing the danger in his rhetoric, particularly with regards to Israel and the Holocaust, and his failure to improve Iran's economy. University students recently forced him to stop his speech by shouting "death to the dictator." Iran's parliament, where Mr. Ahmadinejad's supporters are supposed to have a large majority, has severely criticized him. In recent municipal elections, candidates backed by Mr. Ahmadinejad received only 4 percent of the votes.

There are also indications that the danger of Mr. Ahmadinejad's destructive rhetoric is being recognized by the highest echelon of the Iranian leadership as well. Mr. Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign policy advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former foreign minister, stated last week that the Holocaust is a historical fact and rebuked those who question it. Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, declared in Germany that the Holocaust is a historical subject to be discussed by historians. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful head of the Expediency Council recalled how Mr. Abolhassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic's first president, was impeached and removed from office by the parliament because "he was not suitable for the position," a veiled reference to how to remove Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Thus, offering Iran a concession in return for the suspension would provide political cover for Mr. Ahmadinejad's domestic foes – the very people that the West must woo.

As the concession for Iran's temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment program, the U.S. should declare that it still abides by the Algiers Accord that it signed with Iran in 1980 to end the hostage crisis. Point I, paragraph 1 of the Accord stated, "the United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." This simple reiteration of the already existing U.S. legal obligations toward Iran, backed by concrete steps, such as putting an end to the rhetoric against Iran for its alleged meddling in Iraq, would be a powerful expression of support for Iran's national dignity and respect for its people's desire for nonintervention in their nation's internal affairs. It should also put an end to the talk of regime change, address Iran's most important concern, namely, its national security, and energize the opposition in their confrontation with Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Closing the Natanz facilities, where Iran's research for uranium enrichment is going on, is not by itself a long-term solution if Iran is not offered a viable alternative. First, Iran's enrichment program is completely indigenous. As Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said repeatedly, what Iran currently has is knowledge for enriching uranium. A nation cannot be forced to simply forget what it already knows. Second, if Iran is forced to close the Natanz facilities (or loses them through bombing) without being offered a viable alternative, it can either take the work underground, or, like North Korea, leave the NPT altogether and pursue its nuclear program without any restraint, or do most of the nuclear research by computer simulations. Despite the U.S. sanctions, some of the fastest computers are available in Tehran, with many Iranian scientists capable of carrying out the simulations.

The EU troika must also pay more than just lip service to the premise that Iran needs nuclear reactors, and the U.S. must stop making the dubious claim that Iran does not need an alternative energy source because it has vast oil and natural gas reserves. The author's published analyses in 2003-2004 showed that, without an alternative energy source, Iran would become a net importer of oil by 2015. A recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed the author's contention. Once the premise that Iran does need nuclear reactors is accepted, the question of where to get the fuel for the reactors and at what cost becomes paramount.

Since Iran's known reserves can supply uranium ore for at least 15 years for seven reactors, the question of the nuclear fuel's cost is crucial. The cost of setting up the enrichment facilities represents only 3 percent of the total cost of enriched uranium (when the cost is spread over the 50-year life span of the facilities), whereas uranium ore contributes close to 40 percent of the total cost of enriched uranium. The Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 5, 2006, that the price of enriched uranium has increased by 800 percent since 2001, and that, due to the growing interest in nuclear fuel, the suppliers have already pledged their services for several years. Given Iran's own uranium deposits and enrichment facilities, it would be totally unreasonable to expect Iran to accept a situation in which it is exposed to such huge fluctuations in the price and availability of nuclear fuel. This means that, if Iran is to give up its own enrichment facilities, not only must it be guaranteed a steady supply of nuclear fuel, its cost must also be the same as if Iran were using Natanz to produce the fuel. This would make little economic sense to the EU troika and the U.S.

Therefore, how should enriched uranium be supplied to Iran's reactors? Two possible solutions already exist. One is the "delayed-limited enrichment" proposal of the International Crisis Group. According to the proposal, the first step for Iran would be suspension of all of its nuclear activities for a period of time. At least one faction among Iran's leaders, represented by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, is open to a short-term suspension of the enrichment program, if a significant concession is made to Iran in return. If Iran did "graduate" from this phase, it could go forward with pilot-scale enrichment, and if it graduated from the second phase, it could start large-scale enrichment. Clearly, what constitutes "graduation" must be defined unambiguously. In return, Iran must agree to severe restrictions on its enrichment program.

In fact, in March 2005 Iran submitted a proposal to the EU troika that contained significant concessions. According to the plan, Iran agreed, (a) not to reprocess spent reactor fuels, so that no plutonium can be extracted for bomb-making; (b) to forego plutonium production altogether; (c) to accept a limit for the enrichment level, and a limit on the amount of enriched uranium, restricting it to what is needed for its future reactors; (d) to convert immediately all the low-enriched uranium to fuel rods (which cannot be further enriched); (e) to limit the number of centrifuges in Natanz, at least at the beginning; and (f) to allow the IAEA a permanent on-site presence at all the facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment. Not only are these concessions in accordance with the ICG proposal, they go way beyond Iran's obligations under the NPT, as well as its Additional Protocol, which Iran has signed but not ratified.

The second possible solution is along the lines proposed by the IAEA on multinational fuel activities, including enrichment, suggested in February 2005. Iran declared in October 2006 its readiness for setting up an international consortium on its soil for making enriched uranium. The consortium can use Iran's uranium ore reserves, hence reducing the cost of enriched uranium for Iran. Members of the consortium could be the EU troika plus Russia. The initial response of the EU troika to Iran's proposal was enthusiastic, but then, due to the U.S. pressure, they rejected it. Iran has declared that, if its proposal is accepted, it would refrain from setting up separate enrichment facilities and would allow permanent placing of IAEA experts in Iran to monitor everything. An international consortium safeguarded by the IAEA will not only help alleviate concerns about Iran's enrichment activities, it can also become a model for other countries with aspirations to begin an enrichment program.

The consortium proposal is, surprisingly, also in line with what the Ford administration agreed to 30 years ago. Specifically, National Security Decision Memorandum 292, dated April 22, 1975, stated that the U.S. shall "Permit U.S. materials to be fabricated into fuel in Iran for use in its own reactors and for pass-through to third countries with whom we have Agreement." In NSDM 324, dated April 20, 1976, President Ford authorized the U.S. negotiating team to "Seek a strong political commitment from Iran to pursue the multinational/binational reprocessing plant concept, according the U.S. the opportunity to participate in the project."

Iran has also indicated that it is willing to seriously consider a compromise plan presented by Dr. ElBaradei, according to which Iran would stop all but a handful of its centrifuges in operation in order to continue its research, so long as the negotiations continue. Iran has also signaled that the proposal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to suspend the enrichment long enough to start negotiations with the UN may be workable. Mr. Velayati has even hinted that suspending uranium enrichment may not be a red line for Iran.

From the West's viewpoint, the transparency of Iran's nuclear program is the most critical issue. As the author has pointed out in his previous articles, democracy in Iran would lead to transparency. A diplomatic solution would bolster the reformist and democratic forces in Iran, but will also have another major benefit: It will take away from Iran's hardliners the unnecessary crisis created by the U.S. over Iran's nuclear program. Iran is at least several years away from having the capability and necessary materials to make nuclear bombs.

Thus, the absence of the artificial U.S.-made crisis would force the hardliners to address the desires of the Iranian people for prosperity and social and political freedom. Without a national crisis, the hardliners would be at a crossroads: They would have to either solve Iran's mountains of economic, social, and political problems, or they would be removed from power, one way or another, by the Iranian people. Thus, the absence of an artificial national crisis created by the U.S. would open up all types of possibilities for democratizing Iran's political system by its democratic and reformist groups, leading eventually to the ultimate safeguard – a transparent political system.

A diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran's uranium enrichment program only awaits serious negotiations. Albert Einstein best described how such negotiations can succeed. In an article on the Disarmament Conference held in February 1932 in Geneva, Einstein wrote, "Success in such great affairs is not a matter of cleverness, or even shrewdness, but instead a matter of honorable conduct and mutual confidence. You cannot substitute intellect for moral conduct in this matter."

 

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Muhammad Sahimi, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and the NIOC professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California, has published extensively on Iran's nuclear program and its political developments.

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