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February 21, 2009

Iran's Détente Gesture to Obama? 


by Muhammad Sahimi

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) just released its latest report on Iran's nuclear program. The report states that all of Iran's nuclear materials, research, and development are under the Agency's containment and surveillance, and all the nuclear materials are safeguarded. The Agency also reported that there has been no divergence of nuclear material, in line with Iran's repeated contention that its nuclear program is peaceful. That the IAEA report also stated that Iran continues to refuse suspending its uranium enrichment program is, of course, no surprise. Iran considers the four United Nations Security Council resolutions against it that demand the suspension to be illegal. There are good reasons to believe that Iran's contention is completely plausible. 

As usual, there was much hype about the IAEA report that Iran has produced more low-enriched uranium (LEU) than it had previously thought. The War Party and its mainstream allies immediately issued dire warnings that this means Iran is closer to making a nuclear bomb, an assertion that I refuted in my last article. Concerns were also expressed about Iran not allowing the IAEA to visit several sites. So, the goal of this article is to discuss such aspects of the report, as well as one important aspect that seems to have been missed by the pundits. 

The most important aspect of the IAEA's latest report on Iran's nuclear program, overlooked or ignored in the propaganda against Iran, is that Iran has slowed down increasing the number of centrifuges in its enrichment facility in Natanz that are cascaded and operating to produce LEU. According to the IAEA report, as of February 1, 2009, Iran had 3936 centrifuges that were being fed with uranium hexafluoride, 1476 centrifuges installed and under vacuum (in preparation for being fed), and 125 installed but not under vacuum, for a total of 5537 centrifuges, a number somewhat smaller than around 6000 centrifuges that many experts had expected. But, most importantly, the number of operating centrifuges that produce LEU has not increased significantly over the past many months. 

There are two plausible explanations for the slow down, which are in fact complimentary. One is that Iran is waiting to see how the Obama administration is going to approach the dispute over Iran's nuclear program in particular, and U.S.-Iran relations in general. Therefore, in order to help create an atmosphere conducive to possible negotiations, Iran decided not to increase the number of centrifuges that produce LEU. This would be totally consistent with the conciliatory message that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sent President Obama upon his election in November, and the positive signals that have been emanating from Tehran ever since. Surely, in addition to their desire for improving Iran's relations with the United States under the present devastating global recession, the prospects of negotiating with a U.S. president whose middle name is Hussein, the name of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson and one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam, is intriguing and enticing to the Iranian leaders. 

The second explanation is that there may be behind-the-scene negotiations between the United States and Iran, of which the public is unaware. Even if there are currently no such negotiations, the fact is that both sides have been sending positive signals and, therefore, in order for Iran to present itself as a responsible nation, it decided to slow down the expansion of its uranium-enrichment program. There are several reasons to believe that this may be the case. 

In addition to the generally more positive tone of the president toward Iran, take, for example, the recent announcement that the U.S. State Department has declared PEJAK, a Kurdish rebel group that launches raids into Iran from the Kurdish region of Iraq, a terrorist organization. PEJAK (which stands for Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) is, in fact, the Iranian branch of the Kurdish group PKK that has been fighting with Turkey for decades, and has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States. In addition, the PEJAK forces have apparently been expelled from the region near the Iran-Iraq border. Given the close cooperation between the Kurdish forces in Iraq and the United States, it is difficult to imagine that this could have taken place without at least tacit U.S. consent and support. Thus, Iran may be returning the favor to the United States by not increasing the number of centrifuges that are actually producing LEU. 

The seemingly negative part of the report, over which much hype was immediately created by the War Party, has to do with the IAEA's requests to visit certain sites in Iran. Most of such requests, which were turned down by Iran, are actually covered by the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement, which Iran is not currently implementing, and not by Iran's original Safeguards Agreement that Iran is currently implementing. There is a brief history behind Iran's refusal that is often not mentioned, but very important. 

In October 2003, the government of President Mohammad Khatami signed the Sa'dabad Agreement (named so after Iran's presidential palace) with Britain, France, and Germany (the EU3), that committed Iran to signing the Additional Protocol and carrying out its provision on a volunteer basis, until the Iranian parliament ratified the Agreement. In the Paris Agreement of November 2004, Iran reaffirmed its intentions. In return, the EU3 promised Iran that it would present a comprehensive proposal that would address Iran's aspirations for having access to advanced nuclear technology, as well as the EU3 concerns regarding the nature of Iran's nuclear program. 

However, the proposal that the EU3 presented Iran in August 2005 was long in its demands, but essentially nil on addressing Iran's aspirations. Among other things, the EU3 demanded that Iran abandon completely its uranium enrichment program, thus demanding elimination of major "facts on the ground," namely, Iran's uranium enrichment and related facilities and all the R&D work, in return for some vague promises in the distant future. The proposal did not even guarantee that Iran would not be attacked militarily. It only stated that Iran will not be attacked by nuclear weapons. Well, Iraq was also not attacked by nuclear weapons! No sane nation would agree to such a proposal. Thus, after some negotiations, Iran suspended its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol in February 2006. Although the four UNSC resolutions order Iran to suspend its nuclear program, the fact is, aside from the highly dubious nature of the resolution, the UNSC does not have any legal rights to order Iran to implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol, because the Iranian parliament has not ratified the Agreement, and it is Iran's sovereign right to refuse implementing an international agreement that it has not yet accepted.

Thus, because most of the requests to visit various Iranian sites that are stated by the IAEA in its latest report are covered by the Additional Protocol, Iran has no legal obligations to grant them. Iran has stated that, if its nuclear dossier is returned to the IAEA – its rightful place – it will begin implementing again the provisions of the Additional Protocol on volunteer basis until Iran's parliament ratifies the Agreement. 

At the same time, the latest report by the IAEA also states that since March 2007, the Agency has carried out 21 unannounced visits to Iran's nuclear sites. Such intrusive and unannounced visits are an important part of the Additional Protocol. Therefore, Iran is still selectively and voluntarily carrying out some provisions of the Additional Protocol. That is a positive aspect of Iran's behavior which is overlooked. 

The IAEA also stated that Iran did not allow it to visit and inspect Iran's under-construction research reactor in Arak. But, such visits are covered by the modified text of the Subsidiary Arrangements General Part, Code 3.1, of the Safeguards Agreement. Iran had agreed to the modified text, part of which states that Iran must allow inspection of the under-construction sites. However, because the EU3 reneged on its promises, Iran suspended the implementation of the modified text in February 2006, and went back to its original Safeguards Agreement, signed in 1974. The original Subsidiary Arrangements state that only 180 days prior to the introduction of any nuclear material into a nuclear facility does Iran have the obligation to allow visits to and inspection of the facility. Thus, once again, Iran has no legal obligations towards the Agency regarding the Arak reactor. 

Thus, overall, despite the propaganda and bogus alarms by the War Party and the Israel lobby, the IAEA report actually indicates positive developments in the thorny issue of Iran's nuclear program. Iran's slow down of its uranium enrichment program should be taken for what is intended for: declaring that Iran is willing to compromise. The United States is trapped deeply in Afghanistan. Any decent resolution of that conflict entails political accommodation with Iran (and Russia). The Obama administration should learn to take yes as an answer.

 

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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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