Obama is looking for a new policy on Iran that stresses inspection stardards.
It is still at the trial balloon stage, but the administration of President Barack Obama is testing the idea of a significant shift in American policy on Iran. Instead of continuing its single-minded focus on halting Iran's uranium enrichment, an activity that breaks no international law or principle, Washington is wisely proposing to concentrate more on strict transparency and inspections standards.
The objective is to give inspectors unfettered access, or as an Obama official puts it, "what's most valuable to us now is having real freedom for the inspectors to pursue their suspicions around the country." Transparency means intrusive inspections, the central pillar of non-proliferation. Transparency is also a fundamental principle enshrined in international nuclear agreements that Iran has signed.
The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) report on Iran confirms that none of Iran's declared nuclear activity, including enrichment, and none of its nuclear materials have been diverted to military purposes. What the atomic agency cannot yet confirm is that there is no undeclared, or clandestine, nuclear program -- and that's where improved transparency comes in.
Specifically, it means Iran should ratify the atomic agency additional protocol, a special add-on to the agency's safeguards agreements to facilitate more intrusive inspections. The additional protocol should really be compulsory for all states, as Canada has long argued, but in the meantime the Security Council would be fully justified in making it compulsory for Iran, given Iran's earlier clandestine activity.
In fact, just three years ago, Iran did allow inspections in line with the terms of this special inspection mandate, but no longer -- which means, says the atomic agency, that its knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is actually diminishing.
And that is the critical problem that requires a new approach along the lines that the Obama administration may now pursue. To date, the Security Council has focused its attention and political capital on getting Iran to suspend the enrichment activity -- an open and declared activity that is now fully under the atomic agency's inspections. Enrichment is a legal activity, so the Security Council has always had to define its demand that Iran stop enrichment as a temporary, confidence-building measure, not an end in itself (even though the Bush administration wanted it permanently stopped).
But while the dispute over enrichment continues, at times giving rise to threats of military action against Iran, that enrichment steadily expands while transparency gets progressively worse.
Iran would be much more vulnerable to persistent transparency pressures than to demands to suspend enrichment. Under international law and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has no right to secrecy when it comes to nuclear matters. Indeed, Iran has never claimed such a right. Two years ago Iran's chief nuclear negotiator agreed that, "what should be important . . . is to have Iran's activities within the framework of the atomic agency and under the supervision of the inspectors of the agency."
Iran's long-term obligation under the non-proliferation treaty is not to forgo enrichment, but to allow the atomic agency the access it needs to confirm that any enrichment is for peaceful purposes only.
Iran's refusal to make the goodwill gesture of suspending enrichment until the achievement of satisfactory atomic agency access is not a trifling matter, of course. It represents defiance of the Security Council and is, at the very least, short-sighted. But the single-minded focus on suspension of enrichment has also been short-sighted. The real issue is not whether Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium, but that when it does enrich, the international community can have full confidence that none of its enrichment capability is steered toward the development of a nuclear weapon.
It would, of course, be best if Iran neither pursued nor acquired any of the sensitive fuel cycle technologies like uranium enrichment that are potentially adaptable to weapons purposes. But restrictions on such technologies are unlikely to be successful if the strategy is to single out Iran. The atomic agency has been exploring plans whereby enrichment and reprocessing for civilian purposes can be restricted to a very few countries and brought under international control. These few would produce fuel for an International Atomic Energy Agency fuel bank, from which the operators of civilian power plants anywhere in the world would be supplied. Some two years ago, in fact, Iran offered to have an international consortium put in charge of its enrichment program -- a gesture that falls well short of multilateral controls but is, nevertheless, a step in the right direction.
The signals from the Obama administration are that the international community is sensibly inching toward a compromise with Iran on uranium enrichment. Where there can be no compromise, however, is on the matter of transparency and verification that all of Iran's nuclear activities are strictly for non-military purposes.
The principle of full disclosure is universal and enshrined by treaty and a shift in Washington to focus on Iran's obligation to allow full and unfettered inspection of all its nuclear activity and facilities would be a welcome development.
Ernie Regehr is cofounder of Project Ploughshares, adjunct associate professor in peace studies at Conrad Grebel University College, and fellow of The Centre for International Governance Innovation.