Reversing the diplomatic trajectory on Iran

Iran’s announcement of another 10 uranium enrichment plants[i] is sufficiently out there to be neither very alarming nor of much predictive value in considering the long-term development of Iran’s nuclear programs.

While not exactly alarming, the move is depressingly indicative of a failing process and as such seems to be lifting the spirits of the hardliners, whether they be in Tehran or Washington. The Wall Street Journal sounded almost gleeful in raising the spectre of “500,000 Iranian centrifuges.”[ii] Seizing it as one more opportunity to invoke the need for “punitive sanctions or military strikes” as the only credible options for resolving the dispute, the WSJ insists it is only the US and the Europeans that need to share its view.

Russia and China may not enter the political calculus of the WSJ, but they do figure rather prominently in the remarkable level of agreement the international community reached in its most recent call on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, ratify the Additional Protocol to strengthen its IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards agreements, and to confirm that it has no other undeclared nuclear facilities.[iii] The West, Russia, China, and the outgoing IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei acted in concert, but there is no chance that this unanimity will translate into either the collective punitive sanctions or support for the military strikes that the WSJ wants. We can only hope that the world will be saved from yet another reckless military adventure, if not by good sense then at least by a host of conflicting interests.

When Iran was first found (in 2003) to be pursuing an undeclared nuclear program in violation of its safeguards and NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) commitments, there was no direct evidence of a nuclear weapons program – nor has direct evidence of one emerged since then. Iran’s actions have certainly raised many legitimate suspicions inasmuch as its pursuit of civilian technology, namely enrichment, is doggedly focused on the production of reactor fuel which is not yet needed but which gives Iran access to the option of pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran’s strategy is now routinely understood to be the “Japan option” – that is, the pursuit of civilian technology that creates competence in weapons-related technologies and creates the opportunity for fairly rapid break-out, in pursuit of a weapon when a hard decision to that end is taken.

In response to Iran’s protestations that its pursuit of weapons-relevant technology is rooted in a commitment to peaceful purposes, the rest of the world has in effect said, “OK, but do something to make us believe. We need to see you act in ways to restore confidence that your declared peaceful intentions are genuine.” And the particular action proposed, or demanded, by the international community was and is suspension of uranium enrichment. The demand includes the explicit acknowledgment that Iran has the right, under Article IV of the NPT, to enrich uranium for peaceful or civilian purposes, and thus suspension is to be a temporary interruption, with the clear implication that enrichment could resume once Iran had dealt satisfactorily with all the questions raised by the IAEA – questions about those activities which suggest an explicit interest in weapons technology.

The point is that suspension of enrichment is to be a goodwill gesture, it is not the solution. Iran has, and by all accounts will retain, the capacity to enrich – and with that it will ultimately acquire the capacity to build a bomb. But the capacity to build one and actually building one are not the same thing. Preventing that capacity from being acted upon is where the line finally has to be drawn and where the international community’s efforts and safeguards must ultimately be focused. That means unfettered monitoring – access to all declared and suspected facilities whenever international inspectors want that access. That in turn means Iran ratifying and acting on the Additional Protocol – the legal instrument that provides such access.

Confidence building measures are good, and Iran is obliged to restore the confidence that was shattered when its clandestine program was discovered. The fact that Iran has a plausible explanation for its clandestine actions – namely, that it was prevented from openly acquiring legitimate technology on the open market by those out to frustrate Iran’s development and its revolutionary regime – does not detract from the fact that clandestine activity was in violation of firm commitments made.

A more recent confidence building proposal has been for Iran to ship its LEU (low enriched uranium) out of the country for further refining into fuel rods for its medical research reactor. It looked for a time as if Iran would accept this. After all, exchanging Iranian LEU on the international market for manufactured fuel would clearly signal acceptance of Iranian enrichment. But in its last move, Iran demanded that the exchange take place within the country. That is, Iran in effect, and somewhat understandably, said the international community would also have to build some confidence with Iran because of the latter’s fear that after it shipped the LEU out of the country, it might not receive the promised fuel in return. So Iran proposed that there be an exchange inside Iran – linking the shipment out of LEU to the shipment in of reactor fuel. The West took this as a refusal and so a new resolution was drafted.

But confidence building measures are gestures, not solutions. The solution is to continuously verify that Iran’s nuclear activity is not diverted to military purposes. There is no once-and-for-all solution. It is a day-to-day requirement in the same way that a bank’s stores of cash must be verified on an all day every day, 24-7, basis.

Iran is not about to build 10 uranium enrichment plants. Of that the international community can be quite confident. But Iran’s announcement of such a plan certainly confirms that the diplomatic effort is once again on a starkly negative trajectory. So now it’s back to the diplomats to once again try to reverse that trajectory. Talk of “punitive sanctions or military strikes” will be increasingly tempting, but it is a temptation that will be resisted by those serious about a constructive outcome.


[i] Daniel Dombey and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran’s nuclear move puzzles west,” Financial Times, 29 November 2009.

[iii] IAEA Resolution on Iran, GOV/2009/82, 27 November 2009.

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