With the international community’s nuclear stand-off with Iran intensifying, a new report on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament calls for a redefinition of the fundamentals of the dispute.

Bringing Iran into full accord with the global nonproliferation regime will require “acceptance by the international community of the reality of Iran’s enrichment program...in exchange for acceptance by Iran of a very intrusive inspections and verification regime.”[i] It is the formula put forward by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) in its final report, a formula long advocated in this space,[ii] and it helpfully redefines the Iran confrontation to centre it around the core condition for all successful nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament measures – namely, a high degree of transparency to build confidence in the international community’s capacity to verify implementation of commitments made.

Iran has made the essential commitment – that is, an unqualified commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons and to welcome the international community’s verification of compliance with that commitment. It did so by becoming a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iranian leaders have regularly repeated that commitment, the Supreme leader even issuing a fatwa against nuclear weapons.[iii] Iran has never promised, and no law requires it, not to enrich uranium.[iv]  Enriching uranium to produce reactor fuel is not the problem that needs to be solved in the long run; the problem is to ensure that all enrichment is carried out under the full inspection of the IAEA – and today that is happening with regard to all known enrichment.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Iran if it was that simple.[v]

While Iran’s declared enrichment is now fully under IAEA inspections, the IAEA does not have sufficient access to Iran to develop confidence that that there is no undeclared enrichment. Iran’s belated disclosure in 2009 of the construction of an unreported enrichment facility did nothing to bolster that confidence. Thus Iran’s true act of defiance is not its continuing enrichment but is its refusal to heed the transparency demands of the IAEA: Resolution GOV/2006/14  (4 February 2006) calls on Iran to “implement transparency measures…which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol, and include such access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual use equipment, certain military-owned workshops and research and development as the Agency may request in support of its ongoing investigations.”[vi]

A potential, and partial, step out of the current impasse was proposed late last year by the IAEA[vii] and discussed here November 30.[viii] It would have seen Iran ship its LEU (low enriched uranium) out of the country for further refining into fuel for its medical research reactor and of course allow Iran to import the fuel. This would have implicitly recognized the legitimacy of Iranian enrichment activity, but also would have removed stocks of LEU from the country and thus prevented a breakout scenario in which Iran could withdraw from the NPT, expel IAEA inspectors, and then use its LEU stocks to produce highly enriched, or weapons grade, uranium.[ix]

It looked for a time as if Iran would accept this arrangement, but Tehran then demanded that the exchange take place within the country and that only about a quarter of its LEU be shipped out initially. 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 if it shipped most of its 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.

Now Iran has given the international community, represented by the negotiating group of the P5 plus one – that is, the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany – until the end of January to accept its counter-offer.[x] Iran is demanding a staged removal of its LEU from Iran, with clear guarantees that it will receive the imported fuel. As a consequence Iran would retain a small stockpile of LEU in the country and thus the breakout potential would remain.[xi] In the long this is a scenario that the international community will almost certainly have to accept – Iran will not be prevented from stockpiling what it can legally make, and in the long run it is only continuous inspection and decisive and broadly supported international reaction to any breakout that will be available to the international community.

That is why the international community is now advised by the ICNND to focus on transparency and full disclosure.

This also seems the time for the international community to raise another proposal – not only that Iran abide by the Additional Protocol (a supplemental agreement with the IAEA on enhanced inspections) and the enhanced transparency measures required by the IAEA, but also that it enter discussions toward internationalizing or multilateralizing Iran’s enrichment program through the acceptance of international involvement in its uranium enrichment program. Both of these proposed conditions were also part of the ICNND report.

Iran has given the P5 plus one a deadline for responding to its modified proposal – but don’t expect anything conclusive to happen any time soon.

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[i] Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers, Report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi, co-Chairs (2009). WWW.ICNND.ORG.

[ii] For example: “Reversing the diplomatic trajectory on Iran” (30 November 2009); “‘Coming Clean’ – where the pressure on Iran belongs” 1 October 2009); “A welcome US shift on Iran” 14 April 2009). http://www.cigionline.org/publications/blogs/disarmingconflict.

[iii] "The Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued the Fatwa that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took office just recently, in his inaugural address reiterated that his government is against weapons of mass destruction and will only pursue nuclear activities in the peaceful domain. The leadership of Iran has pledged at the highest level that Iran will remain a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT and has placed the entire scope of its nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards and additional protocol, in addition to undertaking voluntary transparency measures with the agency that have even gone beyond the requirements of the agency's safeguard system.” “Iran, holder of peaceful nuclear fuel cycle technology,” 8 December 2005. http://mathaba.net/0_index.shtml?x=302258.

[iv] Both the IAEA [GOV/2006/14  (4 February 2006)] and the UN Security Council [Resolution 1737 (27 December 2006)] require Iran to “suspend” its enrichment activity as a “confidence-building measure” – recognizing the in the long run Iran will be enriching uranium.

[v] Just on the matter of fatwas, the presence of multiple and apparently dueling fatwas on the question of nuclear weapons adds confusion. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a prominent opposition cleric, was reported in October 2009 as having also issued fatwa against nuclear weapons: “In light of the scope of death and destruction they bring, and in light of the fact that such weapons cannot be used solely against an army of aggression but will invariably sacrifice the lives of innocent people, even if these innocent lives are those of future generations nuclear weapons are not permitted according to reason or Sharia. Anyway, humanity, particularly Muslims who follow the Sharia of the Seal of Prophets, and the Prophet, Praise be Upon Him, must take the lead in banning legally and practically all such weapons for all countries and in soliciting the help of respectable and dependable international organizations in guaranteeing such ban.” (emphasis in original)

http://niacblog.wordpress.com/2009/10/21/ayatollah-montazeri-issues-fatwa-against-nuclear-weapons/. But the UK Telegraph reported in 2006: “In yet another sign of Teheran's stiffening resolve on the nuclear issue, influential Muslim clerics have for the first time questioned the theocracy's traditional stance that Sharia law forbade the use of nuclear weapons. One senior mullah has now said it is "only natural" to have nuclear bombs as a "countermeasure" against other nuclear powers, thought to be a reference to America and Israel. The pronouncement is particularly worrying because it has come from Mohsen Gharavian, a disciple of the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, who is widely regarded as the cleric closest to Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Colin Freeman and Philip Sherwell, “Iranian fatwa approves use of nuclear weapons.” The Telegraph, 19 February 2006. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/1510900/Iranian-fatwa-approves-use-of-nuclear-weapons.html.

[vi] IAEA Board Resolution GOV/2006/14  (4 February 2006). http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2006/gov2006-14.pdf.

[vii]IAEA Draft Agreement Circulated at Nuclear Fuel Talks, 21 October 2009. http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/News/2009/talksiran211009.html.

[viii] http://www.cigionline.org/blogs/2009/11/reversing-diplomatic-trajectory-iran

[ix] Of course, if Iran were to be pursuing such an option it would more likely do it in clandestine facilities – and while the IAEA can confirm that no nuclear materials have gone missing, it can’t absolutely guarantee that there aren’t clandestine facilities using undeclared nuclear materials.

[x] “Iran demands West accept counter plan on  nuclear program, CNN.Com. 02 January 2010. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/01/02/iran.nuclear/.

[xi] The 1,100 kgs of low enriched that would remain in Iran after an initial transfer out of 400 kgs could produce enough high enriched uranium to make at least one crude first generation bomb. See: R. Scott Kemp and Alexander Glaser, “Statement on Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon and the significance of the 19 February 2009 IAEA report on Iran’s uranium enrichment program,” Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, 2 March 2009. http://www.princeton.edu/~aglaser/2009aglaser_iran.pdf.

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