A welcome US shift on Iran

For now it remains a proverbial trial balloon, but a possible US switch from a single-minded focus on suspending Iran's uranium enrichment to an emphasis on transparency would be a positive step – and it would be a demand that Iran would find much more difficult to resist. 

The New York Times is reporting that the Obama administration is contemplating a shift in Iran policy that would no longer demand suspension of all enrichment as a precondition to talks but would focus talks and political/economic pressures on Iranian acceptance of much more intrusive inspections. “Frankly,” it quotes on administration official as saying, “what’s most valuable to us now is having real freedom for the inspectors to pursue their suspicions around the country.”[i] 

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report on Iran[ii] confirms that none of Iran’s declared nuclear activity and that no nuclear materials have been diverted to military purposes. The problem is in developing confidence that there is no undeclared, or clandestine, nuclear program – and that will become possible only through significant increases in Iranian transparency. 

Specifically, that means Iran must ratify the IAEA Additional Protocol, a special addition to IAEA safeguards agreements to facilitate more intrusive inspections. Indeed, the Additional Protocol should be compulsory for all states,[iii] but at a minimum the Security Council should make the Additional Protocol its chief demand on Iran.[iv] Before the current stalemate, Iran did allow inspections in line with the terms of the Additional Protocol (even though it did not ratify it), but “since early 2006,” the IAEA’s 2007 report notes, “the [IAEA] has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing, pursuant to the Additional Protocol and as a transparency measure. As a result, the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current nuclear programme is diminishing.” [v]   

And that is the critical problem. Unfortunately, however, the Security Council’s has focused its attention and political capital on getting Iran to suspend the enrichment activity – declared activity that is now fully under IAEA inspections. The Security Council has always had to recognize suspension as a temporary, confidence-building measure, not an end in itself. The Council does not and could not credibly dispute Iran’s right to enrich, but it still demands suspension until the international community can be fully assured that there is no longer any clandestine nuclear activity.  

But, in the meantime, while the dispute over enrichment has continued, at times giving rise to threats of military action against Iran, the enrichment program has only grown and there has been no progress on the transparency front.  

In fact, Iran would be much more vulnerable to transparency pressures. Under international law and the Treaty it has signed, it has no right to secrecy when it comes to nuclear matters. Indeed, Iran has not challenged the fundamental principle of transparency or its legal obligation to be in full compliance with the IAEA safeguards that are mandated under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 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 IAEA and under the supervision of the inspectors of the Agency”.[vi] In other words, Iran’s long-term obligation under the NPT is not to forgo enrichment, but to allow the IAEA the access it needs to confirm that any enrichment is for peaceful purposes. 

Iran’s refusal to make the goodwill gesture of suspending enrichment until the achievement of satisfactory IAEA access is not a trifling matter, of course. It represents defiance of the Security Council and is, at the very least, shortsighted. But the single-minded focus on suspension of enrichment has also been shortsighted. 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.  

The core objective is to bring Iran into unambiguous, verified compliance with its obligations under the NPT and IAEA safeguards. And given its past venture into clandestine activity, compelling Iran to abide by the Additional Protocol, even though it is not compulsory for other states, would be a reasonable and principled demand.  

As argued here before, it would, of course, be best if Iran neither pursued nor acquired any of the sensitive fuel cycle technologies 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 IAEA has been exploring plans whereby enrichment and reprocessing for civilian purposes would be brought under international control to produce fuel for an IAEA fuel bank, from which the operators of civilian power plants anywhere in the world in need of such fuel would be supplied. Some two years ago, in fact, Iran offered to have an international consortium put in charge of its enrichment program[vii] -- a gesture that falls well short of multilateral controls but is, nevertheless, a step in the right direction. 

Until that happens, however, the Iran-specific restriction on uranium enrichment remains a confidence-building measure—a sign of cooperation rather than an essential element of compliance. Iran’s refusal to agree to this gesture should not be defined as a fundamental challenge to Security Council authority and thus grounds for military action. But on the universal principle of full disclosure and on Iran’s obligation to permit full and unfettered inspection of all its nuclear activity and facilities there can obviously be no compromise. 

And if the Obama administration is in fact shifting its policy from suspension to transparency, that is a welcome development. 


[i] David E. Sanger, “US May Drop Key Condition for Talks With Iran,” The New York Times, 14 April 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/world/middleeast/14diplo.html.

[ii] Report by the Director General, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, 19 February 2009, International Atomic Energy Agency (GOV/2009/8). http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2009/gov2009-8.pdf.

[iii] For example, Canada urged the 2005 NPT Review Conference to make “the Additional Protocol, together with a comprehensive safeguards agreement, …the verification standard pursuant to Article III.1” for fulfilling “the obligations of that section of the Treaty.” Canadian statement to the 2004 NPT PrepCom on “Implementation of the Provisions of the Treaty Relating to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Safeguards and Nuclear Weapon Free Zones Issues” (http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/arms/2004nptcluster2-en.asp). 

[iv] UN Security Council Resolution 1737 (2006) “calls upon Iran to ratify promptly the Additional Protocal,” but does not demand it in the same way that it demands that Iran suspend proliferation sensitive nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment. (http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/681/42/PDF/N0668142.pdf?OpenElement)

[v] Report by the Director General, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” 15 November 2007, International Atomic Energy Agency (GOV/2007/58). http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2007/gov2007-58.pdf.

[vi] Aljazeera.net. 2007. Iran nuclear report due. 21 February 21. http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/420AE469-30CB-4F06-8C7E-F549318B58D6.htm.

[vii] “Last autumn, Iran’s Ali Laijani told European Union negotiator Javier Solana that Iran could accept the Russian-E.U. proposal for an international consortium to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel for Iran—if the enrichment and reprocessing were done on Iranian soil.” [Hoagland, Jim. 2007. Fighting Iran—with patience. The Washington Post, 25 February. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/23/AR2007022301701.html?nav=rss_opinion/columns.]

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