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Time to Take a Deep Breath over Plans for a Nuclear Iran

Financial Times, 23 February 2006

As the March 6 United Nations Security Council debate on Iran approaches, it becomes ever more apparent that there is no easy solution to the nuclear dilemma. Emboldened by the situation in Iraq and soaring oil prices, and animated by a combination of insecurity and assertive nationalism, Iran remains insistent on its right to develop full nuclear fuel cycle capability, including uranium enrichment.

Most other countries, while acknowledging to varying extents Iran’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to acquire that capability for peaceful energy purposes, are worried by Tehran’s past lack of transparency, its continuing support for militant Middle Eastern groups and President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s incendiary rhetoric. Their fear is that once able to highly enrich uranium, Tehran will be tempted to build nuclear weapons.

But European Union-led diplomacy so far has failed to persuade Iran to forgo its fuel cycle ambitions; the Security Council seems unlikely to agree on sanctions strong enough to force it to do so; and all but the most unreconstructed hawks agree that the use of preventive military force would be both dangerous and unproductive.

Two possible scenarios remain for a negotiated compromise. The first and most attractive is a “zero enrichment” option: for Iran to agree indefinitely to relinquish its right to enrich uranium on its own territory in return for guaranteed supply from an offshore source, along the lines now under discussion in Russia. Iran, while not wholly rejecting offshore supply, has made clear its reluctance to embrace such a limitation as a long-term solution. For it to have any chance of acceptance, significantly more incentives from the US need to be on the table than at present. But, on all present indications, that will not happen and talks between Tehran and Moscow are going nowhere.

If zero enrichment proves unachievable, the only realistic remaining diplomatic option appears to be what could be called “delayed limited enrichment”. The world, and the west in particular, would take a deep breath and accept that Iran does have the “right to enrich” domestically, not just the right to produce nuclear energy using fuel externally supplied. But in return, Iran would have to agree to a delay of several years in the commencement of its enrichment programme, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime throughout.

There would be an initial International Atomic Energy Agency assessment phase of two to three years with all enrichment activity suspended; a second confidence-building phase of three to four years during which only laboratory-scale enrichment would be permitted, again subject to intrusive monitoring. Normal rules would prevail thereafter, but any industrial scale enrichment would desirably involve a multinational operation.

This plan will require flexibility on all sides. From the EU, it needs recognition that, provided it honours NPT commitments, Iran has the right to domestic enrichment. From Tehran, it demands acceptance of significant delays and limitations along the way to exercising that right. The US (while no doubt wanting reassurance on other than just nuclear matters) will need to agree to support the plan with phased incentives of its own, including the lifting of sanctions and normalisation of relations. And the EU, Russia and China will need to commit to meaningful sanctions should Iran reject or violate the deal.

Both sides inevitably will protest that this plan goes too far – the west because it permits Tehran eventually to achieve full nuclear fuel-cycle capability, and Iran because it significantly delays and limits the development of that capability. But with the right kind, and number, of both carrots (particularly from the US) and sticks (particularly from the EU), a successful negotiation is very possible. This proposed compromise should be compared neither to the fragile and unsustainable status quo nor to some idealised end-state with which all sides might be totally comfortable. If diplomacy fails, there are two likely scenarios, both much worse. One is rapid descent into a North Korea-like situation, with an unsupervised nuclear programme leading to the production of nuclear weapons, with all the unpredictable regional consequences likely to flow from that. The other is a move to an Iraq-like preventive military strike, with even more alarming consequences, both regionally and worldwide.