Iran's Nuclear Veils
BERLIN -- Iran's nuclear policy is a bit like a Persian veil dance €“ a lot of declarations, announcements and verbal promises that hide its real intentions and policies. To get a clearer picture of what is really going on, let's look through the layers. Various Iranian officials have indicated various caveats for an acceptance of the United Nations-sponsored proposal to ship its low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad. This plan was negotiated over the last weeks in the Geneva and Vienna talks of the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) with Iran. The plan calls for Iran to transfer around 75% of its known 1.5 tons of LEU to Russia for further enrichment by the end of this year, then on to France for conversion into fuel plates. These would be returned to Tehran to power a research reactor that produces radio isotopes for cancer treatment. This deal, if it becomes reality, would be a win-win for both sides. For the West, because Iran would not have enough nuclear material to build a weapon and there would be more time to prepare an international agreement on Iran's nuclear ambitions. For Iran, this deal would set a precedent by permitting Iran to continue a fuel production that the Security Council previously had ordered it to stop. The official response from Iran has been promised for Friday, and it will be a litmus test for Iran's stated intent to use LEU only for peaceful ends.
The recent revelation by U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Pittsburgh G20 summit of a new enrichment facility at Qum, 160km south of Tehran, and their call for tougher sanctions if Iran still fails to abide by its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), sent a clear signal to Iran. The new U.S. engagement policy with Iran is not unconditional, but a mix of carrots and sticks. Faced with the revelation, Iran hurriedly informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and accepted inspection by an IAEA team that arrived last Sunday to investigate the enrichment facility that Iran had hidden since 2007. Moscow, meanwhile, is still continuing its seesaw policy toward Tehran. As a co-architect of the NPT, it certainly prefers a non-nuclear Iran, but on the other hand it likes the status quo of an isolated Iran that keeps the West in a state of deep unease. Russia benefits economically from the nuclear power plant it is building in Bushehr, and it also benefits under the new UN proposal by taking over an early phase of enrichment of Iranian LEU. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised the P5+1 talks in Vienna and Geneva during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Moscow last week, but he ruled out Russian support for sanctions against Iran "at this time." U.S.-led international political pressure on Iran adds to the domestic pressure the regime feels from its internal opposition. With the U.S. administration extending its hand and offering a conditioned engagement policy, it has become more difficult for the repressive Iranian regime to justify its domestic repressions with the pretence of a U.S. threat. Obama's pragmatism in refraining from public condemnation of the regime's handling of its June elections and the subsequent brutal repression of the protests of millions of Iranian citizens actually put further pressure on the Iranian government. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has helped by saying, regularly and clearly, that military force could not solve the problems the West has with Iran. Globally, people feared the United States more than they feared Iran getting away with its nuclear violations; now, people want Iran to be more accommodating. Iran has not negotiated in a spirit of genuine give-and-take for years. The renaissance of the United States' global credibility might press Iran to take a few steps for the first time since 2004 as a beginning to the beginning of a real negotiation process.
After all, the first round of renewed international negotiations has made unexpected progress. The Iranian government now feels obliged to modify its behaviour in order to build international confidence that all of its nuclear activities are peaceful, and that none of them have military dimensions. In the long run, the United States and its P5+1 partners will have to maintain the necessary political pressure and frame a mutually acceptable outcome with Iran that allows it to save face. As the NPT never defined when nuclear fuel usage is weaponization and when it is not, the negotiated outcome could be an enforceable agreement that clearly classifies which nuclear activities are peaceful and which are not; that classification should be applicable to all countries under the NPT. It will be a long way to go with many maneuvers still to come. But if Iran can keep face in the process, it may be able to drop its veils. Iran's answer to the UN's enrichment proposal will indicate its readiness to move in this direction. Jörg Himmelreich is a senior non-resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.