Monday, August 04, 2008

Iran and its uranium

To Prevent War With Iran, a Paradigm Shift Is Needed

by Muhammad Sahimi

The latest report on Iran's uranium enrichment program by the International Atomic Energy Agency, made public in early June, provides strong evidence that the facts on the ground are changing. According to the report, Iran has been making progress in mastering uranium enrichment technology. It has managed to increase the efficiency of the enrichment process by assembling a relatively large number of cascaded centrifuges. It has also been able to manufacture (although not yet in significant numbers) the more advanced IR-2 and IR-3 centrifuges that spin several times faster than the primitive P-1 centrifuges that it has installed in its uranium enrichment facility (UEF) at Natanz. The faster centrifuges, when cascaded and operated for an extended period of time, would enable Iran to produce enriched uranium more rapidly.

However, Iran's progress, while significant, is not alarming. The fact is, there is no direct connection between Iran's UEF in Natanz, which produces low-enriched uranium (LEU), and what would be needed for producing high-enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon. The Natanz facility is also safeguarded by the IAEA. To advance to the point where it can produce HEU, Iran must take many steps that would need several years of work, all progressing according to schedule without any hitches.

More specifically, to go from LEU to HEU, Iran must have the following:

  1. High-quality LEU to be converted to HEU. Although Iran has produced a significant amount of LEU, its quality is, at least at this stage, dubious.
  2. A large number of cascaded centrifuges that can work for a long time, without interruption.
  3. High explosives for triggering a nuclear explosion.
  4. Complete designs for a nuclear bomb and warhead.
  5. Missiles or aircraft to deliver the nuclear warheads to their intended targets.

Iran must also do the following:

  1. Leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expel the IAEA inspectors (à la North Korea), and start a crash program to convert the UEF at Natanz to produce HEU. The breakout time – the time that it would take to transform the Natanz facility – is, at the minimum, six to nine months.
  2. Carry out tests – of the type that other nuclear powers perform – to make sure that its nuclear weapon works properly.

Iran must do all of these while even its most minor moves are being closely monitored and scrutinized by the international community.

There is no evidence that Iran has the necessary materials or is in a position to successfully make them and take all the above steps in a short time, even if it has every intention of doing so. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program stated that Iran is unlikely to be able to make a nuclear weapon before 2013.

But this has not stopped the neoconservatives and their allies in the Israel lobby, as well as the government of Israel, from issuing dire warnings about how close Iran is to making a nuclear weapon. John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute both published articles in the Wall Street Journal urging military attacks on Iran. Benny Morris, the supposedly moderate Israeli historian, published an op-ed in the New York Times about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran with nuclear warheads (neither newspaper has published an op-ed that refutes the claims made in those articles). Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a "manifesto" claiming that Iran will not be able to respond effectively to any military attacks, hence encouraging such attacks. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli Defense Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi also visited Washington.

But while Tehran is making progress in its nuclear program, it has also significantly increased its cooperation with the IAEA. All of Iran's six original breaches of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA have now been explained to the IAEA's satisfaction. Iran has allowed the IAEA inspectors to visit the site where it manufactures its more advanced centrifuges. The IAEA has carried out 14 unannounced visits to Iran's nuclear sites within the last year, resulting in de facto compliance with some of the most important provisions of resolutions of the United Nations Security Council against Iran, as well as the Additional Protocol that Iran has not ratified.

Iran's progress in mastering the uranium enrichment technology for making LEU means that the present approach of the P5+1 group – Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, plus the United States – for dealing with Iran's nuclear program is obsolete. They have been insisting that Iran must first freeze its enrichment activities before any meaningful negotiations can take place between them and Iran. Their rationale is that, by freezing enrichment activities, they will prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear program. But placing a red line on acquiring the knowledge that could be used for making nuclear weapons has not prevented Iran from making progress. In fact, not only has Iran already crossed that red line, it has also become more resolute in defending its fundamental rights under the NPT. Practically speaking, a nation cannot be told to forget what it already knows.

Therefore, if the P5+1 group is interested in keeping Iran's nuclear capability latent, and would like to accomplish this goal peacefully, it needs a paradigm shift in its approach to Iran and its nuclear program, as all other efforts have failed.

The prudent starting point for the new paradigm is transforming the P5+1 group to a P5+2 group, not by adding another nation to the group, but by having the U.S. play a dual role. The U.S. cannot continue its present course, namely, making the toughest demands on Iran while not negotiating directly with Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has expressed a desire to establish a formal U.S. interest section in Tehran by stationing American diplomats there. Iran has responded positively. Thus, by establishing the interest section the U.S. will be in direct contact with Iran, while also being part of the P5+1 group, making it a P5+2 group.

The second step of the paradigm shift should be returning Iran's nuclear dossier to the IAEA. Many legal scholars believe that the sending of Iran's dossier to the UNSC and the ensuing sanctions have been based on questionable legal arguments, in violation of many provisions of the NPT and the UN Charter. I have discussed these in detail elsewhere. Briefly, the Board of Governors of the IAEA exceeded its authority when it demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program, and it again violated its bylaws when it sent Iran's nuclear dossier to the UNSC, because the IAEA has not found Iran in violation of the NPT agreement nor in breach of its Safeguards Agreement about "further[ing] a military purpose," nor does the Board have the legal authority to demand a suspension.

The UNSC resolutions against Iran have been filed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which is, however, exclusively for "Actions with respect to a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or acts of aggression." The UNSC must first identify the threat that Iran's program poses against peace and international security. According to Article 41 of the UN Charter, without such findings, the UNSC cannot issue any resolution under Chapter VII and impose any sanctions. However, the UNSC referred merely to the demand of the IAEA as its justification. In legal jargon, this is an ultra vires act, in excess of the UNSC's power.

Thus, it is necessary to return Iran's dossier to its rightful place, the IAEA. Legal issues aside, the return will help serious negotiations begin. The Iranian leaders correctly recognize that if they suspend their nuclear program on the order of the UNSC, ending the suspension will also require UNSC authorization, which will never come, because the U.S., France, and Britain will veto any such attempt. Iran would effectively give up its right to the enrichment technology if it were to give in to such a demand now. Thus, realistically, so long as its dossier is before the UNSC, Iran will not suspend its uranium enrichment program.

On the other hand, Iran has indicated that, if its nuclear dossier is returned to the IAEA, it will officially ratify and implement the Additional Protocol that allows for intrusive, unannounced visits to anywhere in Iran by the IAEA. That will also allow the IAEA to visit Iran's conventional military sites in its quest for establishing or refuting a link between them and Iran's nuclear program.

The third part of the new paradigm would be the implementation of the "freeze for freeze" proposal, according to which no further sanctions against Iran will be brought before the UNSC if Iran does not increase the number of its centrifuges at Natanz (which currently stands at about 3,500). The temporary freeze is supposed to be implemented for six weeks, during which negotiations are supposed to commence. Various reports indicate that Iran has accepted the proposal, made by the European Union, but the U.S. opposes it.

The fourth step is to develop a new framework for defining what constitutes a freeze, for implementation of a possible longer-term suspension of Iran's enrichment activity, if the two sides can agree on it. For example, Iran's uranium conversion facility (UCF) at Isfahan, which makes uranium hexafluoride, the feedstock for uranium enrichment, is not even covered by the Safeguards Agreement so long as the product is simply stored (or exported). Therefore, insisting that the Isfahan UCF must be shut down is counterproductive, as well as illegal.

Moreover, one cannot simply shut down a large number of cascaded centrifuges, as it would damage the UEF through severe corrosion and other factors. So a possible new definition of freezing would be to stop feeding the centrifuges with nuclear feedstock, injecting instead an inert gas, rather than to shut them down completely.

Finally, the U.S. keeps demanding that Iran suspend all of its "reprocessing activities." But Iran does not have any such facility or activities. One either reprocesses the spent fuel of a nuclear reactor or the products of a heavy water nuclear reactor, both of which produce plutonium. Iran has neither.

Demonstrating such flexibility will have two major benefits. One is that it would elevate Iran to a respected negotiation partner, from its present position of being treated like a servant, constantly threatened and ordered to carry out the demands made on it. The second benefit would be that it would obligate Iran to respond in kind. Many times in the past Iran has expressed such willingness, provided that it is treated with the respect that a major regional power deserves.

With the paradigm shift in place, the negotiations can begin in earnest on the scope of Iran's enrichment program and its strict control by the IAEA. Given Iran's advancements in the enrichment technology, it is no longer realistic to demand that it give up its rights to uranium enrichment. Therefore, alternative solutions must be considered, including the establishment of a multinational consortium on Iran's soil for uranium enrichment. Peaceful resolution of the conflict will go a long way toward creating a more stable and less volatile Middle East, which would be beneficial to all sides.

Original article posted here.

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