The Persian Puzzle
A three-part series by SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN*, awarded the United Nations Correspondents association Silver Medal for excellence in journalism for the series.
The Persian Puzzle I. Iran and the invention of a nuclear crisis
(21-23 September 2005) -- BARELY two years after the United States invaded Iraq in the name of weapons of mass destruction which never existed, the world is being pushed towards a confrontation with Iran on a similarly flawed premise.
On September 17, Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the United Nations General Assembly that his country would not give up its sovereign right to produce nuclear power using indigenously enriched uranium. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran signed in 1974, allows Iran to build facilities involving all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment, subject to international safeguards. Given the fact that the US continues to impose sanctions on the development of Iran's oil and gas sector (under the extra-territorial 'Iran Libya Sanctions Act'), it is only logical that the Iranians should seek a civilian nuclear energy industry in which they won't have to be dependent on the West for fuel like enriched uranium.
However, as a major concession to Britain, France and Germany -- the so-called EU-3 which has sought to prevail upon Iran to abandon enrichment in exchange for guarantees of assured fuel supply -- Mr. Ahmadinejad offered to run his country's enrichment plants as joint ventures with private and public sector firms from other countries. Britain and France have rejected this offer, which the Iranians say is a demonstration of their intent to be as transparent as possible. The EU-3 and the US insist Teheran must not work on enrichment because once the technology is mastered, the same facilities could be used to produce not just low enriched uranium (LEU) for energy reactors but highly enriched uranium (HEU) for bombs. Accordingly, they have circulated a resolution in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting -- which began Monday -- calling for Iran's civilian nuclear programme to be referred to the UN Security Council as a potential threat to international peace and security.
It is not difficult for the US and its European allies to get a majority of the 35-nation Board of Governors to recommend referral; however, the board has operated on the basis of consensus for the past 12 years -- ever since the forced vote referring North Korea to the UNSC split the IAEA -- and the non-aligned group of countries and China remain opposed to taking Iran to the Security Council. If the US is convinced a consensus will elude it for the foreseeable future, it could push for a vote this week rather than wait any longer. Next month, following the annual IAEA General Conference, a new Board of Governors will take over. And with Cuba and Syria entering the Board in place of Peru and Pakistan, the ranks of those firmly opposed to an SC referral are likely to increase.
Although the immediate trigger for the European and American pressure is Teheran's decision last month to end its voluntary suspension of uranium conversion at its Esfahan facility, the Iranian case cannot be referred to the Security Council on this ground.
First, the NPT allows uranium conversion and other processes central to enrichment. Secondly, the Esfahan facility is under IAEA safeguards and as recently as September 2, i.e. nearly a month after Iran resumed uranium conversion there, the Director-General of the Agency, Mohammad El-Baradei, certified that "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for and, therefore, such material is not diverted to prohibited activities." Thirdly, the agreement to suspend enrichment, which Iran reached with the EU-3 at Paris last November, clearly states that "the E3/EU recognize that this suspension is a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation." In other words, if the voluntary suspension was not a legal obligation, the ending of that suspension can hardly be made the grounds for legal action by either the IAEA or the UN.
Myth of 'Concealment'
If at all Iran is to be referred, then, its desire to pursue a complete fuel cycle for its civilian nuclear energy programme cannot be cited as legal grounds. Nor can the hitherto "secret" nature of its fuel cycle facilities currently under construction. Though there has been a surfeit of motivated and ill-informed commentary about how Iran "concealed" its uranium enrichment programme from the IAEA "in violation of the NPT" until it was "caught cheating" in 2002, the fact is that Iran was not obliged to inform the Agency about those facilities at the time. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein -- who first provided the international media with satellite imagery and analysis of the unfinished fuel fabrication facility at Natanz and heavy water research reactor at Arak on December 12, 2002 -- themselves noted that under the safeguards agreement in force at the time, "Iran is not required to allow IAEA inspections of a new nuclear facility until six months before nuclear material is introduced into it." In fact, it was not even required to inform the IAEA of their existence until then, a point conceded by Britain and the European Union at the March 2003 Board of Governors meeting. The Arak reactor is planned to go into operation in 2014. As for the pilot fuel enrichment plant (PFEP) at Natanz, it is still not operational today.
This 'six months' clause was a standard part of all IAEA safeguards agreements signed in the 1970s and 1980s. It was only in the 1990s, following the Iraq crisis, that the Agency sought to strengthen itself by asking countries to sign 'subsidiary arrangements' requiring the handing over of design information about any new facility six months prior to the start of construction. Many signed, some did not. Iran accepted this arrangement only in February 2003. Later that year, it signed the highly-intrusive Additional Protocol. Though it has yet to ratify it, Teheran has allowed the IAEA to exercise all its prerogatives under the protocol, including more than 20 "complementary accesses," some with a notice period of two hours or less. Dr. El-Baradei also reported that "Iran has, since October 2003, provided the Agency upon its request, and as a transparency measure, access to certain additional information and locations beyond that required under its Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol."
What Iran has yet to do is provide the IAEA sufficient information on the history of its centrifuge programme for it to satisfy itself that there are no "undeclared nuclear materials or activities." However, this alone can hardly constitute grounds for referring the country to the Security Council under Article III.B.4 of the Agency's Statute since the IAEA, in the past two years, has found discrepancies in the utilisation of nuclear material in as many as 15 countries. Among these are South Korea, Taiwan, and Egypt. In 2002 and 2003, for example, South Korea refused to let the IAEA visit facilities connected to its laser enrichment programme. Subsequently, though Seoul confessed to having secretly enriched uranium to a 77 per cent concentration of U-235 -- a grade sufficient for fissile material -- neither the US nor EU suggested referring the matter to the UNSC.
In contrast, there is no evidence whatsoever that Iran has produced weapon-grade uranium. Despite intrusive inspections, no facility or plan to produce weapon-grade uranium has been discovered, nor have any weapon designs surfaced.
The Persian Puzzle II: What the IAEA Really Found in Iran
The report Mohammed El-Baradei presented to the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors on September 2, 2005 represents the most recent assessment of Iran's nuclear programme made by the watchdog body. In this report, the Director-General sought to quantify the progress made in dealing with a number of adverse findings first brought to the Board's notice on November 15, 2004.
Those findings involved six instances of Iran's "failure to report" certain nuclear activities, mostly concerning enrichment and laser experimentation and including the import of uranium from China in 1991; two instances of "failure to declare" enrichment facilities; six instances of "failure to provide design information or updated design information" for certain facilities, and a general charge of "failure on many occasions to cooperate to facilitate the implementation of safeguards, as evidenced by extensive concealment activities."
Dr. El-Baradei then noted that Iran had taken a number of corrective actions as a result of which "the Agency was able by November 2004 to confirm certain aspects of Iran's declarations [related to conversion activities and laser enrichment], which ... would be followed up as matters of routine safeguards implementation." This was a major statement by the IAEA because, in effect, it was saying that much of the "concealment" the Iranians are accused of resorting to in the past had been effectively neutralised and was no longer a source of extra concern for the Agency.
If the IAEA was still not in a position to declare that Iran had no undeclared nuclear material and undeclared enrichment activities, this was for two sets of reasons. First, it was still assessing Iran's explanations for questions raised by it about the Gchine uranium mines and two long-since abandoned research projects into polonium (Po-210) and plutonium separation. Secondly, questions still remained on two important fronts. In the course of its visits to the not-yet-operational Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and the Kalaye Electric Company in 2004, the IAEA had found trace amounts of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and low enriched uranium (LEU), giving rise to concerns that Iran had already begun enriching uranium -- presumably at an undisclosed third location. The Iranians denied producing the HEU and LEU but the IAEA needed to satisfy itself. Moreover, the Agency felt it had yet to learn the full extent of Iranian research work on the P-2 gas centrifuge, the designs for which had been procured from the A.Q. Khan clandestine network.
After analysis of swipe samples, IAEA experts now say the HEU was Pakistani and presumably came to be in Natanz because imported centrifuge components were contaminated. The origin of the LEU contamination has yet to be established but there are some indications it is of Russian provenance. As for the centrifuges themselves, the IAEA wants more documentation to convince itself that Iran is telling the truth about not pursuing any work on the P-2 design between 1995, when it first acquired the technology, and 2002, when it made modifications necessary for composite rotors. This, then, is the main outstanding question Iran needs to answer.
No Threat to Peace
Not only is Iran's failure in this regard far less dramatic than the American accusations of a "clandestine weapons programme" and of "deception," it also cannot conceivably be called a threat to international peace and security. Yes, the IAEA has yet to conclude there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran. But, as Dr. El-Baradei himself noted in his September 2 report, "the process of drawing such a conclusion, after an Additional Protocol is in force, under normal circumstances, is a time consuming process." Since the Agency believes Iran has had a "past pattern of concealment," this conclusion "can be expected to take longer than in normal circumstances."
In effect, Dr. El-Baradei was saying that the IAEA's inspectors should be allowed to do their work. For this, "Iran's full transparency is indispensable and overdue." What he did not -- and could not -- say was that the inspections process should not be short-circuited or politicised by interested parties. A case in point is the polonium-beryllium controversy, which Washington had hoped would emerge as Iran's proverbial smoking gun.
When asked about bismuth irradiation experiments it had conducted at the Teheran Research Reactor (TRR) between 1989 and 1993 to extract polonium, Iran pointed out that it had not been required to inform the IAEA under the safeguards agreement and that "in any case, details of the experiments were in the logbook of the TRR reactor, which has been safeguarded for 30 years." Polonium has many civilian applications but also plays a role, when combined with beryllium, as a neutron initiator in some nuclear weapon designs. Seizing on this, the US insisted Iran had imported beryllium as well. When the IAEA investigated this and ruled out any such imports, US officials planted stories about how Dr. El-Baradei had "succumbed to Iranian pressure." These stories were then used to build a campaign to deny him another term as Director-General, a campaign which ultimately failed.
Regardless of US motivations, however, Iran, at the end of the day still has a responsibility to demonstrate to the world that it is in full compliance with its safeguards obligations. And the world has the right to satisfy itself that Iran is not planning to make nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, Bruno Pellaud, former IAEA Deputy Director-General for safeguards, was asked by Swissinfo whether Iran was intent on building a nuclear bomb. "My impression is not," he replied, adding that "the IAEA says there is no evidence of a weapons programme." Dr. Pellaud then posed a rhetorical question -- Is this naiveté? -- and elaborated on his assessment: "My view is based on the fact that Iran took a major gamble in December 2003 by allowing a much more intrusive capability to the IAEA. If Iran had had a military programme they would not have allowed the IAEA to come under this Additional Protocol. They did not have to."
As matters stand, the only major unexplained issue is the extent of Iran's research work on the P-2 centrifuge. Even if the Agency's worst fears are true -- that Iran actually worked on the P-2 design during that time -- this matters only if that knowledge was used to set up another enrichment facility somewhere else in the country. Though this is unlikely, especially given the rather modest achievements on display at Natanz (which itself was supposed to be a "concealed" facility), the Additional Protocol gives the IAEA a broad licence to inspect any facility it wishes. Using those powers -- and relying on intelligence inputs from the US -- Agency inspectors recently visited military sites at Kolahdouz, Lavisan, and Parchin. Nothing was found. If a secret enrichment plant exists, the enforcement of Iran's safeguards and inspection obligations is a far better way to unearth it than the threat of sanctions.
The Persian Puzzle III: The World Must Stand Firm on Diplomacy
When Britain, France, and Germany volunteered last year to try and find a diplomatic alternative to the punitive measures the United States was demanding against Iran, the expectation was that the European-3 would have the skill -- and the gumption -- to craft a solution that would address the legitimate concerns of both Teheran and the 'international community.'
What were these concerns? The world needed assurance that Iran's pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, would not lead to nuclear weapons, and Iran needed assurances that it would not be denied access to civilian technologies or subjected to sanctions or the threat of aggression by the US and Israel, both of which possess nuclear weapons. Accordingly, the Paris Agreement signed by Iran and the E3 on November 15, 2004, spoke of a solution that would "provide objective guarantees that Iran's nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes." In exchange, Iran was to be provided "firm guarantees on nuclear, technological and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues." Given this framework, Iran said its voluntary suspension of enrichment-related and reprocessing activities "will be sustained while negotiations proceed on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements."
Last month, the E3 slammed the door on the possibility of a "mutually acceptable agreement" by presenting proposals that turned the spirit of the Paris accord upside down. Iran was told permanently to abandon its enrichment and reprocessing facilities and heavy water reactor and provide "a binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities other than the construction and operation of light water power and research reactors." In other words, the only possible "objective guarantee" the E3 was prepared to accept against misuse of enrichment facilities was for Iran not to have them at all.
As if this was not provocative enough, the E3's proposals on the guaranteed supply of enriched uranium and security assurances were so vague as to make a mockery of the concepts of "firm guarantees" and "firm commitments." For example, far from committing itself to assist whatever remains of the Iranian nuclear programme once fuel cycle-related activity is excluded, all the E3 was willing to promise was "not to impede participation in open competitive bidding." Not surprisingly, the Iranians said this manifest demonstration of bad faith on the E3's part meant negotiations had come to an end. Accordingly, Teheran ended its voluntary suspension and notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its intention to resume conversion activities at its Esfahan facility. This, in short, is the backstory to the current crisis
In an analysis of the E3 offer, Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) -- a leading Western arms control think-tank -- called it "vague on incentives and heavy on demands" and concluded that the European proposals seemed "designed to fit closely with US requirements." "Even the establishment of a buffer store of nuclear fuel is proposed to be physically located in a third country, rather than in Iran under safeguards," he noted, adding that the E3/EU "do not seem to have had the courage to offer either the substantial, detailed incentives or a creative, compromise solution on enrichment which could reasonably have been expected to receive Iran's endorsement."
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took one step towards a creative solution when he proposed running Iranian enrichment facilities as joint ventures with private and public sector companies from other countries. Though it has been dismissed out of hand, the latest Iranian offer is a variant of a formula that was proposed in February this year by an IAEA expert group on "multilateral approaches" to the nuclear fuel cycle headed by Bruno Pellaud.
The Pellaud committee had been tasked by the IAEA to recommend measures that could bridge the gap between a country's right -- under the NPT -- to the nuclear fuel cycle, and the proliferation concerns that would arise from an increase in the worldwide number of facilities capable of uranium enrichment or plutonium separation. The relevance of this issue to the Iran question hardly needs elaboration.
Of the five proposals made by the committee, three concerned different types of international fuel supply guarantees as an incentive for countries to forswear their own enrichment facilities, and two were based on the notion of shared ownership or control. The latter involved "promoting voluntary conversion of existing facilities to multilateral nuclear approaches (MNAs), and pursuing them as confidence-building measures with the participation of non-nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-weapon states, and non-NPT states" -- precisely the kind of offer Mr. Ahmadinejad made in his speech to the UN General Assembly last week -- or "creating, through voluntary agreements and contracts, multinational, and in particular regional, MNAs for new facilities based on joint ownership, drawing rights or co-management."
Could an MNA provide the international community with the kind of assurances it needs that enriched uranium would not be diverted to a clandestine nuclear weapons programme? While releasing his report earlier this year, Dr. Pellaud said he believed it could. "A joint nuclear facility with multinational staff puts all participants under a greater scrutiny from peers and partners, a fact that strengthens non-proliferation and security ... It's difficult to play games if you have multinationals at a site."
Instead of threatening sanctions, the E3 should engage Iran in a dialogue which can develop the Pellaud-Ahmadinejad proposals to a level where Teheran can provide "objective guarantees" that its programme is entirely peaceful and Europe can give "firm guarantees" and "firm commitments" on the issues which concern the Iranians. The only problem, of course, would be what to do about the Americans.
The fact of the matter is that it is impossible to separate the present "nuclear crisis" from Washington's track record of unremitting hostility towards the Iranian Government. Indeed, any solution that does not bring about a change in US behaviour is unlikely to be acceptable or durable as far as Teheran is concerned. As part of its long-term framework proposals, therefore, the E3 must undertake to get the US to abandon its sanctions against the Iranian oil and gas industry and drop its aim of bringing about 'regime change' in Iran.
Instead of falling in line with Washington's pressure on Iran, Europe and the rest of the world should also ask themselves whether the cause of international peace and security is served by selective concern about `proliferation.' The NPT allows enrichment but Iran is being told it cannot have a fuel cycle. The NPT mandates nuclear disarmament but the US is conducting weapons research and formulating military doctrines that will weaponise space and increase the salience of nuclear weapons in its force posture. Britain and France have no conceivable nuclear adversaries yet continue to deploy nuclear weapons. Countries in West Asia are being told they can never walk out of the NPT but nothing is done to denuclearise Israel. These issues too are very much part of the "nuclear crisis" and it is time something were done to address them.
*Contributing writer Siddharth Varadarajaniddharth is a leading Indian journalist and editor of Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, published by Penguin in 2002 [ISBN 014302901-0], one of the most authentic and detailed accounts of the violence against the Muslims of that province of India. He has reported on the NATO war against Yugoslavia, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Iraq and the crisis in Kashmir. He is deputy editor for The Hindu in which this article first appeared as a series.
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