Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Time is Running Out to Halt Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

Mark Fitzpatrick, The Financial Times:
Iran’s defiant decision to resume what it calls “research” into nuclear enrichment spells the end of the negotiation strategy the Europeans have so persistently pursued for two and a half years. Having bent over backwards to pursue every possible compromise and receiving nothing for their efforts, the Europeans should persuade the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to report immediately Iran’s transgressions to the United Nations Security Council. READ MORE

The “research” in question involves testing a small number of centrifuges by spinning them at high speed with gaseous uranium, thereby enriching the concentration of the radioactive isotope, the crucial technology for making a nuclear weapon. The Europeans have drawn a firm red line at this process of uranium enrichment, which they cannot accept. Otherwise, Iran will be on the road to what the Israeli government calls the “point of no return” – when Iran has mastered the centrifuge technology and has sufficient uranium hexafluoride to enrich for a nuclear weapon. Now is the time for the world to agree on a strategy to preclude Iran from reaching that point.

There is no justification for allowing Iran to become “a little bit pregnant” with enrichment. Enriching uranium in even one centrifuge allows Iran to learn the difficult art of balancing the spinning machine. Spinning a score of centrifuges in a cascade allows Iran to test its domestically manufactured parts before it begins making more. Once Iran masters the enrichment technology, it can replicate cascades in covert facilities. Any condoned programme makes the job of the IAEA much more difficult in terms of determining where an overt programme stops and a covert one begins.

Just two weeks ago, Iran stirred hopes for a compromise by saying it would “seriously consider” Russia’s face-saving proposal for a joint venture to enrich uranium for fuel for Iran’s Bushehr reactor. This would have been the basis for resuming negotiations with the so-called EU3 of Britain, France and Germany. Iran’s intentions, however, were simply to drag out diplomacy in order to avoid sanctions while incrementally moving toward acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability.

Under Russia’s proposal, Iran could continue the preliminary work of producing uranium hexafluoride (a gas­eous form of natural uranium), but enrichment itself would take place in Russia. As long as the joint venture allowed no technology transfer, the proposal would satisfy the EU3’s bottom line that Iran should not have the capacity to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders will not accept this condition, however, for the same reason Europe must insist on it – because they want the enrichment capability. On this point, the hardliners reflect a long-standing Iranian position. Under the Shah, Iran rejected a similar joint venture proposed by France that walled off technology transfer. Iran insists that technology transfer has to be part of the Russian proposal.

US hardliners have long predicted that the EU3’s engagement strategy would fail. It is ironic that the crisis comes at a time when the US is fully supportive of this strategy. America’s support helps the Europeans make the case to the rest of the world that they have tried every diplomatic option to find a solution before pursuing the UN Security Council’s enforcement powers.

The world is not saying Iran cannot enjoy its inalienable right to civilian nuclear energy. Even President George W. Bush has acknowledged this right. The issue is only the fuel-cycle technology that can be used to make nuclear weapons. Neither is Iran being asked to forgo this technology forever. The EU3 offered in August last year to review the suspension at some future date when Iran had regained the world’s confidence in its peaceful intentions.

The EU3 had been hoping to persuade Iran to prolong the suspension of enrichment, one day at a time if necessary, while relying on intelligence collection and IAEA inspections to detect any undeclared enrichment activity. As long as Iran was not enriching uranium (nor reprocessing plutonium – a more distant technology for Iran) it could not build a bomb. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that if Iran threw caution to the wind and went ahead with an enrichment programme, it could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon by the end of the decade at the earliest. The trick for the European negotiations was to keep that five-year deadline a rolling estimate. The clock now starts ticking.

The writer is senior fellow for non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies