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Iran's Nuclear Program beyond Bushehr

Interviewee: Emma L. Belcher
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Updated: November 1, 2010

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Iran's fueling this week of the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant has not in itself raised concerns in the West. But it is a reminder of continuing worries about Iran's nuclear program, says Emma Belcher, a CFR nuclear expert. It is still uncertain whether Iran will attend a meeting next month in Vienna called by international powers including the United States, which is reportedly interested in reviving a deal (WSJ) for Iran to send some of its stockpile overseas in exchange for assistance with peaceful nuclear technology. Belcher points out that internal political divisions in Iran, notably between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Parliament, make it difficult to read Iran's intentions or reach an agreement on the nuclear program. She says that the United States should start entertaining the possibility of Iran as a uranium-enriching nation, and that while the "chance of negotiations on a broad set of issues are quite slim . . . that's what might be needed to engage Iran: [to] take away some of the arguments Iran's hardliners have about the United States, and try to bring Iran more into the international community."

Is there anything alarming about the Bushehr plant? Should the West worry it would help Iran develop nuclear weapons?

No. This reactor has been accepted by the United States and the international community as a legitimate reactor for Iran. It's unclear whether or not the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is present as it should be to monitor the injection of the fuel rods. But it's fairly uncontroversial compared with the problems that the international community has with the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran says this will be the first of many nuclear plants to make electricity for their national grid. This is what most countries are trying to do, right?

Right. There's a lot of interest in the use of nuclear technology for energy purposes at the moment, particularly given interest in climate change and looking for alternative sources of energy.

So what is the problem with the Bushehr plant, as far as the West goes?

The problem at the moment is the enrichment taking place at the research reactor in Tehran, where the Iranians are enriching their 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium to high-enriched uranium that it can use to create medical isotopes.

That's enriching the uranium to 20 percent?

Crisis Guide: IranI think it's 19.75. The problem is that Iran says it needs it for this research reactor, yet the international community has the sense that this is really a pretext for enriching for a potential weapons program. And the problem with enrichment is that once you're at roughly 20 percent enrichment, it's not a much bigger effort to enrich to 90 percent, which it would need for weapons capability.

Last fall, the Vienna Group--Russia, Britain, France and the IAEA--worked out a deal in which Iran would trade its 3.5 percent enriched uranium to Russia and get back 20 percent enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor. But when the Iranians brought the deal back to Tehran it was rejected. Why?

There are reports coming out of the Iranian Parliament this past weekend that said the Parliament flatly rejected negotiating any deal that would lead to suspension of enrichment in Iran.

This really illustrates quite well the problem we have in dealing with Iran. There are different sources of power. At the time the agreement was negotiated, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad signaled that Iran would be able to accept this agreement. But when the negotiators brought it back to the Iranian Parliament, the Parliament rejected it. This highlights the problem that Ahmadinejad has had with some of the factions in the Parliament who probably do not want to see him be successful in brokering a deal with the West. They believe that might give him more credibility within Iran, and his opponents don't want to see that.

The EU has proposed another round of talks from November 15-17, but the Iranians have not agreed yet. They seem to have some pre-conditions. What do the Iranians want?

The problem in the first instance is agreeing on what's going to be on the table for negotiations. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, has issued an invitation for discussions, yet has not specified the aim of the negotiation [or] the framework. Iran says it needs to know that before it can decide whether to take part.

Particularly problematic with this potential negotiation is that the positions of both parties are diametrically opposed. The so-called P-5 plus one [the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany] has indicated it would be interested in reviving this deal that was negotiated in October 2009, which would see Iran ship low enriched uranium out of the country for enrichment and fabrication, in exchange for fuel for the Tehran research reactor. This would reduce Iran's stock of fuel that it could rapidly enrich further for weapons use, allowing extra time for diplomacy to take place, including on the issue of enrichment suspension.*

While Iran said last year that it would be open to suspending its enrichment provided it has a guarantee of fuel, it has also said it wants to protect its rights to enrich uranium on its own soil. And there are reports coming out of the Iranian Parliament this past weekend that said the Parliament flatly rejected negotiating any deal that would lead to suspension of enrichment in Iran. So if we're going into these negotiations hoping for some kind of deal that would lead to enrichment talks, we're probably not going to see any progress. It's difficult to say with finality, because we often get mixed signals from Iran. But if you look at the dynamics, the fact that the Parliament has said that they would not support negotiations for suspension even if negotiators are able to negotiate a new deal, and Ahmadinejad says that this deal is probably acceptable, then you're probably going to have the same situation where the Iranian Parliament rejects it.

Does this go back to the elections in June of 2009 when Ahmadinejad was reelected, but many people believe the elections were rigged? Did that election weaken his legitimacy in Iran? Is there a political battle going on within Iran about his political future?

The presidential elections were a setback, particularly to U.S. hopes of trying to negotiate with Iran. And there are definitely people opposed to Ahmadinejad who would like to see him go, but there are also his supporters. So there's a power struggle going on within Iran, which makes trying to deal with it and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement very difficult.

The UN Security Council passed a new set of sanctions against Iran in May. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterizes them as strong sanctions. Is she correct? What's their main thrust?

Yes, they are strong. That has been felt by Iranian businesses, also probably by members of the Parliament, the Revolutionary Guard. However, even though these sanctions are the toughest yet, they still could have been tougher. What we saw in the Security Council was a watering down of the sanctions that the United States would have liked to have seen, because of China and Russia. There are other countries that are definitely helping Iran. Not all countries have imposed such heavy unilateral sanctions as the United States and many European countries. But even though the sanctions might be hurting Iran, I don't think they're having the desired impact on its nuclear program. I don't see them making Iran be more open with the IAEA; Iran is still not providing the IAEA with answers to questions that the IAEA has demanded for several years; they haven't made Iran say it's going to give up its enrichment program.

There are definitely those in Iran who would like a nuclear weapons program, but there are also others in Iran who realize the danger that a weapons program would entail.

So that raises the $64 million question. Does Iran want a nuclear weapons program?

I don't think that decision has been made yet. There are definitely those in Iran who would like a nuclear weapons program, but there are also others in Iran who realize the danger that a weapons program would entail. Iranians realize that if they decide to weaponize, it would most definitely incur an attack from Israel and it would probably lose support from more traditional allies such as Russia and China. What Iran would like to do is to get as far as it can [in] developing its capabilities so it could have a break-out capability if it so desired at some point in the future.

There is danger, however, that we don't know at what point Israel might attack Iran. I don't think Israel would let Iran get to the point where it already has a weapon. An Israeli attack would occur before then. That would be absolutely disastrous. First of all, I don't think it would be able to destroy the Iranian program. The Iranian program is decentralized. If Iran learned anything from the Israeli attack on Osirak [an Iraqi nuclear reactor] in 1981, they've diversified their sources of enriched uranium. It's quite possible that there are additional plants and undeclared facilities that we don't know about, in which case an Israeli attack wouldn't necessarily take those out. An Israeli attack would probably hasten a decision to weaponize.

It's hard to believe that Israel would try to attack Iran without U.S. backing.

I think it would, because Israel sees Iran as an existential threat. There might be some degree of a discussion with the United States before it does something, but ultimately, even if it doesn't have U.S. backing, it could potentially strike Iran because of the way it sees this threat.

When President Obama came into office, he talked about opening a dialogue with Iran. Are chances of a dialogue between the United States and Iran out of the question right now?

The chances are fairly slim. It's sort of a real shame, and I think the 2009 Iranian presidential elections did really make things much more difficult. Obama's approach to engage Iran more fully could have been potentially a very good one. There are indications from Iran that it would like to be more involved in discussions about the region. We did see Iran going to Rome to discuss Afghanistan just last week, and the United States said it didn't have any problem with Iran being there.

The chance of negotiations on a broad set of issues is quite slim, but that's what might be needed to engage Iran: take away some of the arguments Iran's hardliners have about the United States, and try to bring Iran more into the international community.

Can the world live with an Iran that has a nuclear enrichment program for peaceful purposes?

We should start entertaining the possibility of whether or not we could live with a uranium-enriching Iran. One of the discussions recently has been whether we could live with a nuclear- weapons-possessing Iran. If we change that around and say, "Okay, what's the step before?" The step before is potentially allowing Iran to enrich uranium. Now, this has a lot of problems. First, Iran could cheat, as it has in the past. Second, it could send a bad message to the international community, undermining the UN Security Council, which in its resolutions has banned enrichment. We should sit down and seriously think about under what conditions we could allow enrichment. Now, critics will say, well, this is going to undermine the United Nations , it's going to undermine the NPT. I think that the United Nations  is already being sort of undermined with its resolutions that Iran has continuously ignored. If some kind of agreement could be reached, maybe you could get Iran to suspend its enrichment for a certain amount of time as a sign of good faith and willingness to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. It's well worth looking into, because in the absence of any agreement, the alternative is not particularly attractive.

* Editor's Note: This response was changed from the original version to better reflect the proposed nuclear deal.

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