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Finding Nuclear Sanity: West Could Guide Iran’s Nuclear Energy Research

Authors: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, and Jack Boureston, Managing Director, FirstWatch International
August 29, 2005
Defense News


Repeated pressure from the United States and the European Union has not stopped Iran from exercising its right to perform peaceful nuclear activities.

Frequently, the United States has threatened Iran with U.N. Security Council action. However, it is likely that two Security Council members with veto power would not back the United States. China buys close to one-sixth of its oil from Iran and seeks to make further investments in Iranian oilfields. Russia would stand to lose substantial profit from helping Iran develop its commercial nuclear and other industries if the Security Council sanctioned Iran.

Although President Bush recently warned on Israeli television that military force is an option, it will not end Iran’s nuclear program and risks unleashing devastating unintended consequences. With Iranian ties to jihadist groups, for example, a military strike against Iran could unleash widespread terrorist attacks against American interests.

Moreover, Iran has reportedly dispersed its nuclear facilities and hardened some of the most critical against attack. Consequently, it is unlikely that U.S. military planners could reliably target and destroy all relevant facilities.

Additionally, the EU-3 partners of Britain, France, and Germany appear to have little or no inclination to use military force against Iran. Recently, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opened his re-election campaign with a statement that rejects the use of military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Last, and most important, while the United States does not like to admit it, Iran has the legal right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue a peaceful nuclear program. Iranian leaders have adamantly opposed relinquishing that sovereign right, despite the incentives proposed by the EU-3 to permanently halt Iran’s nuclear activities. The EU-3 negotiations have at most brought about a temporary suspension of these activities.

Iran’s recent work on converting uranium to a gaseous compound—a process which in itself would not result in bomb-usable material—signals that Iranian patience with the slow pace of the negotiations is running thin. But so far, the Iranians do not appear to want to cross a red line, as would be indicated if they began to enrich uranium – an activity that could result in fissile material for making reactor fuel or building nuclear bombs.

During recent negotiations, however, Iran has made clear its intent to eventually enrich uranium. But serious technical problems with both Iran’s uranium conversion and enrichment facilities indicate that Iran is a long way from being able to make either reactor fuel or nuclear bomb material. Regardless of Iran’s intentions of making its own fuel, in the near term it will need an outside supply to run its only operational reactor, the Bushehr nuclear plant.

While the EU-3 has offered to support a guaranteed supply of reactor fuel to Iran as needed at a fair price, this alone is not sufficient to gain Iran’s acceptance and continued voluntary freeze of its indigenous fuel production activities. In parallel, in the near term, Iran has proposed to continue research into uranium enrichment with the long term objective of building a commercial-scale enrichment plant.

However, the EU-3 and the United States both find this proposal unacceptable because it would lead to Iran developing a capability to make weapons-usable nuclear material. While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has frequently inspected Iran’s nuclear facilities, the current inspection system as implemented might not provide a timely enough warning of diversion of nuclear material from an Iranian enrichment facility.

What is needed is a means to increase confidence that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, while ensuring that its right to use nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes is not inhibited. One path towards breaking the current impasse with Iran might be for the United States to shift its policy and accept Iran’s commitment to an indigenous peaceful nuclear capability.

The United States could collaborate with Iran by facilitating access to the most proliferation-resistant nuclear technologies. These may deter Iran from using nuclear know-how for military purposes. Such access should be contingent on Iran agreeing to serve as a testing site for the development of more rigorous nuclear safeguards and improved verification technologies.

Although Iran has not answered all outstanding questions about its nuclear program, it has reluctantly opened its declared nuclear facilities to repeated IAEA inspections during the last few years. And in negotiations with the European Union, it has indicated its interest in enacting objective guarantees to demonstrate that its nuclear program will remain peaceful.

To break the cycle of repeated ineffective threats from all sides, it is time to test whether Iran, the United States, and the European Union can work together to preserve Iran’s rights and to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

Jack Boureston is managing director of FirstWatch International, a private weapons of mass destruction proliferation research group in Monterey, California. Charles D. Ferguson is a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism.

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