The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear activities between Iran and its Western interlocutors – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – on Iran’s nuclear activities are under way in New York again with no one optimistic about the immediate outcome. Yet they are important, and both sides very much want agreement. The West is worried about Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran wants to end the crippling economic sanctions, with the threat of Israeli military action hovering in the background.
The basic issue is simple. We, the international community, don’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran says it has no intention of doing so, but some of its activities point in that direction.
The trouble is, the negotiations have always been clouded by suspicions, and this is not surprising. Iran’s leaders have always insisted that they have no ambitions to possess nuclear weapons. But in 2002 it was discovered that Iran had acquired uranium and other materials clandestinely and was carrying out research that may have had military dimensions. Iran is a member of the non-proliferation treaty, and is bound by the treaty to open up its nuclear facilities to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet IAEA inspectors have in the past complained that they have been denied sufficient access to give Iran a clean bill of health, and this issue has gone to the UN Security Council.
In 2011, the IAEA said Iranian scientists were carrying out experiments with high explosives consistent with research on nuclear explosions.
This is why the six powers imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran to try to get it to fall into line and drop moves towards nuclear weaponry. These include a ban on buying Iranian oil and freezing overseas assets.
What now can we reasonably demand of Iran in these negotiations and what can we not reasonably demand?
We cannot demand what Israel and a number of Americans seem to want: that Iran get out of the nuclear fuel business altogether.
Iran is not some small Arab state invented by Europeans in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire. It is a nation of 81 million people with a history and a culture going back millennia. We cannot ask it to forego a technology that plays a major part in the 21st Century world. After all, it was the Shah, constantly invoking the country’s illustrious past, who created the first plan for Iranian nuclear power, in the 1950s, with the blessing and assistance of the Americans.
We can tell Iran to cut back on some of its nuclear activities. During the past months of negotiations, it has made concessions already, and in return some of the sanctions have been lifted.
Most centrally, it has a centrifuge enrichment plant at Natanz, which has been enriching uranium up to 20 percent, meaning that it has increased the proportion of the isotope uranium 235 from 0.7 percent to 20 percent. This brings it within months or even weeks of 90 percent enrichment, the core material for a nuclear bomb. So under pressure, Iran has agreed for now not to enrich any more uranium above five percent, and even to dilute some of the 20 percent enriched that it already possesses.
Iran also has a heavy water nuclear reactor at Arak, which, like any reactor, produces plutonium, an alternative core bomb material. Heavy water reactors of this design are particularly well suited to plutonium production. The plutonium has to be separated out from the waste, which requires a chemical engineering plant. It has agreed not to operate Arak, and not to build a separation plant.
These concessions have a time limit. Iran has one reactor producing power, supplied by Russia. Along with the sale, Russia requires that it supply the fuel for seven years. Iran wants to be able to make its own fuel after that, though few countries with nuclear power plants enrich all their own fuel and it is unclear the Russians will provide the permission and the commercially-sensitive technical specifications to enable the Iranians to do this.
Most importantly, Iran must allow constant and even intrusive IAEA inspection of all their nuclear facilities. In view of past behaviour, we should be firm on this.
The fear among Western observers - and Iran’s neighbours – is that Iran wants to be a threshold state: a country with all the facilities to build nuclear bombs at short notice. Frequent inspections will ensure that if it does make a dash for a bomb, the rest of the world will at least have good notice.
The Israeli Government doesn’t want Iran to have any enrichment capacity. “It’ll be a screwdriver away from a nuclear bomb,” said Prime Minister Netanyahu. Citing one or two questionable Iranian statements about wiping Israel off the map, he has reserved the right to take military action. In fact the assassination of five Iranian scientists working on nuclear technology (no one has admitted responsibility but logic points to the Israel secret service) might be deemed to be military action.
Israel’s worries are not unfounded. Iran has acknowledged that it gave Hamas the rocket technology that enabled it to launch rockets against Israel. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran passing on technology to Hamas, or some other Palestinian group, is an alarming one.
Neither side is monolithic. Westerners were pleased when Hassan Rouhani became Iranian President last year. A former diplomat, he has negotiated with the IAEA on nuclear weapons and is regarded as a pragmatist. But behind him is the Supreme Leader, Ayatolla Khameini, who could gather the forces to veto any agreement he made. It is even possible that people are carrying out work on nuclear weapons without his approval.
In America, several senators have already come out against any compromise that allows Iran to keep some enrichment facilities, perhaps taking their lead from Netanyahu. Any agreement will have to have the approval of the Senate.
The deadline for an agreement is 24th November. The two sides may reach an agreement by then. It is also likely that, following past precedents, that they will reach an interim compromise, and a solution will be put off further. But so will Iranian work that could give it weapon potential.