Success in Baghdad?

in Program

By Barry Blechman – The relative success of the first round of talks on Iran’s
nuclear activities in Istanbul last month and the apparent progress being made
in Vienna on establishing a procedure to clarify the IAEA’s questions about Iran’s
nuclear-related experiments are good signs, but success is far from guaranteed
in the Baghdad round starting on May 23rd.   Progress will only come step-by-step, and
there may be detours and missteps along the way.  The outlook is more favorable, however, than
it has been for many years. The obvious first-step concerns Iran’s stocks of uranium
enriched to 20 percent, ostensibly to fuel Tehran’s research/medical
reactor.  Enriching uranium to 20 percent
U-235 greatly reduces the time necessary to bring it up to weapons-grade and
thus, understandably worries nations who fear Iran’s ambitions. 

The obvious deal, one which actually was
struck several years ago and subsequently renounced, would be for Iran to agree
to stop enriching to the 20 percent level and to ship its current stocks out of
the country.  IAEA inspections, already conducted
routinely, could confirm that Iran was living up to its end of the deal.  In exchange, the US and its allies would
supply the necessary fuel rods for the Tehran reactor and guarantee their
timely replacement. (Iran apparently cannot fabricate the fuel rods in any
event, so this would be an important gain for Iran’s health needs.)  As a sweetener, the European Union might also
postpone implementation of its planned cut-off of insurance on Iranian oil tankers,
pending further progress in the talks.

Neither side would likely commit to any first-step, however,
without at least an understanding of where the process might lead.  They don’t have to work out a detailed roadmap
up front, but some discussion of next possible steps will be necessary.  And here comes the difficult part. 

Some in the West argue that Iran must renounce all uranium
enrichment.  They maintain that given
Iran’s questionable record of compliance with IAEA safeguards, it would be too
easy otherwise for the country at some point to crank up its enrichment
machinery and sprint to a bomb.  Iran,
however, rightfully maintains that as a non-weapons signatory to the Non-proliferation
Treaty, it is entitled to utilize nuclear materials for peaceful purposes, and
producing uranium enriched to the level required by power reactors (3.5
percent) is a central element in maintaining an independent nuclear cycle.   While many of us would prefer that nations
purchased power-grade uranium from multinational consortia, rather than
producing it themselves, there is no question that Iran’s legal position is
correct – up to a point.

The point, and the logical compromise, is that Iran should
of course be permitted to exercise all its right under the NPT, including being
allowed to enrich uranium to the level, and
to the amounts,
consistent with the requirements of its current and
near-term prospective peaceful nuclear infrastructure.  Although Iran has announced ambitious plans
for nuclear power plants, they are many, many years from implementation.  In the meantime, Iran’s needs for uranium are
quite modest and the stocks already produced are surely sufficient to fulfill
them.  Consequently, enrichment should be
suspended and the stocks safeguarded by the IAEA, with the complete
understanding of the international community that as Iran’s nuclear power needs
grow, it will resume its enrichment of uranium for these peaceful purposes.  Again, regular IAEA inspections would be able
to verify compliance with such an agreement.

If Iran is willing to make this compromise, which preserves
its rights but alleviates others’ concerns, the US and its allies should be
willing to lay out a program for the coincident, gradual alleviation of the
economic pressures that have been placed on Iran through sanctions and other
means.  Other issues, such as
implementation of Iran’s “Additional Protocol” to its Safeguards Agreement with
the IAEA will need to be settled, but the compromise on Iran’s right to enrich
uranium consistent with the needs of its nuclear power industry is the keystone
to putting the question of Iran’s nuclear weapons on the track to peaceful

Photo Credit: IAEA,

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