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The Iranian Nuclear Challenge

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to The Greens/European Free Alliance Conference on Iran: Alternatives to Escalation, European Parliament, Brussels, 4 July 2007

The Urgent Need to Meet the Nuclear Challenge

Over the last decade, there has been a serious, and dangerous, loss of momentum and direction in disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. Stocks of nuclear weapons held by the nuclear weapons states remain extraordinarily and alarmingly high - some 30,000 in all, of which around 12,000 are still actively deployed - with no serious moves in sight to diminish them significantly, and Britain’s apparent determination to replace the Trident system indicating that it is no more serious than any of the other weapons states about moving to meet their own side of the grand NPT bargain, to move steadily toward absolute nuclear disarmament.

India and Pakistan have joined the ranks of nuclear weapons states, and like Israel doing so outside the framework of the NPT; North Korea, after building its capability while in the NPT and subject to its constraints, has withdrawn from the treaty, and now has the fissile material to manufacture perhaps a dozen nuclear weapons. Treaty making and implementation has stalled and there is fear of a new wave of proliferation, with Iran widely seen (accurately or otherwise) as being in the vanguard: determined to acquire full fuel cycle capability, as it is technically able to do while remaining a member in good standing of the NPT, and clearly wanting, at the very least, to keep open the option of stepping across the line out of the NPT and into weaponisation when it has the capacity to do so, precipitating in the process a rush by others in the region to follow suit.

2005 saw two loud wake-up calls in the failure of the NPT Review Conference, and the inability of the World Summit in September to agree on a single line about any WMD issue – despite the recommendations coming to it from the High Level Panel (of which I was a member) and many others to commit to a raft of measures designed to give the NPT and associated measures new life and teeth ( including, e.g., attaching some penalties to withdrawal from the Treaty, having stronger verification measures, developing international means for guaranteeing the external supply of fissile material to civilian users; and putting some real heat on the nuclear weapons states to get serious about disarmament).

We know what needs to be done. The Blix Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, which reported last year (and of which I was also a member) has set out the agenda as clearly as it has ever been done, grouping its recommendations into four sets:

  • First, agree on general principles of action – in particular that disarmament and non-proliferation are best pursued through a cooperative rules-based international order, applied and enforced not unilaterally but through effective multilateral institutions; and that states, individually and collectively, should consistently pursue policies designed to ensure that no state feels a need to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
  • Second, work toward outlawing all weapons of mass destruction once and for all – including through the progressive extension of nuclear weapons free zones (most urgently in the Middle East). The general objective here is not as impossibly romantic as it seems to a lot of people (as even extreme realists like Henry Kissinger now seem prepared to acknowledge). As the Blix Commission put it in two of the most important passages in the whole report,

    - Weapons of mass destruction cannot be uninvented. But they can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable. Compliance, verification and enforcement rules can, with the requisite will, be effectively applied.

    and, repeating the mantra first spelt out in the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons a decade earlier:

    - So long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, there is a high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. And any such use would be catastrophic.
  • Third, reduce the danger of present arsenals – in particular through better security of stockpiles; diminishing the role of nuclear weapons by no-first-use pledges, assurances not to use them against non-nuclear weapons states, and by not developing nuclear weapons for new tasks; and prohibiting the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, and phasing out the production of highly-enriched uranium.
  • Fourth, prevent a new wave of proliferation - above all by reviving the fundamental commitments of all NPT parties: the five nuclear weapon states parties to negotiate towards nuclear disarmament and the non-nuclear weapon states, while retaining the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, and in particular to explore international arrangements for an assurance of supply of enriched uranium fuel, and for the disposal of spent fuel, to reduce incentives for national facilities and diminish proliferation risks.

Of course the Blix Commission was not unconscious of the argument – very familiar to a Greens audience - that the ‘atoms for peace’ principle is unsustainable, and that civil nuclear energy production (whatever its superficial attractions in an age of anxiety about the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming) inevitably will reinforce and make ever harder to control the move toward wider nuclear weapons possession.

But we felt that recognizing and accommodating the demand for civilian nuclear capability was the only possible way the NPT could be held together – and, as it must be, strengthened – in the present environment , and that it would be Quixotic in the extreme to tilt at this windmill while trying to hold together a broad based international consensus in favour of drawing an absolute red line against anything in the nature of weaponisation.

Alternatives to Domestic Fissile Material Production within the NPT System

Leaving aside for present purposes the position of those who are not prepared to support any role for any kind of civil nuclear energy, the optimal non-proliferation solution would be for all fissile material production, and all spent fuel disposal, to be internationalized and fully controlled so as to make impossible any diversion for weapons production purposes.

This remains a dream for many of us, and innumerable efforts have been made over the years, in the IAEA and elsewhere, to get a serious debate started and serious steps put in train, to achieve just that - and other speakers on this panel will no doubt be referring to that effort. Let me refer briefly to just two of the proposals which have been floated.

International Fuel Bank

Under one of them there would be a moratorium on the construction of new facilities for the enrichment of uranium or reprocessing to allow time for a scheme to be worked out for the multinational control of all such facilities, wherever located.

States complying with non-proliferation commitments would be then able to turn to an international fuel bank, assured that they could buy low-enriched nuclear fuel at market prices. There would be an international framework of agreed rules in which both producers and consumers would have a say on rights of purchase.

Many problems still have to be overcome, however, before this could be workable, for example:

- the unresolved question (certainly asked by Iran and others) as to who exactly would decide whether a country is fulfilling its non-proliferation commitments and thus be entitled to purchase enriched uranium); and

- the fact that there has been no sign of US buy in, not least because it has plans for additional capacity and doesn’t like moratorium, and because it is not happy to even contemplate the internationalisation of its own production. (See WMDC Report, pp 74-5)

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

Another proposal – ‘GNEP’ - has been advanced by the US itself last year and discussed with governments in London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing New Delhi and Tokyo. Under it a small number of states would produce enriched uranium and ‘lease’ it to states, and then take back the spent fuel – which would then be reprocessed by a new process which would recover uranium and plutonium in a form that would be unusable in weapons, and could be used in special reactors that would be built only in these fuel-producing states, with a drastically smaller remaining volume of waste. The general idea is to encourage rather than oblige other states to use this system – though if they joined in they would have to undertake to do no enrichment or reprocessing of their own.

There are technical doubts as to whether the proposed new recovery process will work, and political doubts as to whether the return of spent fuel to the ‘leasing’ states will prove acceptable, but the basic problem with this approach is that it adds a visible new inequality – between fuel cycle and user states – to the existing NPT inequality between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states. The deeper the cooperation between the fuel cycle states the more it would look like a cartel of the powerful. (See WMDC Report pp 75-6).

The Iran Impasse and How to Get Out of It

It is obvious that neither the international fuel bank nor GNEP solutions are going to be available within any kind of time frame that could possibly help resolve the current Iran problem – and that neither of them, even a fully internationalised fuel bank, is likely to be particularly attractive to Tehran anyway.

Nor does it appear that Iran is in any kind of mood to accept a ‘guaranteed’ supply from some other particular offshore source, along the lines proposed by Russia, in return for foregoing its fuel-cycle ambitions and agreeing to indefinitely relinquish whatever right as it has under the NPT to enrich uranium – even in the context of all the sanctions and threatened sanctions that are now on the table, and incentives (including restored relations with the US) that could be put back on the table.

Some are confident that sanctions – particularly the backdoor variety that the US, and Europeans under American pressure, are capable of applying through the banking system, to choke off both trade and investment finance - will ultimately force the Iranians to cave in, but that is not a confidence that we in the International Crisis Group share. Our reading is that, while the potential impact of these kind of measures can never be understated (and were probably decisive, e.g., in South Africa against the apartheid regime) in Iran just too many factors are pulling the other way, including,

- Iran’s sense of national pride, consciousness of its history, and deeply rooted ideology of independence, which cuts across other internal political and cultural divisions, and makes it deeply reluctant to be seen to be pushed around

- Associated with this the sense that Iran is a major, not minor, league player, not least in its own region, and entitled to have the kind of capability that goes with that

- The widespread sense that the West is trying to prevent Iran from having access to scientific progress, patronising it, to keep it in dependence and tutelage

- The sense that the international community’s heart is not really in a full-scale sanctions squeeze – that Russia (although it has gone along with the UNSC so far), China and the great majority of NPT countries don’t really believe that they are at present acting outside the letter or even spirit of the NPT in rushing to acquire full fuel-cycle capability.

Add to all that the Iranians’ current perception that military strike action is a non-starter in the present environment - with, except for a few fringe dwellers, the clear thinking in both the US and Israel that the negatives would far outweigh the positives - and you have all the makings of a full-scale impasse.

Crisis Group has long been arguing that a new approach is needed which goes back to basics – which focuses on strategy rather than immediate tactics - by redrawing the red line.

What matters, from a non-proliferation perspective, is not whether Iran has full enrichment capability, but nuclear weapons. What should ultimately concern Israel, Iran’s neighbours, and a world deeply anxious to avoid further nuclear breakout, is not whether Iran has the capacity to make weapons-grade uranium, but whether it actually makes it and puts it into deliverable bombs. While it may well be too late to stop Iran acquiring its own fissile material, and the technological capacity to enrich it to weapons grade, it is certainly not too late to halt it acquiring nuclear weapons.

To achieve this will require a different diplomatic strategy from that presently favoured by the EU and US. It means abandoning the ‘zero enrichment’ goal in favour of a ‘delayed limited enrichment’ plan. Under this:

  • the wider international community would explicitly accept that Iran can enrich domestically for peaceful nuclear energy purposes;
  • in return Iran would agree to phasing in over an extended period of years that enrichment program, with major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a very highly intrusive inspections regime – not just the Additional Protocol to which it has already signed up, which is significantly more intrusive than the basic safeguards regime, but (because of the doubts which have arisen – and are in fact widely shared by other NPT parties - about its reporting lapses and general lack of transparency in the past) specially negotiated ‘Additional Protocol Plus’ measures which would enable inspectors to have a rather more exact knowledge of what Iran was doing across a broader range of areas relevant to weapons capability; and
  • there would be both incentives – in the form of security guarantees, progressive lifting of existing sanctions, moves toward diplomatic normalisation and the like – and strong disincentives to ensure that the agreement stuck. In particular, Iran would be disciplined by knowing that if at any stage it made any move at all toward weaponisation – through the production of weapons-grade fissile material, or any hardware in which to put it – all hell would break loose. A full range of economic sanctions would take immediate effect (including finance and investment sanctions fully supported by the Europeans as well as the US), and military options would not be off the table.

There are three advantages to this strategic approach, if the U.S. and EU could swallow their reservations:

  • It is not inconsistent with what we know about Iran’s actual nuclear intentions. While there is every reason to believe that right across the political and social spectrum there is as an absolute determination to acquire full fuel cycle capability – and as such to be seen as being in the league of those countries capable of becoming nuclear weapons states if they so chose - there is also every reason to believe that no decision has been made to acquire weapons, and there is a very clear understanding of the huge risks that Iran would be running by so doing: not only the possibility of the balance of calculation changing toward a military strike in the US and Israel, but the real prospect of the Sunni neighbourhood reacting in kind.
  • The approach proposed would spread the process out over time. If made clear to the Iranians, it would make much more achievable what has so far been unachievable, viz a suspension right now of enrichment-related activity right now to enable detailed negotiations to take place. And not only would those negotiations themselves take time, they would involve the phasing in over time of the various levels of capacity involved. And this in turn would allow time and space for a more moderate political dynamic to take hold in Iran. The internal political scene is multi-textured, multi-layered and always hard to read and predict, but if a new environment can be created of engagement and cooperation with the West, rather than demonisation and isolation by it, there are many analysts inside and outside the country who believe that a completely different mood than that now represented by Ahmadi-nejad is there for the taking, with all that flows from that in terms of security cooperation.
  • But the greatest benefit is that it would command genuinely universal buy-in, first from all those NPT signatories who are wedded to the basic NPT bargain and presently totally reluctant to acknowledge any limitation on full ‘peaceful use’ capability, and, secondly, and very importantly, from Russia and China, who are likely to go on being extremely reluctant Security Council enforcers of the present ‘zero enrichment’ strategy, but who are totally willing to be very tough indeed when it comes to Iran actually weaponising, with all that that implies for destabilising the neighbourhood and changing global power balances.

Crisis Group published an early version of this plan 18 months ago, and we know from many consultations since that it has extremely wide appeal as a fallback if the present diplomatic strategy runs into the sand, as now seems very likely.

The obvious downside from the West’s point of view – which will be repeated over and over as this debate continues - is that, although stretching out the process, ‘delayed limited enrichment’ would permit Tehran to eventually achieve full fuel cycle capability, with the risk in turn of weapons acquisition when that happens. But the reality of Iran having that choice, sooner rather than later, and with minimal inspection and supervision along the way, now stares us in the face.

Nobody wants to see the present diplomatic impasse slide into the kind of situation where the West’s unwillingness to compromise strengthens its opponent’s extremists to the point that their country walks away from the NPT, shrugs off any kind of international monitoring, produces a large stock of weapons-grade material and ultimately takes the risk of building its own bomb. We have been there and done that with North Korea. Although there has at last been a major breakthrough in the six party talks, it is still going to be nightmarishly difficult to wholly recover the ground which has been lost to Pyongyang through earlier Western obduracy.

If the present diplomatic strategy is going nowhere but downhill, the only rational response is a new one which may be ideal for no-one but has attractions for everyone. If all diplomacy fails, the alternative course of military action is simply too horrible to contemplate.