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The Iran Nuclear Problem: The Way Forward

Panel presentation by Gareth Evans, President & CEO, International Crisis Group, to the International Seminar on Iran's Nuclear Program and the IAEA Director-General's Report, School of International Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tehran, 22 November 2007

Let us assume, for the purposes of the present discussion, that the rest of the IAEA work-plan concludes as it has begun with the Director-General's report of 15 November now before the Board of Governors, and that we end up in a few months time with broadly positive reports by the IAEA on all issues relating to Iran’s nuclear activities in the past. There is clearly a temptation here in Tehran, as I have heard in meetings over the last two days, to claim that this will mean that there is no longer an 'Iran nuclear problem'. As to the past, the argument goes, Iran will have been cleared; as to the present, activities are proceeding under basic safeguards and no-one is claiming that any diversion is occurring; and that, when it comes to the future, against this background Iran should simply be treated no differently from any other Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) member.

But there clearly is a continuing problem, and it is important that together we find a solution to it. As the current IAEA report says about Iran's present activities, "the Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran without full implementation of the Additional Protocol". There is a UN Security Council resolution in place, calling for outright suspension of enrichment and related activity. Economic sanctions are in place, with the prospect of more if this resolution is not observed. And there is still strong international suspicion of Iran's intent, based on the problems of the past (the long history of undeclared activity), and the problems continuing to be posed in the present by the many statements of the President on international affairs, and on Israel and the Holocaust in particular, which the international community finds, to put it gently, very disconcerting.

There remains a significant lobby in the U.S. and Israel calling for preventive, or what they argue to be pre-emptive, military strikes. This may be a wholly disproportionate and inappropriate response to such evidence as exists not only about Iran's nuclear weapons capability but its intent, but it needs to be remembered that the history of war is a history of miscalculation. The acknowledged existence of 3000 centrifuges producing enriched uranium – even if at the moment maybe only 20 per cent of them are working – means that Iran may be within a year or two of being able to produce enough fissile material to make one nuclear bomb. And it has to be understood that for Israel, the existence of an overtly politically hostile country in the region possessing just one nuclear weapon is seen as an existential threat.

So the situation cries out for a negotiated solution, which will require a fundamentally new approach. Until now, the international community has tried to draw the red-line short of Iran acquiring enrichment capability. But that has proved unproductive, with Iran strongly resisting any limitation on the rights it claims are available to it under the NPT to acquire peaceful nuclear capability, and with sanctions – even significantly more burdensome ones – not on the face of it likely to undermine this determination.

The International Crisis Group has argued from the outset, and it remains my view, that the most desirable outcome, not only for Iran but for the future health of the NPT regime generally, would be for Iran – while still maintaining its claim of right to acquire full fuel cycle capability – to accept supply of fissile material from an external source rather than manufacturing its own. If that source could be a genuinely international facility, under IAEA supervision, and one from which all new countries acquiring nuclear power facilities in the future were prepared to draw, so much the better from a non-proliferation perspective. But, even if such a facility were available, which it is not and may not ever be, Iran has made clear that it has concerns about guarantees of supply – founded on its experience with nuclear contracts in the past – which would compel it to have a domestic capacity.

It also seems clear that, whatever may be the course of future development of its nuclear energy industry, Iran is determined to prove to itself and the world – for reasons of national pride, and prestige in the region and the wider world – that it has the kind of sophisticated technological capability that enables it to enrich uranium. One might prefer that such talismans were in a less sensitive area – space technology, for example – but it is difficult to imagine now Iran stepping back from this position given the amount of political capital, both domestic and international, that has been invested in it.

So what is the way forward? As Crisis Group has also argued – most fully in our report of 23 February 2006, Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse?, and the case has only become more powerful with the course of events since – if the ideal solution I have just described is simply not achievable in the real world, then the only sensible course is to go back to basics, for the international community to draw a new red-line where it matters most, and for unconditional negotiations to be entered into on that basis. Where that new red-line should be drawn is exactly where it is in fact drawn by the NPT itself: between civilian and military capability. At the heart of the NPT is the obligation of states parties, other than the existing weapons states, not to have a nuclear weapons program: there is no such obligation on states not to have an enrichment program, so long as that program does not produce fissile material of weapons grade.

It seems to Crisis Group that there is a doable deal here, based on the idea of 'delayed limited enrichment' and one that both Iran and even the more nervous members of the wider international community should be able to sign up to. It is one in particular that seems likely to attract whole-hearted buy-in of a kind that is presently lacking in the commitment of China and Russia, not to mention many developing-country members of the NPT. It would be constructed out of the following broad elements:

  • A time-limited pause, built on a 'freeze' for a 'freeze' (in which Iran would add no more centrifuges to its present stock, and the international community would add no more sanctions), to enable serious negotiations to take place.
  • Iran's acceptance of highly intrusive monitoring and inspection regimes, involving not only the application of the Additional Protocol under the NPT, but some other specially negotiated access arrangements ('AP Plus' safeguards).
  • Iran's willingness to spread out over an extended period, in defined stages, its R and D activity and development of industrial scale enrichment activity, with the end result being an industrial scale facility run as consortium with Iran having international commercial partners.
  • These arrangements to be accompanied by incentives (including the staged lifting of sanctions, the normalisation of diplomatic relations and technical support), with a clear understanding about the disincentives (renewed sanctions, and potentially even stronger measures) that would apply if any evidence emerged that Iran was pursuing in any way at all a nuclear weapons program.

The advantages of an outcome of this kind for the international community are evident. It could be much more confident than it can be at the moment that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program of any kind. There would be the prospect of a fully normalised relationship with the West, with Iran becoming a cooperative partner in particular on regional issues of great concern, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon, Hizbollah and Hamas. And there would be many new business opportunities for North American and European traders and investors, presently prohibited or inhibited from dealing with Iran.

Similarly for Iran. It would mean international acceptance of the position for which it has long argued, not only the right to produce peaceful nuclear energy but (so long at least as it remains in good standing under the NPT) to enrich. It would involve the capacity to break out from the country’s present diplomatic isolation. It would avoid any risk of military conflict (which remains a real risk, despite the confidence in some quarters that any strike by the U.S. or Israel would be unthinkable). And it would avoid the further economic harm that is perfectly capable of being done by further, more stringent, sanctions – whether or not applied through the Security Council – and particularly those working through the banking and financial systems. The scale of that further potential economic damage should not be underestimated.

I certainly do not underestimate the difficulty of the various parties getting out of the holes they have dug for themselves as this issue has evolved so far. There are obvious difficulties in major concessions being made in a U.S. election year; the UN Security Council resolutions will require some reinterpretation of what might be encompassed by the notion of 'suspension'; and plenty of voices will be heard to say in Iran that there should be no 'customised' regime for this country, which should be treated like any other NPT member.

But a very good start would be made to the ice-breaking if the EU negotiating team were, at the next round of scheduled discussions, to go a step further than they have so far been prepared to, and offer not only a 'freeze' for a 'freeze' to allow serious negotiations to commence, but to actually spell out a specific negotiating scenario – the end-point of which could be, subject to multiple restrictive conditions, acceptance of industrial scale enrichment capability. With the possibility of that end point being acknowledged – but its reality of course not at this stage being conceded – it does seem that there would be a foundation for productive negotiations, and one moreover absolutely consistent with the terms of the NPT, which until now has been wholly absent.

It is important, as I indicated at the outset, to recognise that the present IAEA report, assuming (not unreasonably, given that the P1/P2 issue addressed here was probably the most difficult matter to resolve) its on-balance positive finding is replicated in those yet to come in the 'outstanding issues' series, will not close off the Iran nuclear issue. It would be wishful thinking in Iran to believe so, given the long and complex history of this subject and the emotions it rouses. But it does create the opportunity for a new beginning.

A case can undoubtedly be made for a wholly new disarmament and non-proliferation treaty regime which does not contain some of the discriminatory provisions, unclear obligations, and inadequate treatment of the whole fissile material issue which characterise the present one. But for the foreseeable future the NPT is all that we have, and its distinction between the civilian and military use of nuclear energy remains profoundly important. It is that on which all of us should focus single-mindedly as we try to resolve the Iran nuclear issue.

And if it happens to be argued, here in Tehran, that the kind of solution I have proposed is unacceptable in principle to Iran right at the threshold because it involves 'exceptionalism' of the very kind that Iran has been fighting against in insisting on its right to enrich, then I hope that – in finest diplomatic negotiating fashion – we can take this simply as the first word, not the last!