Has the US conceded defeat and
right to uranium enrichment?
The prospects for a nuclear deal
between the US and Iran
are more promising than they have ever been.
If one does come to fruition, the basis of the deal will be US acceptance of Iran’s
right to uranium enrichment on its own soil under international safeguards in
exchange for greater transparency by Iran about its nuclear activities. In other words, the settlement will essentially
be on Iran’s
Iran has been willing
to deal for past decade
President Obama has been pretending
to the world that the possibility of a deal has arisen because of the economic
sanctions being applied to Iran,
sanctions enacted by the US Congress at the behest of the Israel lobby in the US.
According to the White House website, he told Prime Minister Netanyahu
on 30 September 2013 that “because of the extraordinary sanctions that we have
been able to put in place over the last several years, the Iranians are now
prepared, it appears, to negotiate” .
In reality, Iran has been
prepared to negotiate and do a deal along these lines at any time during the
past decade, under Presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad as well as Rouhani. As President Khatami himself wrote in the
Guardian on 23 September 2013:
“The opportunity to diplomatically
resolve differences between Iran
and the west, including the impasse over the nuclear issue, presented itself
many years ago during my presidency. That opportunity was missed, for reasons
that are now public knowledge.” 
The reasons were the unwillingness
of the US to accept that Iran had a
right to uranium enrichment in its own soil like every other party to the nuclear
non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
Back in 2005, when Rouhani was head
of Iran’s nuclear
negotiating team, protracted negotiations took place between Iran and the EU3 (Britain,
France and Germany). During those negotiations, to be precise on
23 March 2005, Javad Zarif (who is now Iranian foreign minister and in charge
of nuclear negotiations) presented proposals 
to EU3 representatives, involving the continuation of uranium enrichment in
Iran but with transparency measures that went far beyond the requirements of
Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
In these proposals, Iran went out
of its way to address international concerns that its enrichment capability
might be used for military purposes. Nevertheless,
the EU3 refused to consider them even as a basis for negotiation - because the US
insisted that Iran
must not have enrichment on its own soil, and the EU3 acquiesced.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian was the
spokesman for the Iranian nuclear negotiating team at the time: in his book The
Iranian Nuclear Crisis, he recalls John Sawers, then head of the British
negotiating team and now head of MI6, telling him: “Washington would never
tolerate the operation of even one centrifuge in Iran” (p173).
Jack Straw was intimately involved
in the 2005 negotiations as Foreign Secretary.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 3 August 2013 that he was
convinced that “had it not been for major problems within the US administration under President Bush, we could
have actually settled the whole Iran
nuclear dossier back in 2005”. In other
words, the blockage to a settlement in 2005 lay in Washington
failure by US
Over the past decade, in an attempt
to force Iran to cease
enrichment, the US has
expended an enormous amount of political capital, dragooning the world into
applying political and economic pressure on Iran. But this effort has failed abysmally: a
decade ago there were no centrifuges enriching uranium in Iran; today,
according to the latest IAEA report ,
nearly 20,000 centrifuges are installed (though not all of them are in
operation). Now, it appears that the US is about to concede defeat and accept that Iran will continue
Certainly, in President Obama’s speech
to the UN General Assembly on 24 September 2013 ,
there was no suggestion that a deal acceptable to the US would require Iran
to cease enrichment and no demand for “concessions” by Iran. He merely said that if negotiations were “to
succeed conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are
transparent and verifiable”.
Like his two predecessors, President
Rouhani has stated over and over again that Iran will not give up its right to
enrichment. So Obama must know that there
is no possibility that Iran
will accept a deal that excludes enrichment.
And he would be very foolish indeed to enter into a process of
negotiation with Iran – and
express hopes for its success – while being unprepared to meet Iran’s bottom
and verifiable actions
As for Iran matching conciliatory words
“by actions that are transparent and verifiable”, it will have no difficulty doing
that. Such an assertion will come as a
surprise to readers who rely for their information on mainstream media, which
over the years have constantly given the impression that Iran regularly
fails to give the IAEA access to its nuclear sites and to give the IAEA vital
information about its nuclear activities.
So what is the current position,
which presumably would have to be improved upon for the US to do a deal? The basic facts are that Iran has declared
to the IAEA 17 nuclear facilities (and 9 other locations where nuclear material
is customarily used). All of them are
open to IAEA inspection in accordance with Iran’s safeguards agreement with
the IAEA and all of them are operating according to
the relevant design specifications provided to the IAEA.
Most important of all, the IAEA has never detected any
diversion of nuclear material from these nuclear facilities for possible
military use elsewhere.
(Iran has not
granted the IAEA’s request for access to the Parchin military site, but it is
not breaking any agreement with the IAEA by refusing to do so – Parchin isn’t a
nuclear site declared to the IAEA.)
So, what additional transparency
measures might Iran offer in
order to secure a deal with the US? The Iranian proposals of 23 March 2005 mentioned
above gives some idea of what might be possible today. They included:
Continuous onsite presence of IAEA inspectors at Iran’s
conversion and enrichment facilities
Measures to greatly reduce the possibility that Iran could
produce either high enriched uranium or plutonium, the fissile material for
conversion of all low enriched uranium to fuel rods for power reactors, to
make further enrichment to high enriched uranium more difficult;
reprocessing of spent fuel rods, thereby precluding the production of
Continued application of the Additional Protocol to its safeguards
agreement with the IAEA and of the updated Subsidiary Arrangements to its
safeguards agreement (see Annex below)
Limits on the level of enrichment and on the volume of enriched uranium
to be produced.
Currently, Iran has two enrichment plants, at Natanz and Fordow, the one
at Natanz being much the larger. The one
at Fordow is underground and less vulnerable to attack from the air. It was built as insurance against the Natanz
plant being bombed by the US
as they have been threatening to do for years.
Iran is enriching uranium up
to 5%, which is appropriate for fuelling nuclear power reactors for generating
electricity, and up to 20% to provide fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, which
is used to produce medical isotopes. It
began enriching to 20% in 2010, after failing to obtain fuel from abroad.
It is generally believed
now has enough 20% enriched uranium to manufacture fuel for the Tehran Research
Reactor for many years. Most likely, Iran has built
up this stockpile to act as a bargaining chip in negotiations.
This 20% stockpile gives
the capability of producing high enriched uranium for a bomb in a relatively
short time, if it decided to do so. The US will want to be able to boast that any deal done
has increased this time dramatically (from months to years, say). The US
will therefore seek to reduce or eliminate this stockpile in the upcoming
negotiations – by offering sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for ceasing
enrichment to 20% and allowing some or all of its existing stockpile to be
shipped to a third country for storage.
It has also been
suggested that Iran
may agree to close its Fordow enrichment plant.
That would require a credible guarantee by the US that the Natanz plant would not be attacked
by the US itself or by Israel.
not building a bomb
In the recent past, President Obama has
regularly given the impression that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear
bomb and that it is in reach of success.
But it would be an act of madness for him to enter into negotiations
with Iran, negotiations that
will most likely end up with his acceptance that Iran
will continue to have uranium enrichment facilities, if he had even a smidgen
of suspicion that Iran
is attempting to build nuclear weapons using enriched uranium. It would be politically disastrous for him if
evidence emerged to the contrary and showed that he had been deceived by the
So, it is certain that Obama does not
really suspect that Iran
is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
This is hardly surprising since his intelligence services have said as
much since 2007. The November 2007 National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated: “We judge with high confidence that
in fall 2003, Tehran
halted its nuclear weapons program” . It added: “We assess with moderate confidence
Tehran had not
restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007…” Year after year since then, the US Director of National Intelligence has reported
to the US Congress his assessment that Iran has not decided to make a
After his telephone conversation
with President Rouhani on 27 September 2013, President Obama made a statement
which included the following:
“Just now, I spoke on the phone with
President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The two of us
discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear
“I do believe that there is a basis
for a resolution. Iran’s
Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.
President Rouhani has indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear
weapons. I have made clear that we respect the right of the Iranian
people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting
its obligations. So the test will be meaningful, transparent, and
verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive
international sanctions that are currently in place.
“Resolving this issue, obviously,
could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States
and the Islamic Republic of Iran -- one based on mutual interests and mutual
respect. It would also help facilitate a better relationship between Iran and the international community, as well as
others in the region -- one that would help the Iranian people fulfill their
extraordinary potential, but also help us to address other concerns that could
bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.”
Would Obama have drawn attention to
the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons if he didn’t take it
seriously? Would he have mentioned
President Rouhani’s remark that “the Islamic Republic will never develop a
nuclear weapon” if he didn’t think it was credible? Would he have decided to enter into
negotiations with Rouhani if he suspected that Rouhani was lying about
this? The answer to all three of those
questions is No: Obama does not believe
is trying to build nuclear weapons.
And neither does Sergey Lavrov:
here’s what he to say about the issue in an interview with RT on 8 October
“As for the statements regarding the
Iranians playing another game and trying to dupe people, I haven't seen any
confirmation by any intelligence – be it Russian, be it European, be it the United States,
be it Mossad, which would categorically say that the Iranian leadership has
taken a political decision to have a military nuclear program. No intelligence
agency on earth was able so far to make this conclusion. And we spoke to our
American colleagues just recently. They agreed that Iran hasn't taken a political
decision to go military in its nuclear program and therefore we all must avoid
statements, which would just antagonize the parties to these negotiations and
concentrate on a chance which we certainly have now.” 
President Obama’s speech to the UN
General Assembly contained one very significant remark in relation to Iran, namely:
“We are not seeking regime change …”
This may well be the first time
since the Islamic revolution that a US president has made a remark to
this effect. Certainly, Obama’s
predecessor never said it. On the
contrary, he gave the impression that he was, at the very least, keeping open the
option of regime change and dismantling the Islamic system of government in Iran.
How else do you explain President
Bush’s reaction to the good news from his intelligence services in November
2007 that Iran
hadn’t had an active nuclear weapons programme since 2003? One would have expected that the President, who claimed to
be dedicated to preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, would have been
delighted to receive intelligence that suggested that Iran had abandoned an
active nuclear weapons programme within a few years of his entering the White
House. But, as he explained
in his memoir Decision Points (pp418–9, Kindle Edition),
instead of being pleased at this good news, he was “angry”.
was angry because, with the publication of the NIE, international pressure on Iran was
relieved and “momentum
for new sanctions faded among the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese”. But:
“The NIE didn’t just undermine
diplomacy. It also tied my hands on the
military side. There were many reasons I was concerned about undertaking a
military strike on Iran
… . But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to
destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had
no active nuclear weapons program?”
he remained committed
to “dealing with Iran”,
he said. He didn’t explain what he meant
by this but he clearly meant something over and above preventing Iran’s
acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Does Obama’s disavowal of “regime
change” represent a real break with the Bush era in respect of Iran? Maybe so.
But he has not yet disavowed the threat or use of force against Iran, nor the
continued interference in its internal affairs.
And he is still pressuring states around the world to apply ferocious
economic sanctions to Iran,
sanctions enacted by the US Congress on the false premise that Iran has a
military nuclear programme – sanctions which cannot be lifted entirely without
the consent of the US Congress, which may not be forthcoming.
In these circumstances, Iran has
reason to be sceptical about whether a nuclear deal with the US is possible, which
preserves its rights under the NPT, let alone a comprehensive rapprochement of
the kind that President Nixon brought about with the People’s Republic of China
Remember that over 30 years ago the
US pledged that “it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States
not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's
internal affairs” . That
was in the Algiers Accords agreed between US and Iran
in February 1980, which led to the release of the US embassy hostages. The US has honoured that more in the
breach than in the observance in the following 30 years.
Annex On the Additional Protocol
& Subsidiary Arrangements
The level of access that Iran grants to
the IAEA today is inferior to that which was in operation in 2003-5 and so is
the level of reporting to the IAEA. In
voluntarily upgraded its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, adding two new elements
that the IAEA developed in the 1990s and invited states to adopt. There was no compulsion on states to adopt
them and Iran
didn’t do so until 2003.
The first element – referred to as
new Subsidiary Arrangements – involved enhanced reporting so that, for example,
states had to inform the IAEA of new nuclear facilities as soon as a decision
to construct was taken, instead of 180 days prior to introducing nuclear fuel
The second – referred to as an
Additional Protocol – involved expanded rights of access for the IAEA to
information and sites including undeclared sites. Adopting this protocol is a voluntary matter
– in 2011, 69 of the 178 states with safeguards agreements in force with the
IAEA hadn’t done so .
After Iran’s nuclear file was referred to
the Security Council, it reverted to the original Subsidiary Arrangements and
ceased to apply the Additional Protocol.
It is certain that Iran would reinstate these in any nuclear deal
with the US (and that the US would insist
that they be reinstated).
10 October 2013