30 Nov 2009
Iran's Nuclear Smoke and Mirrors
The Iranian government has dramatically upped the ante in the diplomatic battle over its nuclear program, pledging to build 10 new enrichment facilities. Could this seeming escalation in fact mask progress towards a staggered denouement? Dr Dominic Moran writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch
Iran announced plans for the construction of the new uranium processing facilities on Sunday, with state television revealing that sites for five plants had already been selected and that construction should begin within two months.
While disturbing in light of past UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions demanding Iran halt enrichment work, and recent revelations regarding the existence of a small enrichment facility at a Revolutionary Guards base near Qom, it appears likely that Sunday's announcement is at least partially a bluff.
Nonetheless, the decision is indicative of a marked escalation of tensions following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors' censure of Iran.
In a significant fillip for US-led efforts to build diplomatic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, Russia and China signed on to Friday's IAEA board resolution demanding that Tehran end construction work at the Qom facility.
Board members also expressed their "serious concern" at the fact Iran has yet to clarify that its program does not have military dimensions. The resolution was the first of its kind since 2006.
Dr Emily Landau, from Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies, told ISN Security Watch, "I would say that the real proof of the importance of this resolution will be in the next steps that we see."
Referring to the resolution, she said: "Probably the most important [aspect] is the fact that the construction at Qom is targeted specifically, and Iran is urged to comply with its obligations and suspend construction." Landau added that the fact Iran was called upon to reveal any construction plans for future facilities was also of import.
However, the IAEA resolution did not include a provision finding Iran in formal non-compliance with its nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments, somewhat blunting the potential for further action by the UNSC.
China and Russia look unlikely to support the extension of current UN-imposed sanctions on Iran. Nonetheless, the resolution was an important signal of P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UNSC and Germany) unanimity at a time when an IAEA-proffered uranium export-import deal remains on the table
Under the terms of the draft IAEA uranium pact, Iran would export around 75 percent of its current low enriched uranium (LEU) stocks for further enrichment in Russia and shaping into fuel rods in France. The rods, or others fabricated using Russian uranium, would then be utilized in the Tehran Research Reactor to produce medical isotopes.
The agreement is designed more as a stopgap measure, providing time for a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear file, than as a resolution of the enrichment issue, and would do little to address wider proliferation concerns.
There have been a variety of scenarios for a full compromise deal bandied about in recent years. Some have tended to focus on the strengthening of Iranian commitments to IAEA oversight and possible foreign involvement in the development of a quasi-autonomous fuel production capacity in Iran, supplemented by guaranteed supplies from an international nuclear fuel bank.
Any final agreement on enrichment, and wider Iranian compliance with IAEA demands regarding program opacity and reporting on past work, will likely see the further strengthening of an incentives package offered by then EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Tehran's initially positive response to the IAEA's draft LEU export-import offer - which was probably the best Iran could have hoped for in light of the discovery of the Qom plant - appeared to quickly founder in the face of significant domestic political opprobrium.
Haifa University's Dr Soli Shahvar told ISN Security Watch that the Iranian political establishment has been fragmented by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decision to take sides in what he says is a "power struggle within the ruling regime in Iran."
"Everything becomes a mini battle within the grand battle between the factions," he said, adding, "In this respect the nuclear issue has become part of the [factional] debate."
Landau does not believe that the domestic political situation is the key factor informing Iranian negotiating tactics: "That is a much less important factor in explaining Iran’s answer [to the IAEA LEU offer] than that this is a wait and see tactic that we have seen so many times in the past."
The hardening of the official Iranian stance on the uranium agreement, through the demand that any fuel swap be conducted on Iranian territory, was a predictable delaying move, bluntly rejected by outgoing IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei last week.
Responding to Iran's seeming rejection of the IAEA offer, ElBaradei said Thursday that his efforts to confirm the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program "had reached a dead end."
ElBaradei's unusually blunt assessment came just before his 12-year stint as agency head ended. Nevertheless, it remains important, establishing a more pugnacious stance that his successor, Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano, will be under intense pressure to maintain.
Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, warned on Sunday that his country could reduce its voluntary cooperation with the IAEA in protest at Fridays' board resolution, and calls have again been heard from some Iranian parliamentarians for the Islamic Republic to withdraw from the NPT.
It appears likely that any shift in overt Iranian compliance with its NPT commitments would be both short-lived and pragmatically inconsequential.
Tehran has little wiggle room here, with any move to take an oppositional stance on treaty commitments only likely to promote the case that Iran is seeking to hide elements of its nuclear program.
It also seem extremely unlikely that Iran would choose to leave the NPT, where its positions on nuclear development enjoy significant support, as this would effectively isolate the Iranian program and again raise the specter of military strikes on its atomic facilities.
Indeed, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration's initially positive approach to the IAEA LEU export-import pact, while undoubtedly conforming to a past pattern of negotiating behavior, could constitute a sign that Tehran is ultimately looking to cash its chips and move towards a compromise deal.
Therein, Iran may look to maintain a hidden liminal weapons development capacity while securing its nuclear energy program through foreign involvement in enrichment work and greater program opacity.
With the May 2010 NPT Review Conference unlikely to lead to the significant strengthening of the IAEA inspection regime, this is hardly an ideal scenario.
Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.
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