Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

A uranium enrichment deal with Iran?

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Update from AIJAC

October 23, 2009
Number 10/09 #07


There are reports that Iran has accepted in principle a proposed deal to send around 75% of its uranium to Russia and France to be processed - after a few days of apparently problematic negotiations - see here and here.  This Update looks at the implications of the agreement being negotiated.

First up, academic, author and recent visitor to Australia Emmanuele Ottolenghi examines some potential problems with the deal if it goes ahead - (though this is still unclear and Ottolenghi is sceptical it will).  He raises five objections to the deal as constituted - including the lack of any promise Iran will stop violating binding UN Security Council resolutions by enriching uranium, the failure to deal with Iran's undeclared nuclear sites and the failure to insist on compliance with other IAEA requirements Iran is violating. For Ottolenghi's complete exploration of all these problems, CLICK HERE. Also discussing the potential costs of the proposed deal, as well as some advantages, is Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Next up, Israeli security columnist Yossi Melman enunciates the majority view in the Israel media - namely, that the agreement amounts to a victory for Teheran, lowering the pressure for sanctions or military action over coming months. However, Melman does point to some positive implications from the agreement - particularly that Iran is vulnerable to pressure on the nuclear issue. He also sees it as positive that there is no agreement to lift existing sanctions as part of the agreement. For Melman's full argument, CLICK HERE. Some other Israeli comments on the agreement come from Amos Harel, also of Haaretz, and Alex Fishman of Yediot Ahronot. Also critical of the deal was Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

Finally, internationally well-known writer and commentator Christopher Hitchens mentions an alternative theory about why Iran may be agreeing to "outsource" its uranium - namely a report that Iran's uranium is contaminated in a way that will destroy the centrifuges if high-level enrichment is attempted. Hitchens goes on to rebut those who argue that Iran's program is less advanced than generally regarded, and therefore less of a worry - countering that if it is far from completion, then we are actually in a better position to stop it before it becomes too dangerous. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Lee Smith discusses what would happen if Iran did get the bomb.

Readers may also be interested in:


Talking About Iran's Stockpile: Progress or Pointless?

Emanuele Ottolenghi

Commentary "Contentions", Oct. 22, 2009

Predictably, the Vienna talks on Iran's Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) stockpile have already stalled. Iran is using all the rules in the book and any trick on the margins to delay and gain more out of the talks. First, they dispatched a low-level delegation to the talks — something guaranteed to delay a decision even if a deal is struck in Vienna. Second, they torpedoed a critical element of the deal. According to what was supposedly agreed on already, the LEU would be enriched in Russia to higher levels (20 percent, well below weapons' grade) but further processed into fuel rods by France before it could be delivered to Iran for use in its Tehran Research Reactor. Now Iran is saying that France cannot be relied on and cannot be part of this deal. So the Iranians are threatening to go ahead and enrich on their own up to 20 percent if no deal is reached; they are also suggesting that they want a supply of fuel while they keep their stockpile.

No doubt some will suggest that Iran is pandering. No doubt some will underscore the fact that this is a win-win situation, and it would be foolish for Iran to turn this deal down — they are doing this only for their domestic audience (presumably not the one they repressed since the June 12 elections but the one that backed the repression), or because the establishment is still divided over the deal, or for some other such reason.

Let us give the benefit of the doubt to all those well-meaning pundits and diplomats who desperately wish to believe that the Vienna talks may hold the key to a historic breakthrough. But even if a deal is struck, is it really a win-win?

Let us consider the consequences.

First, Iran has no right to enrich uranium — not since the UN Security Council said so in five successive Chapter VII resolutions that were triggered by the fact that the IAEA had found Iran in noncompliance of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. By negotiating a deal over its illegally enriched uranium that does not also ensure immediate suspension of all future enrichment activities, the U.S., Russia and France — the three powers negotiating in Vienna — will effectively undermine the UN Security Council and hand a victory to Iran: its enrichment can continue.

Second, unless Iran's enrichment activities are verifiably suspended, the deal will gain only a little time for the international community. Part of the reason for the deal stems from a desire to reduce Iran's LEU stockpile to the point where Iran does not have sufficient declared fissile material to build a nuclear weapon (once it's been reprocessed). It is generally agreed that the minimum quantity of LEU required to do that is approximately one ton — and Iran would transfer more than that to Russia and France if the deal were reached. But Iran is currently capable of enriching 2.77 Kgs of uranium per day, on average, at least according to recent IAEA reports. At that pace, Iran would replenish the stockpile in less than a year if enrichment continues.

Third, the deal does not address the issue of undeclared nuclear sites. Given that Iran is still refusing to provide design information for the new nuclear-power plant it intends to build in Darkhovin, and given the recent exposure of the underground clandestine enrichment facility at an IRGC base near Qom, any Western offer of the kind under discussion should obtain, at a minimum, an Iranian agreement to immediately implement the Additional Protocol that it signed in late 2003 and that stipulates, inter alia, that under new provisions, facilities must undergo IAEA supervision from the moment they are being planned and not from the moment nuclear material is introduced into the facilities.

Fourth, the deal stands in contradiction to various clauses in the aforementioned UN resolutions, which expressly forbid third countries from taking nuclear material from Iran and prevents Iran from exporting it abroad. A negotiated deal of this kind stands against the UN resolutions in more than one way, in that, it would require the Security Council to reverse itself — a dramatic and unprecedented step, which, no doubt, will be noticed and taken stock of by any other nation planning to build a clandestine nuclear program in its own backyard.

Fifth, the deal is silent about Iran's ongoing breach of all its other NPT obligations and says nothing of the need for Iran to comply — or indeed to change course on the path of transparency and allow the IAEA to conduct a full, unrestricted series of controls across the country.

In short, even if you believe that diplomacy can do the trick, and that the IAEA is a force for good, it is hard to see progress in this deal. And then again, who knows that there is going to be one, given the way Iran is, as usual, circling around its hapless and mostly well-meaning interlocutors?

About the Author:

Emanuele Ottolenghi is the director of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels


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Draft nuclear deal is a victory for Iran

By Yossi Melman

Haaretz, October 23, 2009

The already distant option of military action against Iran drew even further away on Wednesday, as a draft agreement on Iran's nuclear program dealt a serious blow to chances that the United States will attack Iran.

The full draft of the agreement between six world powers and Iran is still to be published, and the little we know leaves a lot of question marks. However, if the draft is confirmed and if Iran fulfills the agreement to the letter, the Islamic Republic will have scored a major achievement in the war of attrition it has been running against the international community, while still relentlessly pursuing its nuclear program.

The agreement removes all justification for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites over claims it is violating international commitments and attempts to obtain nuclear arms.

The military option seems to have been postponed by at least 18 months, the time frame allocated for the agreement. Israeli policy on Iran has suffered a particularly strong setback, as the agreement also narrows the possibility of significant sanctions against Tehran.

However, the agreement also signifies that Iran is, eventually, vulnerable to pressure, and is aware of the international community's demand and concerns over its nuclear program. The agreement distances Iran by at least 18 months from obtaining enriched uranium, which could then be further enriched to produce nuclear weapons.

Although the agreement essentially contradicts the UN Security Council, which demands a stop to all Iranian enrichment of uranium, it does not contain a clause guaranteeing the removal of the sanctions already imposed on Iran. Those sanctions are fairly light, but their maintenance is a reminder that Iran is still must prove the innocence of its intentions.

At the end of the day, any compromise agreement buys time for all involved. Iran gets relief from international pressures without stopping the uranium enrichment, and the West gets a time-out, while maintaining vigilance over the Tehran's nuclear program.

The agreement can become a landmark in a long journey toward trust and understanding between Iran and the West. But there is also the risk the deal is a one-off, or that Iran will break it, continuing to develop knowledge, technology and materials needed for nuclear weaponry. This possibility considered, the Mossad's estimate Iran could begin producing nuclear arms by 2014 remains as valid as it ever was.

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Why Wait To Disarm Iran?

There's no possible advantage in waiting until Tehran has nukes.

By Christopher Hitchens

Slate.com, posted Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, at 11:15 AM ET

A contradiction must be faced by those of us who don't especially like the propaganda name neoconservative but who wish that there was a useful term for someone who favors a robust American attitude toward totalitarian and aggressive states. This contradiction often takes the form of wanting to emphasize a threat without overstating it. One can begin by viewing this argument from its opposite side. In the recent past, extremely nasty and dangerous one-party or one-man regimes in Serbia and Iraq have made real trouble for their neighbors and been a nightmare to their "own" people and have mocked all the canons of international law but have been considered by many commentators as too risky to confront. Go look this up, and you will discover that those who didn't want to confront Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein would always stress the awesome power of violence that they had at their command. If NATO bombed the Serbian positions around Sarajevo, say, it would unleash a monster of reaction that would draw a Russian intervention on the side of Belgrade, trigger a massive backlash throughout the Balkans, drown the region in bloodshed and "a wider war," and all that. Likewise, a military move against Saddam Hussein would incite him to saturate our troops with chemical weapons, ignite the oilfields, destroy Israel, inflame the "Arab street," and overthrow every friendly Middle Eastern government, etc., etc. Those of us who wanted to get rid of these hideous governments were bombarded with arguments that said, in effect, they are not only a threat but actually a lethal threat, and their forces are made up of people who are 10 feet tall. The contradiction cut both ways, in other words.

So, much kudos to David Ignatius of the Washington Post for his column last Friday, in which he restates the findings of a little-known trade publication with the arcane name of Nucleonics Week. To quote directly, the article reports that there might be some reason to think that:
 Iran's supply of low-enriched uranium—the potential feed-stock for nuclear bombs—appears to have certain "impurities" that "could cause centrifuges to fail" if the Iranians try to boost it to weapons grade.
Among other things, this could explain why Iran is cynically negotiating to send its low-enriched uranium to other states, such as France and Russia, to have it enhanced to a higher grade. Such a move, of course, would also be compatible with a "peaceful" program, if anyone is left who believes that this is all the Islamic republic really wants.

So backward has the theocracy made its wretched country that it is even vulnerable to sanctions on refined petroleum, for heaven's sake. Unlike neighboring secular Turkey, which has almost no oil but is almost qualified—at least economically—to join the European Union, Iran is as much a pistachio-and-rug-exporting country as it was when the sadistic medievalists first seized power. So it wouldn't be surprising in the least if a regime that has no genuine respect for science and no internal self-critical feedback had screwed up its rogue acquisition of modern weaponry. A system in which nothing really works except the military and the police will, like North Korea, end up producing somewhat spastic missiles and low-yield nukes, as well.

But spastic missiles and low-yield nukes can still ruin the whole day of a neighboring state, as well as make a travesty of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and such international laws and treaties as are left to us. Thus, if it is true that Iran is not as close to "break-out" as we have sometimes feared, should that not make our deliberations more urgent rather than less? Might it not mean, in effect, that now is a better time to disarm the mullahs than later?

Remember that Iran acquired a good deal of its original materiel on the black market, buying through proxies and using other means of deception, before anyone knew what was going on. This in turn means that it would be very much harder to acquire replacement supplies, in the face of continuing invigilation from the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and several intelligence services. Logically, then, even a minor disruption or dislocation of one of the existing key Iranian sites could have the effect of retarding the whole tenuous program for quite a while. And in the meanwhile, the internal clock of Iranian society is running against the continuation of outright dictatorship. So who should be scared of whom?

I have never been present for any discussion of any measures that could even thinkably be taken against Tehran that does not focus obsessively and exclusively on the possibly calamitous outcomes. Israel hits Iran and—well, you fill in the rest. The target sites are, anyway, too much dispersed and too deeply buried. You know how it goes. Apparently, nothing can be done that does not make a bad situation worse. It is as if there could be a worse outcome than the nuclear armament of a lawless messianic state that tore up every agreement it signed even as it bought further time while signing it.

In that case, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and many others should never have said that such an eventuality was unacceptable. They should have said that there were some conditions under which it was acceptable, and also clearly specified what those conditions were. If there's no saber in the scabbard, then at least don't make the vulgar mistake of rattling it.

Against this, we are at least entitled to consider the idea that a decaying regime that is bluffing and buying (or rather stealing) time on weapons of mass destruction is in a condition that makes this the best moment to do at least something to raise the cost of the lawlessness and to slow down and sabotage the preparations. Or might it be better to wait and to fight later on more equal terms? Just asking.
   
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Roger S. Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Institution
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