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Iran's Nuclear Energy Program, Part VI: The European Union's Proposal, Iran's Defiance, and the Emerging Crisis

9/9/05 By Muhammad Sahimi, Los Angeles


Since February 2003 Iran's program for constructing the complete cycle for producing enriched uranium - the fuel for nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants (NPPs) - has been the subject of intense international debates. Over this period, the experts and inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been visiting Iran on a regular basis to inspect its nuclear facilities. The information and data that have been collected by the IAEA have revealed sustained and determined efforts by Iran since 1985 for constructing the complete cycle for producing enriched uranium. The Bush administrtation has been arguing that the primary purpose of Iran's nuclear program is developing nuclear weapons. The European Union (EU), which has very extensive commercial relations with Iran; Russia, which is completing the construction of a NPP in Bushehr (on the shores of the Persian Gulf), and Japan, which has signed a lucrative oil agreement with Iran for developing Iran's giant Azaadegaan oil field, have all pressed Iran hard, demanding that it reveal all the details of its nuclear program.

In a series of articles that were posted on in October 2003, the author provided a brief history of Iran's nuclear program (Part I); described in broad terms the reasons that justify Iran's nuclear energy program as economically, politically, and environmentally viable (Part II), and explained the crisis that was emerging at that time (October 2003) in the relationship between Iran and the IAEA (Part III). In Part IV, posted on on December 7, 2004, the author presented a detailed economical, political, and environmental analysis of Iran's nuclear energy program, using the most reliable statistics on Iran's current energy consumption and resources. Part V, posted on December 22, 2004, described in detail the key role that the United States (US) played from the 1950s to the 1970s in starting Iran's nuclear program. We showed that not only did the US push the Shah to buy its NPPs, but also offered Iran the technology for uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear reactor fuel if Iran agreed to buy eight US-manufactured NPPs, assertions that were repeated later on in an article published in the Washington Post [1]. We also compared the history of the US involvement with Iran's nuclear program with the current thinking of the neo-conservatives and their sympathizers on how to prevent the Bushehr reactor from operating, a reactor that, under no conceivable circumstances, can be used for making a nuclear bomb [2].

A major goal of the series has been to debunk the "argument" that the US neo-conservatives and their allies have been making, namely, that given Iran's vast oil and gas reserves, it does not need nuclear energy. The neo-conservatives and their allies, ranging from Israel to Iran's anti-democratic groups (from the terrorist cultist group to the monarchists) and quasi-democratic groups (those whose words wish seemingly nothing for Iran but a secular democratic republic, but whose deeds indicate otherwise [3]) are the only groups that are still hanging onto this absurd argument [4]. The analysis presented in Parts II and IV of this series (and their short versions published elsewhere [5,6]) have made their impact: Iran's nuclear energy program has been transformed from one perceived not to be needed by, or suitable for, Iran to one for which the EU is willing to GUARANTEE the supply of nuclear fuels and advanced nuclear technology (see below), provided that Iran gives up its right for having the complete cycle for producing enriched uranium.

Another goal of this series has been to inform the public, especially the Iranians who live outside Iran, about the benefits and perils of the nuclear energy program that the present Iranian government is pursuing. At the same time, giving wide public exposure to the neoconservatives' thinking about Iran is particularly important.

The Board of Governors (BOG) of the IAEA has had periodic special meetings to review the progress in assessing Iran's nuclear program. In its special meeting held on Monday November 29, 2004, the IAEA reported to the BOG its latest findings on Iran's program, and due to the Paris agreement that Iran had signed with the EU troika - Britain, France, and Germany - for suspending its uranium enrichment program, no further special meeting of the BOG of the IAEA was supposed to be scheduled; that is, Iran's case before the BOG was supposed to have gone back to being a normal, un-urgent case.

However, as usual, recent developments have taken unexpected turns, as a result of which Iran's case before the BOG of the IAEA has, once again, become special. The reason for the latest twist in this saga is that, in mid August, after Iran rejected the long-awaited proposal by the EU troika for curtailment of its uranium enrichment activity in return for economic and political concessions (see below), it restarted the Esfahan facility for converting uranium yellow cake to uranium tetra- and hexafluoride - gaseous compounds (at elevated temperatures) that are used to produce enriched uranium. However, Iran relaunched the process after informing the IAEA which is now monitoring the Esfahan facility. The relaunch of the Esfahan facility was against the Paris agreement according to which Iran was obligated not to start any part of the complete cycle for producing enriched uranium, so long as it was negotiating with the EU troika.

It must be emphasized that producing uranium tetra- and hexafluoride is NOT considered by the IAEA as part of the uranium enrichment process. But, in the highly politicized and polarized environment that exists between Iran, the EU troika, and the US (which has worsened since the election of Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's new President), even a process as harmless, by itself, as producing uranium compounds causes much tension. We must also realize that the production of tetra- and hexafluoride in Esfahan is apparently still beset by technical problems. Various reports indicate that the uranium compounds produced there are not suitable for enrichment (see below).

In response to Iran's action, the EU troika has angrily suspended its negotiations with Iran, taking the case back before the BOG of the IAEA, and threatening Iran with a referral to the United Nations Security Council. We must, however, realize that the only valid basis for referring Iran to the Security Council is its breach of the nuclear non-proliferation regime as described in the NPT. However, the IAEA has yet to find any evidence that Iran was or is engaged in a nuclear weapons program. In fact, the IAEA just announced that its tests vindicated Iran's claims that traces of highly enriched uranium found two years ago at Iran's nuclear facilities are from the equipment imported from Pakistani (see below).

The goal of the present part of the series is twofold:

(1) We describe the developments that have led to the present state of affairs between Iran and the EU troika. In the author's opinion, much has been made of the proposal that the EU troika has submitted to Iran, whereas a careful reading of the proposal reveals that while Iran is being asked to give up some of its fundamental rights under the NPT agreement, when it comes to the most important part of an overall agreement between the EU troika and Iran, namely, the security aspects, the EU proposal falls severely short; it does not offer Iran any concrete security guarantees. At the same time, there has been little discussion of what the author considers a reasonable proposal that Iran made last March to its EU counterparts regarding its nuclear fuel cycle, which was, however, ignored completely by the EU troika and the US.

(2) We then discuss whether it is in Iran's national interest to start its full nuclear fuel cycle without reaching a formal agreement with the EU troika and, through them, the US.

Fall 2003: Iran's Weak Position and the Sa'd Abaad Agreement

On October 21, 2003, Iran signed the Sa'd Abaad agreement with the European troika. According to this agreement,

"The Iranian authorities reaffirmed that nuclear weapons have no place in Iran's defence doctrine and that its nuclear programme and activities have been exclusively in the peaceful domain. They reiterated Iran's commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation regime and informed the ministers that:

a. The Iranian Government has decided to engage in full co-operation with the IAEA to address and resolve through full transparency all requirements and outstanding issues of the Agency and clarify and correct any possible failures and deficiencies within the IAEA.

b. To promote confidence with a view to removing existing barriers for co-operation in the nuclear field:

i. having received the necessary clarifications, the Iranian Government has decided to sign the IAEA Additional Protocol and commence ratification procedures. As a confirmation of its good intentions the Iranian Government will continue to co-operate with the Agency in accordance with the Protocol in advance of its ratification.

ii. while Iran has a right within the nuclear non-proliferation regime to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes it has decided voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as defined by the IAEA..."

These were important PRACTICAL concessions made by Iran. What did Iran gain in return? According to the agreement,

"The Foreign Ministers of Britain, France and Germany welcomed the decisions of the Iranian Government and informed the Iranian authorities that:

Their governments recognise the right of Iran to enjoy peaceful use of nuclear energy in accordance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

a. In their view the Additional Protocol is in no way intended to undermine the sovereignty, national dignity or national security of its State Parties...."

which are nothing but stating the rights that Iran already enjoyed under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Therefore, in essence, Iran gained nothing practical by signing the Sa'd Abaad Agreement, except postponing a serious confrontation with the West. The question then is, why was Iran willing to sign such an agreement which was clearly indicative of its weak position (at that time)? Several factors contributed to Iran's decision to sign the Sa'd Abaad Agreement, some of which are as follows.

(1) Iran had not told the world about its nuclear energy program for 18 years. Although in terms of Iran's legal obligations towards the NPT, hidding the nuclear facilities was NOT illegal [7], the fact is that the world was suspicious of Iran. At the same time, even if Iran was, or still is, trying to make a nuclear bomb (and this is still unclear), most experts agree that it is still years away from achieving this goal [8], simply because Iran does not appear to have solved all the technical problems regarding the enrichment process (see below). Therefore, temporary transparency and openness could help Iran learn more about the process.

(2) In October 2003 the US and Britain had appeared to be the absolute victors in Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime had been overthrown swiftly, and there was not yet any strong indication that the Sunnies, together with foreign terrorists, would fight back and create the mess that Iraq is today. President Bush had already declared "the end of major combat operations," and had boasted about "mission accomplished." His approval rating was high, and there was still strong support by a majority of Americans for invasion of Iraq. In short, Mr. Bush's "faith-based propaganda" [9] was still working, and had not broken down yet.

(3) The claim that Iraq had a "robust nuclear program" [10] was still believable. The search for the program had only begun recently, and many believed that it would be discovered sooner or later. Therefore, why would the world not believe the same claim about Iran?

(4) The energy market, and in particular the oil market, was not nearly as hot as what it is today. The oil price was in the $30 range (compared with the $60 range today), and there was still considerable oil excess capacity, implying that if Iran's oil exports were eliminated, other oil exporters could increase their production and compensate for the loss, just as they had done for Iraq's production. Moreover, there was "serious" talk of increasing Iraq's oil production to 4 million barrel/day, which has, of course, never materialized.

(5) Internally, the Majles, Iran's parliament, was still controlled by vocal reformists some of whom did not want any nuclear energy program (for example, some members of the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization, and the Islamic Iran Participation Front), while the rest, although supporting the program, were advocating complete transparency in dealing with the IAEA (with which the author agrees completely). Moreover, Mr. Mohammad Khatami was still Iran's President, a man who wanted to make detente with the West not confront it.

In summary, Iran was in an extremely weak situation, and HAD TO sign the Sa'd Abaad Agreement.

Summer 2005: Iran's Strong and Defiant Position

What has changed in little less two years that has made Iran confident (or, perhaps, overconfident) that it can confront the West and come out ahead? Consider the following:

(1) Unlike Fall 2003, the world now knows much about Iran's nuclear program. Yes, there are still serious issues to be resolved (see below), but the fact is that the IAEA has not been able to find any credible evidence - a smoking gun so to speak - that would indicate that Iran is trying to make a nuclear bomb.

(2) Unlike Fall 2003, the insurgency in Iraq is in full swing with no end in sight, which has resulted in high US casualties, as well as huge civilian casualties among the Iraqi population. Even the Taliban are making a come back in Afghanistan. President Bush's approval rating has tumbled to high thirties or low forties, some of the lowest by any president. Nearly two-third of Americans now believe that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and that it has made the US LESS secure.

(3) No nuclear weapon, or any "robust program" for making them, was ever discovered in Iraq. Given that right before the invasion the IAEA had declared that there was no such program in Iraq, and that it has also failed to find the same in Iran, it would be difficult to believe that Iran is making a nuclear bomb unless, of course, new dramatic evidence is uncovered.

(4) The oil market is in turmoil. The oil price is in the neighbourhood of $70/barrel, and there is almost no excess capacity in other oil exporting nations left to compensate for Iran's exports - currently about 2.7 million barrel/day - if they are lost due to a confrontation between Iran and the US. At the same time, Iran will make about $60-70 billion in exports, and its foreign debts and obligations are minimal, only about $10 billion. In short, Iran's vulnerability to a worldwide economic sanction (as unlikely as it is) could not be any less.

(5) Through relatively democratic elections, a Shiite-dominated government is now ruling Iraq, led by men who spent years in Iran in exile. When Iraq's Prime Minister, Dr. Ebrahim Al-Jafari, who speaks Persian fluently, visited Iran recently, he put a wreath on Ayatollah Khomeini's grave. He admitted Iraq's responsibility and fault for starting the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, and asked Iran to help it train its armed forces. When Mr. Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's (former) Foreign Minister, visited Iraq recently, he visited Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful man in Iraq, if not in the entire Shiite world. Ayatollah Sistani has never granted an audience to any Western official. At the same time, radical Iranian elements and factions can create immense problems in Iraq, way beyond what is currently happening there.

(6) China and India, the two most populous nations, have signed huge contracts with Iran, worth well over $100 billion, to import oil and gas from Iran, hence making them dependent on Iran. India is the largest democracy in the world, while China is the up-and-coming superpower. Hence, these countries provide Iran with political support. In particular, it is plausible (but not certain) that China may veto any resolution against Iran, if its nuclear energy program is referred to the UN Security Council. Russia might do the same, since it has great stake in its nuclear copperation with Iran. But, their veto is not by any means guaranteed.

(7) The emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The SCO goes back to 1996 when China initiated the Shanghai Five, which included all the current SCO members except for Uzbekistan. The purpose of SCO is to form a network of cooperation among the member States, including military security, economic development, trade and cultural exchange. In its most recent meeting on July 5, 2005, the SCO invited Iran to participate as an observer, which Iran did. Iran is likely to join the SCO sometime in the near future, which will provide it with further political support. The SCO has started asserting itself and flexing its political muscles, with Uzbekistan recently asking the US to evacuate its military forces out of the country, which the US will do soon. Clearly, if the US troops leave Central Asia, it will be an important positive development for Iran.

(8) Iran has started receiving the proceeds from its oil exports in Euro rather than dollar. Over a period time, it will stop receiving dollar altogether, and will completely switch to Euro. This will not only provide more financial stability and security for Iran's foreign exchange reserves, but also will have a negative impact on the oil market in New York.

(9) Internally, the Majles, the presidency, the armed forces, and the judiciary are all controlled by Iran's right wing. Although Iran's right itself is factionalized, but history indicates that when it comes to a common enemy, it becomes completely united.

Thus, Iran is in a strong position which explains its belligerence and defiance. At the same time, unlike what is claimed in the Western Press, Iran's defiance is NOT due to the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad as its new president, rather, as the above discussion should make it clear, is due mostly to the international developments.

Iran's Proposal to the EU Troika

In addition to the above, what contributes to Iran's position strong is the following. For sometime Iran was focused on providing the EU troika with the "objective guarantees" of the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. In fact, on March 23, 2005, Iran submitted to the EU troika a plan of objetive guarantees with the following elements [11]:

(1) Spent reactor fuels will not be reprocessed by Iran, so that no plutonium can be extracted to be used for bomb making.

(2) Iran will forego plutonium production through a heavy water reactor.

(3) Only low-enriched uranium will be produced.

(4) A limit will be imposed on the enrichment level, to be used solely as fuel for reactors.

(5) A limit will be imposed on the amount of enrichment, restricting it to what is needed for Iran's reactors.

(6) All the low-enriched uranium will be converted immediately to fuel rods for use in reactors (fuel rods cannot be further enriched).

(7) The number of centrifuges in Natanz can be limited, at least at the beginning. The full operation of the fuel cycle will be incremental, beginning with the least sensitive part, such as uranium conversion.

(8) The IAEA will have permanent on-site presence at all the facilities for uranium conversion and enrichment.

Items (1)-(7) that Iran has offered to limit, or to give up altogether, are actually allowed by Article IV of the NPT. Therefore, any objective person who is even remotely familiar with producing fuels for nuclear reactors would agree that what Iran proposed in March 2005 was a substantial, if not complete, step towards providing the EU troika and the US with the "objective guarantees" that they are supposedly looking for. In fact, item (8) goes even beyond the provisions of the Additional Protocol on the NPT that Iran signed in December 2003, and has been implementing ever since. At the minimum, Iran's proposal could have been the basis for further negotiations. But, the EU negotiators never responded to Iran's offer; they simply ignored it, hence demonstrating their nations' utter arrogance [12].

The Proposal of the EU Troika to Iran

The long-awaited proposal by the EU troika, "The Framework for a Long-Term Agreement," was submitted to Iran in early August. In the author's opinion, the proposal does contain several important elements. For example,

(1) it tries to force Iran to commit to combating terrorism (article 9), hence stopping many adventuresome aspects of Iran's foreign policy over the past twenty five years, such as supporting radical groups in the Middle East, which have done nothing but grossly damaging Iran's national interests;

(2) it recognizes Iran's right to developing the infrastructure for peaceful use of nuclear energy and research (articles 14 and 15) (these rights have, however, been recognized by the NPT);

(3) it recognizes Iran's right to have access to "international nuclear technology market" (article 18);

(4) it offers to provide expert help for safety aspects of Iran's program (article 20b);

(5) it offers to facilitate Iran's access to the international market for nuclear reactors fuels (article 23);

(6) it offers to help Iran develop a "buffer store" of 5 years of fuel supplies for the reactors in case either the supplies dry up, or the suppliers refuse to provide Iran more fuels for the reactors (article 30), and

(7) it proposes a mechanism for addressing the situation that arises in (6) (articles 27-29), although the mechanism is tedious.

However, certain aspects of the EU proposal are either against the existing international agreements, or their language is vague and leaves a lot to be desired. For example, the proposal demands that Iran (emphasis with capital letters added)

"make a legally binding commitment not to withdraw from the NPT and to keep all Iranian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguarded UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES" (article 36a).

The commitment not to withdraw from the NPT is even against the NPT itself, which allows the member States to withdraw from the agreement, subject to giving a 90 days notice to the IAEA, if the States believe that abiding by the terms of the NPT threatens their national security, and withdrawing from the NPT is in their "Supreme Interest."

At the same time, why is Iran's case so different that requires new skewed interpretation of the NPT's provisions, or creating new obligations for Iran that do not even exist in the international agreements regarding nuclear weapons? If Iran has violated certain aspects of the Safeguards Agreement by not reporting to the IAEA what it has been doing (which is still a matter of debate), it has not been the LONE violator. Over the past year alone, the IAEA has reported that South Korea, Taiwan, and Egypt have, at various times, violated the provisions of the NPT by secretly engaging in experiments on uranium enrichment and even bomb making. Brazil, a country that provided nuclear assistance to Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1980, refused, for a long time, granting permission to the IAEA to visit and inspect its uranium enrichment facilities under construction. Where is the international outcry over these violations?

Therefore, if Iran is to make a commitment not to withdraw from the NPT, the logical first step is to revise the terms of the NPT agreement, so that the commitment would become binding for ALL the member States, not just Iran. In addition, the revisions must address the all important issue of what to do about nuclear powers that are NOT signatories to the NPT, namely, India, Israel, and Pakistan, all in Iran's vicinity, with the latter two posing great threats to Iran's national security.

In addition, the "Political and Security Co-Operation" section of the EU proposal leaves a lot to be desired. Let us review a portion of it (article 4):

"Within the context of an overall agreement and Iran's fulfilment of its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the United Kingdom and France would be prepared to reaffirm to Iran the unilateral security assurances given on 6 April 1995, and referred to in United Nations Security-Council Resolution 984 (1995). Specifically:

the United Kingdom and the French Republic would reaffirm to Iran that they will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in the case of an invasion or ANY attack on them, their dependent territories, their armed forces, or other troops, their allies or on a State towards which they have a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear-weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State...."

Such guarantees actually leave open the possibility of a nuclear or even non-nuclear attack on Iran because, as is clear in the above paragraph, immediately after promising not to attack Iran, a long list of "exceptional" cases which can provoke an attack is mentioned. Moreover, Iraq was invaded and occupied not through a nuclear attack, but by conventional forces. So, the question is, where is the guarantee that Britain and France (and, for that matter, Germany) will not participate in a war similar to the invasion of Iraq using conventional forces?

Even if full guarantees, with no ifs, buts, and exceptions, are provided, where is the guarantee that the US will not attack Iran? Where is the guarantee that its proxies, such as Israel, will not attack Iran? The proposal is silent about these aspects, except where it states that (article 4b):

"the United Kingdom and the French Republic would recall and reaffirm, as Permanent Members of the Security Council, to seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance, in accordance with the Charter [of the UN], to any non-nuclear State, party to Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, that is a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used."

In other words, the proposal guarantees nothing when it comes to the use of conventional forces, and even in the case of an aggression in which nuclear weapons are used, all the EU troika will do will be seeking "immediate Security Council action," presumably after tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of innocent people have already perished during the aggression.

The New IAEA Report and its Absurd Demands

As mentioned above, two years ago the EU troika insisted through the Sa'd Abaad Agreement that Iran must "voluntarily" sign the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which Iran did and began implementing. But, in his September 3, 2005 report to the BOG of the IAEA [13] entitled, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran", Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the IAEA, has reported on the following item:

(1) Iran has submitted to the IAEA comprehensive declarations with respect to its nuclear facilities, including design information (article 5).

(2) In view of Iran's steady cooperation and increasing transparency, resolving the outstanding concerns (see below), the IAEA believes that Iran's nuclear issue "would be followed up as matters of routine safeguards" (article 6).

(3) Other than some delays and slowness in providing information on the design aspects, "no additional failures have been identified" by the IAEA (article 8).

(4) Certain aspects of Iran's previous declarations, especially the "outstanding issue" of the sources of contamination of Iran's equipment with high-enriched uranium which has turned out to be Pakistan (as had been widely believed), have been verified (article 12).

(5) Several Iranian "transparency measures," well beyond the Additional Protocol, are reported, including allowing inspection access to Iran's military bases (article 37).

(6) The report cites "good progress" in Iran's "corrective measures" since October 2003 (article 43).

(7) The report declares that, "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material has not been diverted to prohibited activities" (article 51).

(8) The report confirms again again that Iran's uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz have remained suspended; that the converted uranium had been relocated to safe storages, and that the uranium hexafluoride "remained under agency seals" (article 59).

(9) It admits that, "the agency's legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons-related activity is limited" (article 49).

This is, of course, a basic problem of the non-proliferation regime which transcends Iran, but is being selectively applied to Iran. After admitting this general shortcoming, the report states that Iran's transparency (emphasis with capital letters added)

(10) "should extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol and include ACCESS TO INDIVIDUALS, documentation related to procurement, dual-use equipment, certain MILITARY-OWNED WORKSHOPS and research and development locations" (article 50).

Such demands are clearly pure political pressure far beyond any requirements demanded by the NPT and its Additional Protocol. In fact, Iran is being asked to comply with demands that are reminiscent of what Iraq was being asked to do in the months leading to its illegal invasion by the US and Britain. In essence, what the report is demanding is that Iran should reveal its sensitive military information. If Iran were to go along, where would the demand list end?

In addition, it is not even clear why, with so many positive aspects of Iran's cooperation with the IAEA reported by the IAEA, Iran should accede to such additional demands. This is particularly baffling in view of the IAEA's own discovery about Iran's deals with Pakistan's Abdul Ghadeer Khan, indicating that Iran turned down his offers of nuclear-weapons designs in the 1980s, which should reinforce Iran's position that it is not interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. What happened to President Bush's declaration at the National Defense University on February 11, 2004 that, "I propose that by next year, only States that have signed the Additional Protocol be allowed to import equipment for their civil nuclear programs"?

Lack of Mutual Trust and the Emerging Crisis

Given the above, the question is: What is REALLY at issue in the confrontation between Iran, the EU troika, and the US? The issue, as Dillip Hiro [14] put it, is:

"Do Third World countries have the right to develop and use all nuclear technology, including enrichment, as authorized by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or not?"

Iran believes that the answer is an unequivocal "Yes," and is not alone in its stance: The Non-Aligned Movement, which has a membership of 116 nations (and includes such important nations with nuclear technology as Brazil, India, and South Africa), agrees. So, whether intended or not, Iran has become the champion of the developing nations, willing to stand up to the Western world. Moreover, whether we like it or not, Iran's stance has won it quiet admiration by Non-Aligned nations, as they fear that the limitations that the EU and the US are trying to impose on Iran could be extended to them eventually.

The EU troika does not deny the right. But it (and the US) wants Iran to give up its rights under the NPT FOREVER (article 34 of the EU proposal) in return for the commitments described above.

Why do the EU and the US want Iran to give up its right for having the complete cycle for producing enriched uranium? Their main argument is that, since Iran hid its nuclear energy program for 18 years, it has, in essence, given up that right. In essence, it is, more than anything else, an issue of trust between two hostile sides. As President Bush stated in a news conference on April 28, 2005, at the White House,

"America recognises that we cannot trust the Iranians when it comes to enriching uranium . . . they should not be allowed to enrich uranium."

In the author's opinion, there is not much merit to the argument that, "we do not trust Iran because it hid its nuclear program." To see why consider the following:

(1) As explained in Part II of this series, beginning in 1982, Iran started pursuing Germany to complete the reactors in Bushehr. It tried any and all the reasonable (and some not so reasonable) approaches in order to get Germany live up to its obligations; it never succeeded. If anything, Iran's efforts were indicating clearly to the West that it WAS pursuing a nuclear program. At the same time, the (West) German intelligence agency was the first to declare in 1984 that, "Iran was only TWO YEARS away from a nuclear bomb" [15].

(2) As noted in Ref. [6], under the provisions of the Safeguard Agreement of IAEA, building the Natanz facility and not declaring it were NOT illegal (though they were clandestine), so long as 180 days before introducing any nuclear materials into the facility Iran notified the IAEA, which Iran did long before the 180 days period. As has been emphasized in this series of articles, the difference between being clandestine and illegal has not been understood in the Western press; constructing the Natanz facility is constantly referred to as Iran's "breach of its obligations."

(3) The truth is that the EU troika and the US do not wish Iran to have the uranium enrichment facilities, REGARDLESS of what Iran does or does not. To see this one only needs to consider Iran's proposal of March 2005. At the same time, does anyone really believe that if, in 1985, Iran had declared its intention for constructing its present enrichment facilities, the US and the EU troika would have rushed in to help it, or even allowed Iran to proceed? It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any scenario under which this would have happened. So, the issue is not one of hiding something, rather not wanting Iran to possess the enrichment facilities and technology under any circumstances.

However, Iran's reactionary right has done too many things to make the world suspicious or distrustful of Iran, some of which, in the author's opinion, are as follows.

(1) The hardliners have suppressed Iran's democratic movement and violated, on a steady and consistent basis, the personal, social, political, and economical rights of Iranians. In fact, in the author's opinion, lost in the international fury over Iran's nuclear energy program has been the fact that, respect for human rights and a democratic political system are the most effective deterrent against the threat that any aspiring nuclear power run by an undemocratic government may pose to the world. When the US strongly pushed the Shah to start Iran's nuclear energy program at a time that it had no economic justification (see Parts II and IV of this series), instead of pushing him to undertake meaningful political reforms, it helped creating the Frankstein now called Iran's nuclear program.

A democratic political system in Iran greatly reduces and even eliminates the threat that its nuclear program may pose to the world because, in the author's opinion, the danger per se is not that Iran may have nuclear weapons (which it does not), but that some of its most important power centers and decision-making process are shrouded with secrecy. A free press in Iran - a pillar of human rights - will reveal nuclear adventures that Iran's hidden power centers may pursue against Iran's national interests [16].

Since 1970s, when the Shah started Iran's nuclear program, India, South Africa, North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel have joined the nuclear club. In the 1980s South Africa's apartheid regime produced nuclear bombs, but the democratic government of Nelson Mandella dismantled them. India, has developed a nuclear arsenal, but not many perceive world's largest democracy as a threat to the world. The same is true about Israel.

But, North Korea's nuclear arsenal is a threat because its regime is highly secretive and its leader a recluse. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is extremely dangerous (even if the US does not acknowledge it) because Pakistan is an essentially failed State. Its nuclear-armed military, populated by Islamic extremists, created the Taliban which supported Osama bin Laden. Pakistan has a sectarian war in which the majority Sunni population has been murdering the Shiite minority, and many of its schools teach Islamic radicalism. Could Abdul Ghadeer Khan, the founder and owner of Pakistan's nuclear supermarket, have operated freely for so long without the support of some elements of its military? Could he have operated in a democratic Pakistan with a free press to reveal the depth of his dangerous enterprise?

Aside from the nature of Iran's hardliners which cannot be conducive to building trust between Iran and the international community, several questions about Iran's nuclear energy program remain unresolved:

(2) When did Iran obtain the design for the advanced P-2 centrifuges? Why did it not pursue its construction? or, has it?

(3) Why did Iran experiment for sometime uranium enrichment using lasers? Surely, laser enrichment is not economical, and can be justified only in the framework of a military program for which there is no limit to the budget that can be spent.

(4) Why was the Bandar Abbas uranium mine not declared to the IAEA for quite some time? How much uranium deposits does Iran possess, any way [17]?

(5) At least three companies - Kaalaa-ye Electric, Pars Taraash, and Faraayand Technic - supposedly having nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program - have turned out to be providing support for it. Iran must be prepared to address the issue of such companies in a systematic way, because it is likely that the IAEA will press Iran on this issue in the future.

But, this is not the complete story, but only half of it. The lack of trust between Iran, the EU, and the US is also due to the other half of the story, which is about the "guarantees" given by France, Germany, and the US to Iran that later on turned out to be "non-binding." Consider the following (which represents just the tip of the iceberg) [18]:

(1) As described in Part I and mentioned above, Germany was supposed to build two nuclear reactors in Bushehr. The construction of the reactors was begun and made considerable progress. But Germany stopped the work after the Iranian Revolution. It neither paid Iran back what it owed, nor did it finish building the reactors, nor delivered the parts that had already been purchased and paid for.

(2) Iran paid in 1975 $1 billion to buy 10% of Eurodif, a French company that produces enriched uranium. In return Iran was supposed to receive enriched uranium for its reactors, but has never received any. France was also supposed to construct nuclear reactors in Khuzestan province, but it never did.

(3) The Shah spent billions of dollars in the 1970s to purchase US made weapons. The US was obligated to provide Iran with the spare parts for the weapons. But, when the Iran-Iraq war began, the US refused to supply Iran with the spare parts which had already been paid for. But the US did not stop there. Donald Rumsfeld travelled to Baghdad in December 1983, had a friendly meeting with Saddam Hussein, and informed him that the US, although officially neutral, was going to "tilt" towards Iraq. The US then started supplying Iraq with detailed information on troops movement in Iran, and other valuable information.

(4) Historical factors also play important roles in the distrust of the Europeans by Iran. The Golestan and Turkmenchaay Treaties, signed in 1811 and 1827 between Iran and Russia, forced Iran to give up, under force, a large portion of its historical territories. Later on in 1867, the British empire did the same to Iran when it used force to separate Afghanistan from Iran. The 1953 coup d'etat overthrew the government of Iran's national hero, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh. These historial events, with gigantic implications, have left deep scars on Iran's historial memory.

Therefore, the lack of trust between Iran, the EU, and the US is mutual. While the EU nations have many good reasons to distrust Iran, they also have a track record of promises that they had made to, and obligations that they had towards, Iran, which were broken and violated later on.

Iran's Technical Problems: A Reason for Caution

While the Western Press has been trying to create a menacing image of Iran's nuclear energy program, now that the Esfahan facility has started operating again, the reality, which should prevent the EU from panicking, is quite different. The fact is that Iran faces many difficulties in operating both the Esfahan and Natanz facilities [19,20], with the latter facility being currently sealed, anyway. Iran had major problems with the Esfahan facility in 2004 when it produced uranium hexafluoride, which was unsuitable for enrichment because it contained impurities that prevent its enrichment. Another problem is obtaining suitable materials for handling and storing uranium hexafluoride, which is in a solid state at room temperature, but makes a transition to the gaseous state at about 135 F. Whether Iran has overcome such difficulties is not known yet. A third problem Iran is facing is about its centrifuge facility at Natanz. Apparently, Iran has been unable to keep the centrifuges running for a sufficient length of time at the required speeds.

At the same time, most experts believe that the IAEA inspections and safeguards will prevent Iran from directly using facilities declared to the IAEA for its weapons program (if one exists), so long as Iran does not withdraw from the NPT. A November 2004 report by the CIA supported these assertions. However, if Iran's program is referred to the Security Council, and the Council imposes tough sanctions against Iran (the possibility of which AT PRESENT is remote), Iran may withdraw from the NPT and expel its inspectors. Then, what Iran's hardliners do next is anybody's guess. It is not in the interest of the world to arrive at such a frightening moment.

Summary: Is Defiance in Iran's National Interest?

In the author's opinion, although Iran's current position is very strong, it is not in its national interest to be referred to the UN Security Council. The reason is threefold:

(1) Although Russia and China are both opposed to referring Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council, their veto of a resolution against Iran is NOT guaranteed. An approved resolution, even if it is mild, will be used by the War Party in the US as an exuse for staging military attack against Iran.

(2) If the Security Council does pass some resolution against Iran, it will have the legitimacy of the UN and, therefore, Iran will be isolated. In short, Iran must realize that, (i) it cannot afford to lose in the court of public opinion, and (2) while it might win the current battles with the EU troika, it may lose the ultimate war at the Security Council.

(3) Although Iran is entitled to having the complete cycle for producing enriched uranium, it does not have any urgent need for it. The fuel for the Bushehr reactor has been guaranteed by Russia, and any new reactor to be constructed in Iran is years away. Thus, once again, there is no need to put Iran in a position where the War Party in the US may become tempted to attack it, which would inflict immeasurable damage on Iran's industrial and population centers. Protecting Iran against such attacks is far more important than having the cycle for enriching uranium: Without a prosperous and safe Iran it makes no sense to speak of uranium enrichment.

At the same time, the EU and the US must also realize the following:

(1) Referring Iran to the Security Council is not in the interest of the international community, because in that case Iran may carry out its threat of withdrawing from the NPT. That would destroy the already troubled non-proliferation regime and, instead of full transparency, the IAEA will find Iran back in the pre-2003 era.

(2) In addition to being economically viable and necessary, Iran's nuclear energy program also has to do with nationalism and pride. If the EU and the US ignore this aspect, it will cause lasting repercussions, setting back the relations between Iran, the US, and the EU for a long time.

(3) In the author's opinion, the way to address the problem of Iran's nuclear program is not by threatening it with military strikes, but by providing Iran with incentives to move towards a democratic and transparent political system which would make its nuclear program benign. The Achiles' heel of Iran's hardliners is not their possible violation of Iran's international nuclear obligations that may drag them before the Security Council to bring about their eventual fall, but their violation of human rights of Iranians, including suffocating Iran's independent press.

(4) It is no accident that Iran's nuclear program began accelerating in 1997 when Mohammad Khatami was elected president, and began implementing a program of reform and more transparency. Since then, instead of helping Iran's fledgling democratic movement, which would have inevitably led to transparency in its nuclear program, the US has been hurting it. Whereas Mr. Khatami proposed people-to-people dialogue between the US and Iran, the US has prevented Iranian scholars and authors from publishing their work in the US. Whereas Iran greatly helped the US in the war in Afghanistan, the US bestowed upon it the "honour" of being a member of "Axis of Evil!" In return for the overwhelming victory of Iran's democratic forces in the 2000 elections for the Majles, the US lifted sanctions against importing Iranian pistachios! The US repeats the claim that Iran does not need nuclear energy because it has plenty of oil and natural gas, yet it has blocked the US oil companies to invest in Iran's oil industry. It is because of such contradictions in the US policy towards Iran that it is difficult for ANY Iranian leader to trust the US.

The proposals by Iran and the EU both have many positive elements. The Natanz facility remains suspended and sealed, and Iran faces many technical difficulties to operate a complete uranium enrichment cycle. Hence, there is no reason for the EU to panic just because the conversion of the yellow cake to uranium tetra- and hexafluoride, which the IAEA does not even consider as part of an enrichment process, has started. Through patience, flexibility, and mutual understanding, the two proposals can be combined into one coherent proposal that satisfies Iran's aspirations and the EU's and the US' concerns.

References and notes

[1] See, Dafna Linzer, "Past Arguments Don't Square with Current Iran Policy," the Washington Post, March 27, 2005.

[2] See Parts IV and V of this series for detailed discussions of this point. See also, T.R. Stauffer, "Unlike Dimona, Iran's Bushehr Reactor Not Useful for Weapons-Grade Plutonium," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (September 2003), p. 28, as well as,

[3] A good example of such quasi-democratic groups is an Iranian political journalist based in Europe and his cohorts in Los Angeles. They repeat, VERBATIM, whatever non-sense the neo-conservatives claim about Iraq and Iran. The same people had a "joyous" (sickening to the author though) scream on an Iranian satellite TV channel on March 19, 2003 - the day the US and Britain began their illegal invasion of Iraq - stating their hope and dream that, "Iran will soon have such a day." What has been happening in Iraq since then has not, of course, made them reconsider their "wish," simply because they do not understand a simple fact: Without defending Iran's national interests, it is meaningless to speak of democracy and human rights.

[4] On July 5, 2005, at a joint news conference with France's Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "the United States does not see the need for a civilian nuclear program in oil-rich Iran," despite the fact that in the same news conference she said that the US strongly supports the EU-Iran neogotiations, and that the EU has recognized Iran's right and need for NPPs. To read about the news conference see,

[5] M. Sahimi, P. Mojtahedzadeh, and K.L. Afrasiabi, "Iran Needs Nuclear Reactors," International Herald Tribune, October 14, 2003.

[6] M. Sahimi, "Forced to Fuel: Iran's Nuclear Energy Program," Harvard International Review, Volume XXVI (No. 4), Winter 2005, p. 42.

[7] According to the original IAEA Safeguard agreements, Iran was not obligated to declare the start of construction of the Natanz facility for uranium enrichment. These agreements stipulate that, only 180 days before introducing any nuclear material, must Iran declare the existence of the facility. Therefore, construction of the undeclared Natanz facility is NOT by itself a violation of the NPT. In addition, the NPT does allow Iran to legally build any nuclear facility, including one for uranium enrichment, so long as it is declared to, and safeguarded by, the IAEA, and is intended for peaceful purposes.

[8] The latest US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program states that Iran is about 10 years away from making a nuclear bomb. See, Dafna Linzer, "Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb," The Washington Post, August 1, 2005. To view the article, see, See also Refs. [19] and [20] below.

[9] This phrase was taken from F. Rich's column, "Falluja Floods the Superdome," The New York Times, September 4, 2005.

[10] This is the phrase that Vice President Dick Cheney used frequently prior to invasion of Iraq.

[11] Excellent discussions of Iran's proposal are given by G. Prather (a physicist who has worked in the Departments of Energy and Defence). See, for example, "What the Neo-Crazies Knew," August 13, 2005, in See also Prather's August 8, 2005 article, "EU vs. Iran: Who's Right?" at

[12] See also, T. Parsi, "Europe's Mendacity Doomed Iran Talks to Failure," the Financial Times of London, August 30, 2005. To view the article, see

[13] For a thorough analysis of the IAEA report see, K.L. Afrasiabi, "ElBaradei's Report Deconstructed," September 7, 2005, at

[14] Dillip Hiro, "Iran's Nuclear Ambitions," the Nation Magazine, September 12, 2005. To view the article see,

[15] D. Leglu, Liberation (Paris), April 29, 1984.

[16] See also, Shirin Ebadi and M. Sahimi, "In the Mullahs' Shadow," the Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2005.

[17] Estimates on Iran's natural uranium deposits vary widely. They range anywhere from enough deposits to produce fuel for only one 1000 MW reactor for 6-7 years, which is what the US claims (hence pointing out that such small deposits do not justify an enrichment program, unless it is for military purposes), to much larger amounts cited in Part II of this series. The true amount is likely to be something in between.

[18] See also, F. Mokhtari, "Coping with Iran's Nuclear Ambitions," the Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2005. To view the article see,,1, 1689359.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-california

[19] P. Kerr, "Back to Normal, Iran Nuclear Abilities Limited," Arms Control Association, September 6, 2005. To view the article see,

[20] See also, A. Cowell, "Nuclear Weapon is Years off for Iran, Research Panel Says," the New York Times, Wednesday September 8, 2005, p. A11.

About the author:
Muhammad Sahimi is Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and NIOC Professor of Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Since 1986 he has been a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists - an organization dedicated to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons - and a contributor to its Partners for Earth Program. He has also been a visiting professor in Australia, Europe, and the Middle East, and a consultant to many energy firms around the world. In addition to his scientific work, his political articles have appeared as book chapters, on various websites, and in such publications as the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.

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