Brussels/Washington/Tehran, 23 February 2006: Diplomacy can still defuse the Iran nuclear crisis if both sides pursue a realistic compromise.
Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse?,* the latest report from the International Crisis Group, starts with the reality that European diplomacy has so far not persuaded Iran to drop its uranium enrichment ambitions; the UN Security Council seems unlikely to agree on sanctions strong enough to force it to do so; and preventive military force would be both dangerous and unproductive. Two possible scenarios remain, however, for a negotiated compromise.
The more attractive is a “zero enrichment” option, building on Russia’s proposal, under which Iran would indefinitely give up its right to enrich uranium in return for guaranteed offshore nuclear fuel supply. More U.S. incentives would need to be on the table to give this a chance, but on all present indications that won’t happen, and the Tehran-Moscow talks are going nowhere fast.
If this option fails, the only realistic diplomatic alternative is the “delayed limited enrichment” plan detailed in this report. The international community would take a deep breath and accept Iran’s “right to enrich” domestically; in return Iran would have to agree to delay its program several years, limit its initial size and scope and accept highly intrusive, continuous inspections. There would be an initial IAEA assessment phase (2-3 years) with enrichment activity suspended; a further confidence-building phase (3-4 years) with only laboratory enrichment; and thereafter normal production, preferably with a multinational operation, but with other limits on Iran’s nuclear program and continued close monitoring.
“Both sides will protest the plan goes too far”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group Middle East Program Director, “The West will say it permits Tehran eventually to achieve full fuel cycle capability, with the risk that entails of weapons acquisition; Iran that it delays and limits its full fuel-cycle capability. But with the right kind and number of significant carrots (particularly U.S.) and sticks (particularly from the EU) a successful outcome is possible”.
“This compromise should be compared neither to the fragile and unsustainable status quo, nor to some idealised, universally comfortable end-state”, Crisis Group President Gareth Evans says. “The real alternatives to diplomacy are much worse: either rapid descent to a North Korea situation, with an unsupervised nuclear program leading inexorably to nuclear weapons and all their dangerously unpredictable regional consequences; or an Iraq-like preventive military strike, with even more alarming regional and global consequences”.
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