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A Mexican Standoff between Iran and US over the Nuclear Issue

By Nader Bagherzadeh, UC, Irvine


For those who have been following this complex issue there should be no doubt that although Iran talks to the European Union representative, Xavier Solana, the real deal maker, or breaker in most cases is US.  This has been confirmed by the news of Solana’s briefing Condi Rice, the US Secretary of State, immediately after his meetings with Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani.  Also, most avid followers of this debacle know that the biggest hurdle is how to deal with the suspension of enrichment activity in Natanz.  Some in the Bush administration, such as former UN representative John Bolton, are very proud of including this demand in the UN resolutions against Iran, calling it a confidence building requirement. 


Although neoconservative and pro-Israeli groups such as AEI and AIPAC are ecstatic about the negative economical impact of these sanctions on Iran and hope for tougher ones, however, the fact on the ground, as far as domestic nuclear technology is concerned, is different.  Iran is inching closer to mastering this technology and the danger of a military confrontation is very real, even though impartial experts outside the Office of Vice-President (OVP) almost all agree that bombing Iran nuclear facilities will have dire global consequences. 


There was a time before these new rounds of sanctions and pressures when some of the moderate but influential Iranian officials were suggesting that Iran may limit its enrichment to 164-cascased centrifuge machines for R&D purposes only, while negotiations were making progress.  Since US policy has always been to prevent Iran from acquiring the knowledge to enrich uranium, any discussion for continuation of enrichment activity at any level was considered a non-starter.  Hence, as the sanctions were approved, at the Natanz facility Iran moved from the above ground Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) with two working 164-cascaded machines to the underground massive halls of Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) where the industrial enrichment facility is planed for construction of roughly 54,000 centrifuges.  The latest report from IAEA confirmed operation of 8 164-cascades, for a total of 1312 centrifuge machines, in preparation for expansion to 18 cascades for the development of the first module in FEP, each module has 2952 centrifuges.  Final assembly may require installing eighteen modules at the staggering rate of 1400 centrifuges per month in order to meet the projected completion date of 2010.


A New York Times article by David Sanger (5/15/2007) reports that IAEA’s most recent inspection of the Natanz facility, since the last official report, confirms that Iran’s 1312 centrifuge machines are “enriching uranium and running smoothly.”   Inspectors have also observed 6 more 164-cascades in final stages of testing and installation in preparation for completion of the first 18 cascade module sometime in June. 


If the goal of West has been to help IAEA resolve the so-called “ambiguities” about Iran’s past nuclear activities, it is not necessary to demand suspension of enrichment.  Figuring out why certain equipment in an Iranian university was tainted with nuclear material is completely unrelated to the spinning of centrifuge machines at the heavily monitored and inspected Natanz facilities, whatsoever.   None of the concerns reported by IAEA require suspending centrifuge machines; majority are related to identifying sources of contamination and interviewing scientists that were involved in these projects.  Another critical related issue is that, if Iran agrees to any suspension before or during negotiations with the West, it is very unlikely that US will agree to resumption of enrichment activity any time soon, at least not until January of 2009 when the current administration leaves office.  Also, none of the US presidential candidates will dare to confront the strong neo-conservative and pro-Israeli lobby against Iran for any change in the enrichment policy once suspension has commenced--enrichment suspension is a “one way” street.


Let’s review some of the current most talked about proposals on the table for resuming negotiations:


·         “Time Out” (Mohamed ElBaradei’s proposal): Iran will suspend enrichment (other activities such as R&D and uranium conversion may continue) and sanctions will be on hold.

·         “Freeze for Freeze” proposal: Iran continues with enrichment but refrains from adding any new centrifuges, and West will not propose the third pending sanction, but the first two existing sanctions will be enforced.

·         “Cold or Hot Standby” (also called the Swiss proposal): Centrifuges will spin without injecting any feed for enrichment, put in the “neutral gear” so to speak, and sanctions will be put on hold too.


All the these proposals are doomed to failure because of two simple and fundamental issues: (1) Iran official have repeated recently that the suspension of enrichment as a precondition for talks is “non-negotiable” and (2) US-OVP will not agree with any enrichment activity or any opportunity for Iran to learn gas centrifuge technology even if they are running empty, in “neutral gear.”


As these two gun-slinging and fire-breathing protagonists, US and Iran, respectively, are locked into this Mexican standoff, the world is wondering which one will blink first, and what would be the grave consequences of this standoff. 

... Payvand News - 5/18/07 ...

... Payvand News - 5/18/07 ... --

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