Iran powers ahead

27 July 2005

The election at the end of June of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both surprised and dismayed Western commentators who had expected the apparently more reformist veteran politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to win. However, Iran’s nuclear policy is unlikely to change significantly as it is largely decided by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) under Hassan Rohani and indirectly by the Guardians Council, which Hashemi-Rafsanjani continues to head. The SNSC, responsible for determining national defence and security policies within general guidelines set by the head of state (supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), includes the president as well as appointed representatives and top military, executive, legislative, and judicial officials. The Guardians Council comprises 12 jurists, six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six chosen by the judiciary. It interprets the constitution and determines whether legislation passed by parliament is in line with Islamic law. It also oversees presidential and parliamentary elections, and elections for the Assembly of Experts which chooses the supreme leader.

Though there were conciliatory noises from Rafsanjani before the elections, Iran has never agreed to curtail its nuclear programme – despite undertaking last November to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment activities pending talks with European leaders. The Europeans are expected to present Iran with details of the nuclear activities they consider legitimate as part of a commercial energy programme before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors meets in September. Europe hopes to persuade Iran to give up its fuel cycle activities in return for economic incentives in face of growing economic problems, in particular high youth unemployment.

Washington, while reluctantly supporting the European initiative, has also called for stronger measures against Iran if the talks fail, including referral to the UN Security Council for sanctions or even military action.

PRESERVING NATIONAL INTERESTS

Iran has always made it clear that it will continue with its nuclear plans while seeking to provide the assurances necessary to convince the world that its programme is peaceful. However, if these are not accepted it will continue regardless. Ahmadinejad said: “We will continue talks with Europeans while preserving our national interests and insistence on the right of the Iranian nation to use nuclear energy.” He stressed Iran’s determination to make progress “based on self-reliance” noting: “It doesn’t need the United States significantly on this path.” Nevertheless, he would seek to improve relations “with any country that doesn’t seek hostilities against Iran.”

Nuclear expert Rasul Khodabakhsh told the Mehr news agency that uranium is the world’s future source of fuel and under no circumstances should Iran deprive itself of this option. He said it takes 70 years for a country to develop indigenous nuclear technologies. “Nuclear activities began in Iran 30 years ago and we still face a long road ahead regarding various issues like the production of light water power plants.” He pointed out that the 1000 megawatts of electricity produced at Bushehr would equal the energy derived annually from two million tonnes of coal or 27.3 million barrels of oil, saving Iran up to $2 billion a year.

RUSSIAN RELATIONS

In the wake of the elections, Russia pledged to continue nuclear cooperation with Iran, despite veiled threats of sanctions from Washington. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s message of congratulations to Ahmadinejad noted that construction of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr is nearing completion, “and we are ready to continue cooperation with Iran in the nuclear power engineering sector, taking into account our international obligations in the non-proliferation sphere, and to promote the search for a mutually acceptable political solution to the existing problems.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency, Alexander Rumyantsev, who also said Russia would take part in tenders for the construction of new nuclear power units in Iran.

Before the election, Rumyantsev had on several occasions criticised Iran’s plans to make its own nuclear fuel arguing that it was not economically viable with fewer than eight nuclear plants and that Russia was supplying all the fuel needed for Bushehr. Iran’s new leaders, however, have been careful to make it very clear to Moscow that Iran’s fuel cycle plans are not negotiable, and that any further delays to Bushehr would be frowned upon, at the same time offering the carrot of more contracts in future if everything goes to plan.

During the visit of an Iranian delegation to Moscow in July, Kazem Jalali, rapporteur of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission at Iran’s parliament and head of the Iran-Russia Parliamentary Friendship Group, noted that Iran plans to construct 20 nuclear power plants in the coming years and stressed that it would be economical for Iran to produce their fuel. He also urged Moscow to complete Bushehr and supply it with necessary fuel according to the 2006 timetable. In response, Rumyantsev assured him that agreements would be honoured and that the station would be commissioned next June.

G8 LEADERS WEIGH IN

That same day, G8 leaders meeting in Scotland declared: “We remain united in our determination to see the proliferation implications of Iran’s advanced nuclear programme resolved. It is essential that Iran would provide the international community with objective guarantees that its nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes in order to build international confidence.” As part of a six-page statement on non-proliferation they welcomed “the initiative of France, Germany and the UK, and the high representative of the EU to reach agreement with Iran on long-term arrangements which would provide such objective guarantees as well as political and economic cooperation.” The statement called on Iran to maintain the suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities while negotiations proceed and reiterated “the need for Iran to cooperate fully with IAEA requests for information and access.”

In a surprising recognition that regional non-proliferation is not only about Iran, the G8 leaders indirectly urged Israel to “accede without delay” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and other similar treaties and conventions. “Multilaterally agreed norms provide an essential basis for our non-proliferation efforts. We strongly support universal adherence to and compliance with these norms,” the statement said, emphasising that the NPT remains the “cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation.”

NPT CONFERENCE FAILURE

In a clear attempt to salvage something from the abysmal failure in May of the seventh NPT review conference, the G8 leaders said: “We remain determined that threats and challenges to the nuclear non-proliferation regime be addressed on the basis of the NPT.” The month-long conference in New York was the second review since the NPT was indefinitely extended 10 years ago. But it was unable to even adopt a consensus document. No progress proved possible in face of the weaknesses and double standards inherent in the treaty which have been dramatically brought to the fore in recent years by the controversies over Iran and Israel and the withdrawal of North Korea.

Rebecca Johnson, director of the non-governmental Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, described the meeting as “one of the most shameful exhibitions of cynical time-wasting,” after delegates from 153 countries wrangled over procedure and could not even agree to an agenda for 10 days. And after four weeks of discussions, they produced only to a procedural declaration, listing the participants and meetings and indicating how they would cover the financial costs.

The ‘bargain’ that is at the heart of the NPT has clearly broken down. This said that countries without nuclear weapons would not acquire them and agree to physical inspections to ensure that nuclear materials were not diverted to military programmes. In return, the five nuclear weapons states (NWS) would earnestly initiate negotiations to eliminate them, and in the meantime, facilitate the transfer of peaceful nuclear material/technology to non-NWS. The failure in New York was attributed in large part to growing disillusion on the part of non-NWS at the lack of any real progress on disarmament and indeed a perception that the USA in particular was reversing many earlier disarmament processes. The USA, however, blamed lack of compliance with the NPT by states such as North Korea and Iran. The result was an impasse that threatened the very basis of the treaty. And rather than attempting to tackle that difficult problem, participants chose instead to side-step altogether every issue of any substance.

In his report to the IAEA board of governors in Vienna a few weeks later, director general Mohamed ElBaradei noted with “regret” the inability of the US party to the NPT to agree on how to strengthen the implementation of the treaty. “The lack of substantive agreement is particularly disheartening, given the urgent challenges we face, and the opportunity afforded by this review conference. Despite the outcome of the conference, these challenges are still here and must be addressed.” He urged all states “to pursue in earnest solutions to reforming our faltering global security system – of which the non-proliferation regime is an essential part” and suggested the United Nations summit in September as “a timely opportunity to launch this urgently needed reform.”

IAEA EFFORTS IN IRAN

The sense of deflation that followed the review conference was also evident in Vienna. The main achievement of the board of governors meeting was recommending that Mohamed ElBaradei be granted a third term as the director general, effectively ensuring his re-election by the full IAEA membership in September. The decision came less than a week after the USA finally abandoned its long-standing opposition to his reappointment after they failed to find an alternative candidate, when other board members, including France, Germany, and some developing countries, made clear their support for him. ElBaradei had clashed with US officials over what they saw as his failure to describe Iran’s violations of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA as ‘non-compliance’, which would automatically trigger a referral to the UN Security Council, leaving open the possibility of sanctions or even military force.

ElBaradei told the June board meeting that efforts had continued to verify Iran’s compliance with its NPT safeguards obligations and that Iran had facilitated agency access. In addition, monitoring was continuing of Iran’s voluntary suspension of enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. Progress was also being made on one of the two key remaining issues: namely, the origin of the low- and high-enriched uranium contamination on equipment at various locations in Iran. This was possible after the agency received centrifuge components from another state and was able to undertake environmental sampling. On the second issue, that of Iran’s development of advanced P-2 centrifuges, investigations were continuing. He asked Iran to support the agency’s efforts to pursue further its investigation of the Lavisan-Shian and Parchin sites, “by working to reach agreement on modalities, currently under discussion, that would provide the agency with access to dual use equipment and other information related to the Lavisan-Shian site, and would allow additional agency visits to areas of interest at the Parchin site.”

The board heard a more detailed interim report on these issues from IAEA deputy director general Pierre Goldschmidt. He noted also that Iran is modifying one of the underground structures at Natanz (the uranium enrichment facility) for safe storage of equipment and has already submitted updated design information. He said that while there are no indications of undeclared uranium mining or milling activities at Gchine, the agency is investigating why work there was suspended from 1994 to 2000 to focus on a much less promising ore deposit at Saghand. The report noted that following a physical inventory verification of nuclear material at the uranium conversion facility near Isfahan, a preliminary assessment suggested that the quantities of material appeared to correspond to those declared by Iran.

On Iran’s plutonium separation experiments, there were some discrepancies over the dates that the experiments ended and investigations were continuing. As to Iran’s heavy water plant, inspectors had visited the Arak site in March and noted that construction of the heavy water research reactor (IR-40) building had been started. All these issues will be the subject of a more detailed report to the board in September.

Generally the June board meeting was more of a holding operation than anything else, coming as it did before key developments such as Iran’s presidential elections and the Iran-European talks expected in August. All the major issues will be raised once again in September by which time the agency will have the results of most of their environmental sampling and will likely have been granted access by Iran to those sites where questions remain.

Model for developing nations

Iran’s former envoy to the IAEA, Mohammad Kiarashi, said Iran is a model for many developing nations and he has little confidence that it could ever gain Western approval through confidence-building measures. Majlis (parliament) speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, during a recent visit to Brussels, also stressed Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology noting the removal of “certain ambiguities” for European officials on Iran’s nuclear dossier and pointing to Tehran’s “positive” cooperation with the IAEA. He said he expected EU foreign ministers to provide Iran with detailed proposals by August on how to end the dispute.

However, Iran Atomic Energy Organization (IAEO) director Gholamreza Aqazadeh believes the negotiations will become more difficult. He dismissed speculation that Iran will abandon its efforts to master the complete nuclear fuel cycle in exchange for economic and political incentives but said Iran is willing to make concessions. He expected negotiations with Europe to be complicated but said there are “no concerns about the future of Iran’s nuclear programme, technically or legally, at the IAEA.” He said it is “a misconception that Iran expects Europe to facilitate its accession to the World Trade Organisation. These are only minor issues compared to mastering the nuclear fuel cycle.” He wanted to assure Europe that Iran is not concerned about a possible referral of its nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council.

Iran’s leaders are clearly hoping its case will be finally closed at the September IAEA board meeting. However, with the USA continuing to insist on an end to all enrichment activity in Iran and pressing for Iran’s referral to the UN Security Council, at best, the matter will be referred pending further investigation to the following board meeting in November. At worst, in face of US pressure, Iran could decide to pull out of the NPT altogether, dealing a final death blow to that already fragile treaty.


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