Iran's path to sanctions?

4 October 2006

European negotiator Javier Solana said that talks in Berlin with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani were positive and constructive, but nevertheless ended on 28 September without agreement. Solana said that there were some issues that still needed to be resolved, and he hoped to renew talks in a few days. Meanwhile, in Washington, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said time was running out for talks. “Nobody wants to go down the path of sanctions – that is not our first choice,” he said. “But we are prepared to go down that path if that’s the door that the Iranian regime wants to open.”

Iranian officials continued to insist that Iran would continue with its nuclear programme. Foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran saw no reason to suspend its nuclear activities. And president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned that Iran “would not bend” over its nuclear programme.

Talks and rhetoric

Earlier, on 19 September, the UN Security Council (plus Germany and Italy) had agreed to give Solana more time to convince Iran to give up its enrichment programme before seeking UN sanctions.

Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, deputy head of the Supreme National Security Council said that suspension of enrichment activities was one of subjects raised during the discussions. “Discussion concerned the reasons for suspension, ways of suspension and questions about it. This does not mean Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities,” he said.

However, diplomatic sources close to the talks told NEI that there was a growing willingness to compromise on the part of the European states. Only Washington was maintaining a rigid position.

Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), confirmed this. “I do not think that the differences are about the principles. In fact, I personally believe that the Europeans have become wiser with the passage of time,” he said. “The approach of some countries towards the Iranian nuclear dossier has now changed and they have moved towards greater realism.” In this context, he added: “What is important for us is the process of confidence building, in order to remedy the worries that some countries may still have about our programmes.”

Iran’s position has remained consistent for several years, with an insistence that it will not give up its right to enrich uranium but will agree to all necessary safeguards and provide whatever guarantees are needed to ensure confidence in the peaceful nature of its programme.

Speaking at the 50th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in September, Aqazadeh said Iran was “prepared for negotiations and a political compromise.” Insisting on the peaceful nature of the programme, he said Iran would maintain its nuclear activities under IAEA surveillance and “is prepared to accept any partnership in its nuclear fuel production programme by any country who is interested.”

The USA is continuing with its hard line alone. Its attitude recently caused friction with the IAEA, which wrote a sharp letter to a US House Intelligence Committee on 13 September describing part of its case against Iran as “outrageous and dishonest.”

The committee had said Iran was already enriching uranium to weapons grade, but the IAEA claimed the country is “far from that capability.” The committee had also hinted at collusion between Iran and the IAEA in a cover-up, noting that the agency had removed one of its inspectors following an objection from Tehran. However, the IAEA pointed out that Iran has the right to participate in the appointment of inspectors and that it had so far approved more than 200 appointed by the agency.

International fuel centre

Mohammad Saeidi, vice president of the AEOI, told NEI that Iran would not stop its enrichment programme because there could be no real assurance of fuel supply, even with the IAEA as a guarantor. “The providers of fuel are specific countries and some want to preclude others from their rights to nuclear technology as specified by Article 4 of the NPT.”

He said the suppliers had divided up the world, with Eurodif and Urenco supplying Europe, the USA and Canada supplying the Americas and part of Asia and Russia supplying East Asia. This was an acceptable division, but the problem of assurances and guarantees remained, and some countries would want to maintain a minimal level of domestic fuel production in case deliveries were suspended.

Iran has no objection to participating in an international fuel centre based in Russia, Saeidi noted, “but in parallel it must have its own production.” In Natanz, Iran is planning to produce enough enriched uranium for just one nuclear unit. “The design is based on this and we have enough uranium for this.”

He added that the IAEA had installed two camera systems at Natanz to monitor the whole system and inspections were carried out twice a month. “It is not possible for us to produce anything which is not known,” he insisted.

Iran does not need or want nuclear weapons, he said. “We want to engage with Western countries. Our people are smart and clever, but we will not compromise our rights. We are ready to remove all ambiguities concerning our nuclear policy.”

Saeidi said Iran was ready to share its technology with Urenco and other companies. “Urenco, Eurodif, Tvel and others are welcome to take shares and invest in the Natanz enrichment facility and the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, as well as in our research reactor.”

This approach has certain similarities to recent suggestions from the Science, Technology and Global Security Working Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Iran as a pioneer case for multilateral nuclear arrangements, by Geoffrey Forden and John Thomson, proposes a multilateral enrichment facility on Iranian soil with the capacity to provide material for a virtual fuel bank. It suggests a commercial partnership with the governments of Germany, the UK and France as shareholders Iran would lease all its enrichment related equipment and facilities to the partnership and would undertake not to enrich or reprocess, except through the partnership. The partnership would lease Urenco (or Russian) centrifuges and install them in batches.

The IAEA would operate three levels of safeguards and each shift of workers as well as the management company would have a majority of non-Iranians. The LEU would be sold commercially on the global market and profits distributed.

The authors note that while Iran’s P-1 centrifuges would never produce more than enough uranium for one plant, the leased machines could service the whole programme of 20 reactors by 2035 and still be able to contribute to a virtual fuel bank. It remains to be seen, however, whether this proposal will remain anything other than academic in face of continued opposition from Washington.

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