Wikileaks reveals art of nuclear diplomacy

4 March 2011

Leaked memoranda from the US embassy in London to Washington from 2007-9 reveal angst over Iran’s nuclear power programme, concern about international fuel banks, and the head of the IAEA, according to a series of nuclear power-related documents published by Wikileaks and UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph earlier this year. The most notable findings are summarized below.

US advised to use diplomacy in discussions with Iran: low-key approach is the key to averting development of nuclear weapons

In January 2009 a Tehran-based nuclear expert met privately in London with U.S Ambassador to UNVIE (United States Mission to International Organizations in Vienna), Greg Schulte, accompanied by the US Embassy’s specialist ‘Iran watcher’.

The Iranian, had recently returned from a trip to US where he gave a speech at Ft. McNair's National Defense University (NDU). He argued that a quiet, calibrated approach to the right Iranian audience by the US government could be a way to avert Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capacity. He recommended a low key approach - assigning nuclear issues a lower priority in future negotiations - as a way of getting better results in achieving nuclear objectives.

The Iranian (name redacted by Wikileaks) believes Iran's leadership is committed domestically to low-grade enrichment but is not irretrievably committed to creation of a nuclear weapon. The cable recounts at some length the Iranian’s exposition of strategies for negotiating with his government, which he compares to the tactics for buying carpets in the souk.

Key points from the lesson in the art of diplomacy in the souk include:

• Regional security and regime legitimacy, not nuclear weapons, are Tehran's priorities. The regime's negotiating approach is fixed by national character so the US government (USG) will get quicker results at a lower price by focusing its initial Iran outreach efforts and negotiating tactics away from the USG's own priority: i.e., away from the nuclear issue.

• The regime's negotiating approach "in every way (that of) a carpet seller" assessing a potential customer; "the customer must not signal" which carpet he truly wants and "must be willing to walk away, or be cheated."

• Tactical sequencing of the nuclear issue after less vital issues are addressed could result in the end in a net time savings. A calculating Tehran regime will otherwise hold any issue to which the USG visibly imparts urgency, hostage to its own negotiating priorities.

• Iranian priorities centre around the regional security and prestige which, in Iranian eyes, only the United States can bestow.

• Since the 1979 revolution, general regime distrust of the US has created the general conviction in Tehran that the USG's nuclear end game is "zero enrichment" of any type by Iran. USG needs to be clearer in its messaging: "domestic opponents of reconciliation will exploit every opening in your offer ... (the USG in effect) must sell it to the Iranian people." USG should use the concrete example of an existing U.S. technology light water reactor, perhaps in Brazil, as a centrepiece of its public approach.

• The regime's propaganda has married the nuclear confrontation to themes of nationalism, such that nuclear enrichment "suspension" is a formula on which no one in Iran's political establishment is able to back down on either now or in the future.

• A change in phrasing could be key to USG moving toward its goal to halt or slow Iranian enrichment. For example substitution of "technical overhaul" for "suspension." Regime leadership would be open to a "technical overhaul" being followed by a period of "enrichment maintenance;" during "enrichment maintenance," nuclear programme work would, with verification, not go forward, while further parameters for negotiations, and for further stand-still periods, were established. It would be important for the regime to be able publicly to claim without direct contradiction that it had stood firm on its principle of "no suspension."

• The content of any offer, on nuclear or other issues, will be less important than the way in which it is offered. With respect to a nuclear offer, the USG should sequence and craft its opening so as to reduce, in the eyes of the Tehran regime, the nuclear issue's apparent importance to the U.S.

The US Political Officer’s (PolOff) comment says that the Iranian who provided the info has long been a respected USG interlocutor on Iran. Moving frequently between Western and Iranian environments, he has quietly provided USG interlocutors with analysis and insights on regime dynamics which are consistently measured, nuanced, and informed, though not always shared by all Iranian analysts who PolOff meets.

Discussions ahead of the 2009 International Fuel Cycle Conference

Some of the leaked cables chart discussions on the themes and outcomes of a global framework for nuclear energy development ahead of the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Conference held in London in March 2009 attended by representatives of 35 governments.

The then-UK PM Gordon Brown favoured a legally binding "Statement of Principles" to be approved at the conference and sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors for action. The proposed text for the statement, as well as a scaled back version, were sent to the US government for comment a month ahead of the conference.

The February 2009 cable from the US Embassy in London says “the planning for this conference at this stage appears disorganized, as FCO told us no formal invitations have been issued. The agenda is also very rough.”

The London Embassy said that while supporting the efforts of the UK to promote assurances on nuclear safety and security and the transfer of nuclear material and technology, it wanted to use the conference as a good platform for providing the new US Administration's views on Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).

In the event, the UK hopes of a legally binding agreement did not survive and Brown was left calling for the creation of “a new international system to ensure non-nuclear states acquire the new sources of energy that they want to have.”

In June 2009 Acting Economic Minister Counselor Mark Johnson cabled his bureau saying that the UK and US positions on the international nuclear fuel bank are closely aligned. He quoted a contact at the FCO saying. “The UK has concerns regarding the non-discriminatory nature of the IAEA's proposal to establish an IAEA Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank since all IAEA members - including Israel, Pakistan, and India would have access to the LEU Bank.” He added that the UK Government is apprehensive about Kazakhstan as the site/location for the LEU Bank due to security and nonproliferation concerns. The UK Government would prefer to see a neutral state such as Switzerland or another safe, stable, and secure country volunteer to be the site for the LEU Bank.

UK suggests IAEA could provide fuel rods for Iranian research reactor

In July 2009 the cables report on the US embassy’s discussions with the FCO's Iran Multilateral team and FCO's Counterproliferation Department. They reiterated HMG's support for US efforts to prevent Iran from accessing new sources of uranium for its domestic enrichment program. The cable reported that the UK was particularly concerned about Valencia Mine, a new consortium in Namibia, headed by a Belgian company with the involvement of companies from several other countries, including Canada. The UK embassy in Namibia had spoken with the Namibian government and was confident it did not want to run afoul of the sanctions regime, despite some contrary public messages. The UK government had noticed a pattern of increased travel by Iranian government employees to West Africa and so shares the US view that Iran is seeking new sources of uranium.

The FCO asked PolOff about the possibility, previously discussed of the USG and/or HMG (Her Majesty’s government), quietly lobbying the IAEA to provide fuel rods to Iran for use in its research reactor. The idea behind such an approach would be to demonstrate that Iran has no need for a domestic enrichment program because it can access fuel for legitimate projects. The provision of uranium in the form of fuel rods for the research reactor would not require a revision of the UNSCR, and should be relatively easy to accomplish.

Difference of opinion between UK and US over appointment of new IAEA DG

In May 2009 Political Minister Counselor Gregory Berry was cabling his head office with the news that the UK Government had not yet decided whom to back as the new IAEA director general

Berry reported that Simon Manley, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) Director, Defense and Strategic Threats, told him that the UK government had hoped that the Director General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Rogelio Pfirter, an Argentine, would emerge as a candidate. As that did not happen, the UK was evaluating the three European candidates (Echavarri, Petric, and Poncelet)

In an earlier May 7th meeting a FCO Counterproliferation Department Desk Officer said that UK policy makers are worried that a continuing stalemate could present the ‘real risk’ of ElBaradei (the outgoing DG) putting his name forward again for Director General.

In December 2009 career diplomat Yukiya Amano became Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, an outcome that the US government had wanted.

UK new nuclear build : embassy provides detailed briefing but uncovers no secrets

Regular cables setting out the in some detail the UK government actions to facilitate new nuclear build were dispatched to the USG. Many noted the involvement of US companies in the UK nuclear industry. In June 2009 a 2000 word cable UK Ramping Up On Nuclear Power, But Challenges Remain was sent to Washington. This provides a summary of issues around UK new nuclear build and legacy waste and the “embarrassing white elephant” MOX plant at Sellafield. However, like most of its predecessors it does not contain any information that was not in the public domain or known to industry watchers.

House of Commons report calling for change in Iran policy can be ignored

In February 2008 Political Counselor Richard Mills warned his bureau that a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to be published in March 2009 would urge a major change in HMG and collective western policy on Iran's nuclear program, most notably the dropping of the suspension requirement before there can be direct talks on nuclear issues with Tehran.

The PolOff had had sight of the cross-party report ahead of its publication. The report argues that the December 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate had created a policy environment in which current sanctions will not be enough to affect Iran's nuclear decisions, and urged HMG to strike a strong leadership posture on Iran vis-a-vis the United States.

The PolOff told Washington that “Parliamentary Committee recommendations, however, due to the unique dynamics of the British system of cabinet government, have little direct or immediate impact on official HMG government policy, especially with respect to core foreign policy issues such as how to respond to Iran's nuclear programme.”

US Embassy alerted about uranium sale

In November 2007 the Embassy alerted Washington agencies that it had received a report via call-in and email indicating a potential incident of illicit trafficking in and possible offer of nuclear and/or radiological materials.

The nuclear material was reportedly in the Philippines, but the Philippine authorities had not yet been notified. The means of transport, intended destination of material, supplier and origination point of material were all unknown. The cable states “At approximately 1100 hours GMT on 11/20/07, a phone message was received by Post's Foreign Service National Investigator (FSNI) Unit from a male stating he had information in regard to the sale of Uranium that formerly belonged to the US. He also stated he had previously sent faxes to the Embassy and the CIA, but as yet had not received a response.”

The UK source of this information had previously employed divers in the Philippines and had been recently contacted by them with information that they had found 5-6 Uranium "bricks" at the site of an underwater wreck. The contacts wanted to sell the "bricks" for profit. Photographs of the substance in question were emailed to the embassy. No further information about the matter was available.

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