If Iran's intention is to become a nuclear-weapon threshold state without allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to uncover its progress toward that goal, then its current stalling tactics would seem appropriate. However, if Iran's nuclear intentions are exclusively peaceful, then it is necessary to convince the Iranian leadership that its noncooperative policies are counterproductive. This will not be an easy task considering the huge and persistent mistrust between Iran and most of the main nuclear supplier states.

There is no quick fix to solve the Iran nuclear crisis. Negotiating a multilateral agreement with Iran is a long and frustrating process that can only progress step by step. Experience with North Korea is certainly not encouraging and will not reassure those who rightfully consider that time is playing to the advantage of Iran, at least for the time being.

To prevent the Iranian nuclear crisis from escalating, two outcomes should be achieved simultaneously: (1) convincing Iran that further sanctions will inevitably be adopted if Iran continues to ignore IAEA and UN Security Council demands, and (2) persuading Iran that considerable economic, political, and security benefits would result if it meets international requirements.

At this stage it is important to learn from experience and to acknowledge that the international community has always been one step behind in its diplomacy with Iran.

One of the latest examples is the fuel swap proposal of October 2009 brokered by then IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei on behalf of the Vienna Group (USA, Russian Federation, France, and the IAEA) to facilitate the initiation of broader negotiations between Iran and the West. The Joint Declaration of May 17, 2010 between Iran, Brazil, and Turkey transformed the bad "good idea" of October 2009 into a mistake because, in the meantime, Iran nullified the terms of the agreement by deciding unilaterally to produce uranium enriched to 19.75 percent.

With these precedents in mind, what could be the basis for making real progress during the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul this month?

The Starting Point

Let's first assume that suspending uranium enrichment is unacceptable in Iran for political reasons. As a consequence, Iran must similarly accept that it is politically impossible for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to lift existing sanctions under four legally binding Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities.

The objective of the international community is to obtain adequate assurance that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes. In order to achieve this goal, the most important step is for Iran to provide full cooperation to the IAEA, including by granting unrestricted access to all locations that the Agency deems necessary for verifying the correctness and completeness of Iran's declarations.[1]

Iran has repeatedly deplored that discussion over its nuclear program is being addressed by the UNSC, rather than remaining within the purview of the IAEA. The irony is that each time the UNSC adopts new sanctions, Iran further reduces its cooperation with the IAEA, which therefore emphasizes in its reports that it is unable to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, thus leading to more sanctions. It is essential to find a way to break this vicious circle, which should be the main objective of the next round of negotiations in Istanbul.

The mutual distrust between the P5+1 and Iran can only be overcome incrementally through a succession of positive actions by both sides. The difficulty is to avoid the risk of exchanging an irreversible concession of the international community for a reversible commitment by Iran.

Step 1: The Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) Deal

UNSC resolutions concerning Iran’s nuclear program explicitly allow the supply of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for light water reactors such as the Bushehr power reactor or the Tehran research reactor once they are incorporated in assembled nuclear fuel elements.

Such fuel assemblies should arguably be delivered without conditions. However, if imposing conditions for the delivery of fuel assemblies is justified by the fact that Iran is not complying with UNSC resolutions (in particular, by not suspending its enrichment activities) and with IAEA demands for transparency, the important question is how to agree on the most relevant conditions:

  1. Requiring a swap with a limited quantity of LEU produced in Iran as proposed by the Vienna Group in October 2009 is not appropriate.

    With its current stockpile of some 350 tons of natural UF6 (and more to come), Iran can progressively produce more than 40,000 kg of LEU at 3.5% U-235. Requiring Iran to deliver 1,200 kg of LEU as a condition for the delivery of fuel assemblies for the TRR is, therefore, meaningless and counterproductive. Iran does not seem to have the capacity to manufacture fuel assemblies for the safe operation of the TRR, and it has been extremely clever in making the world believe that accepting the October 2009 fuel swap proposal would be a major concession when, in fact, it was entirely to Iran’s benefit.
     
  2. It would make sense to require the delivery of fuel reloads for the TRR granted that Iran exports its stockpile of uranium enriched beyond 5% U-235 to Russia and commits not to produce any additional enriched uranium as long as it is supplied with the fuel elements necessary for the continuous operation of the TRR.[2] In addition, all spent fuel from the TRR would have to be returned to Russia, as is already the case for the spent fuel of the Bushehr power reactor.
     
  3. It would be perfectly logical to require Iran to fully implement its Additional Protocol (signed in December 2003) and to undertake its ratification within the next 12 months (the necessary amount of time for manufacturing TRR fuel assemblies), and to fully implement the new IAEA Subsidiary Arrangements Code 3.1 on early design information signed in February 2003 by Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, then head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. These requirements are consistent with Iran’s desires to have its nuclear dossier "returned" from the UNSC to the IAEA.

In order to encourage Iran to accept these conditions, the P5+1 should agree to withhold further economic sanctions if Iran were to fully and proactively implement the Additional Protocol (and Code 3.1), disclose the existence of possible undeclared nuclear material and activities, or acknowledge any past violations of the NPT or its safeguards agreement within an agreed period of time. In such a case Iran would be praised for its cooperation with the IAEA and its breaches would be reported to the UNSC for "information purposes only" (as was done for Libya).[3] Without such a grace period and a binding international commitment not to add sanctions due to Iranian disclosures there is no reason to expect that Iran would fully cooperate with the IAEA or voluntarily confess any past wrongdoings.

Step 2: Allowing Iran to Proceed with Uranium Enrichment

After achieving step 1, Iran would likely insist that it will continue to enrich uranium and call for lifting all UNSC sanctions.

For that to be possible, at least two prerequisites would need to be fulfilled:

  • The IAEA must draw the “broad conclusion” that there are no undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and that Iran’s declarations to the IAEA are correct and complete. Until then, Iran would need to commit to send abroad its domestic stockpile of LEU every six months for incorporation into fabricated fuel assemblies for the Bushehr reactor and possibly other light water reactors, while continuing to enrich uranium below 5% U-235.
     
  • Iran must conclude an Infcirc/66-type safeguards agreement with the IAEA for all nuclear fuel cycle facilities.[4]

Considering the loopholes of the Additional Protocol, if the first prerequisite is to be met within a reasonable period of time, Iran would have to conclude and fully implement a Temporary Complementary Protocol (TCP)[5] with the IAEA until the Agency can reach its broad conclusion.

Step 3: Lifting UNSC Sanctions and Providing Nuclear Cooperation to Iran

As soon as Iran agrees to implement the TCP and the other requirements mentioned above, the P5+1 would need to start to put into place all of the measures necessary for the implementation of the elements of a long-term agreement as specified in Annex II of UNSC Resolution 1747. Thereafter, once the IAEA has reached the broad conclusion:

  • Iran would no longer be obliged to export its domestic production of LEU;
     
  • UNSC sanctions would be lifted after an agreed period of time; and
     
  • Active nuclear cooperation would take place, including the construction of a light water research reactor at Arak in place of the heavy water research reactor currently under construction.

Conclusion

All of this may look fine on paper, but is probably out of reach in practice. Iran is not likely to implement, even temporarily, the TCP. Even if Iran agrees to implement the letter (but not the spirit) of the Additional Protocol, the IAEA would not be in a position to draw its broad conclusion any time soon, if ever. Meanwhile, Iran will continue to ignore IAEA Board of Governors’ demands and UNSC legally binding resolutions.

The UNSC should therefore adopt a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter deciding (not “affirming”[6]) that if Iran were to produce high-enriched uranium, to separate plutonium, or to notify its withdrawal from the NPT before the IAEA is able to draw the broad conclusion of the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, a number of well-defined additional sanctions would automatically be applicable and implemented. This action should similarly be taken if Iran were found to be proceeding with nuclear weaponization activities or to divert nuclear material.

The merit of such an approach would be to make Iran clearly responsible for any negative consequence of its decisions, knowing in advance that it cannot use negotiations as a tactic for creating disunity among the permanent members of the UNSC. It could help any political elements in Iran that are not determined to reach a nuclear weapons capability at all cost, to make a more compelling case to follow another course.

Every effort should be made to inform the world of the impressive list of positive actions that would be taken in Iran’s favor as soon as the IAEA and the UNSC are able to determine that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.

The P5+1, hopefully with the support of other major stakeholders including Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Korea and Turkey, should agree to this new strategy before the January meeting takes place in Istanbul, even if it would take longer for these states to detail their position in subsequent negotiations with Iran, if Iran proved willing actually to negotiate.


Notes

1. IAEA Resolution (GOV/2003/69) adopted by consensus on September 12, 2003.

2. Once Iran has received the reloads for the TRR it will no longer have any fuel needs for the next ten years or more. The consequences of Iran not meeting its part of the deal must therefore be made clear in advance.

3. Libya has been widely praised for acknowledging at the end of 2003 that it had been working on a nuclear weapons program for some 20 years.

4. Contrary to Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements, Infcirc/66-type safeguards agreements do not lapse if the state withdraws from the NPT.

5. The full text of the TCP can be found in “Concrete Steps to Improve the Nonproliferation Regime,” Carnegie Paper Number 100, April 2009, pp. 29-43.

6. As stated in para. 37 of UNSC Resolution 1929, June 9, 2010.