Despite international sanctions and isolation, Iran has shown remarkable innovativeness in developing a wide-ranging nuclear programme. This programme includes nuclear facilities, and the ability to convert indigenous raw uranium yellow cake into fuel, together with the capability to produce zirconium.
The Iranians have built a 5 MW nuclear research reactor in Tehran and centres for research in nuclear medicine and agriculture. In addition, the Iranians are building a 40 MW heavy-water-moderated reactor at Arak, to be commissioned in 2014, and have demonstrated advanced capabilities for uranium enrichment.
Sources of concern
The main sources of international concern, however, are two uranium enrichment plants, which have now gone on stream. The first plant at Natanz is 8 m under the ground, which was revealed in 2002. Iran did not violate any international obligation in secretly starting construction in Natanz, as it was required to report the project to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) only after completion. There are at present an estimated 7,000 centrifuges in Natanz producing low enriched uranium.
Yet another enrichment facility, with some 3,000 centrifuges, in Fordow was disclosed to the IAEA after repeated inquiries in September 2009. This is also an underground facility and is regarded as even better protected from air attacks than the Natanz facility.
Iran has faced continuing international suspicion, arising from alleged non-compliance with its obligations as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, in its relations with the IAEA. Since July 2006, the UN Security Council has passed seven resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
More importantly, led by the US, the entire Western world has imposed banking and financial sanctions against companies and countries exporting refined petroleum products to or buying oil from Iran. India has been severely affected by these measures, primarily because of the extent to which Indian companies are exposed to Western banks and financial institutions.
Hurdles to resolution
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse have faced numerous hurdles, not just between countries, but also within countries. The fundamental differences are between those who say that Iran cannot have nuclear capability and others who say that the country would have to agree to restrictions on its nuclear enrichment to ensure it is not heading towards production of weapons-grade uranium.
The second camp has been concerned about Iranian efforts to produce uranium enriched to 20 per cent or more. The most constructive effort to end the nuclear impasse came from Brazil and Turkey, who together with Iran, issued a joint declaration on May 17, 2010, in which Iran agreed to send its low enriched uranium to Turkey, in return for enriched fuel for a nuclear research reactor.
This was welcomed by a number of Arab countries and France. Russia and China reacted cautiously. It was rejected by the EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Ms Catherine Ashton. Ms Hillary Clinton stated the proposals had a “number of deficiencies,” including Iran’s right and intention to continue enriching uranium to higher levels.
Talks with Iran on the impasse continue under the P5+1 arrangement that has the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany. The Russians favour a “step-by-step approach,” under which Iran would gradually increase cooperation with the IAEA in return for revoking sanctions. The Western countries want the process to commence with an end to enrichment at 20 per cent and above.
The Israeli position, supported by the US Congress, articulated to the Russian President, Mr Vladimir Putin, is that the international community should call for the cessation of all nuclear enrichment by Iran. In these circumstances, it remains to be seen if meetings between Iran and the P5+1 in Moscow and Istanbul will achieve any significant progress.
Iran is distrusted by its Arab neighbours, who are deeply suspicious of its policies towards their Shia populations and its policies on territorial disputes with the UAE. But what has caused Iran the maximum diplomatic damage has been its comments on Israel. On October 26, 2005, the President, Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shocked the world with his comment: “Our dear Imam (Ayatollah Khomeini) said that the occupying regime (Israel) must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement.”
Iran’s Vice-President, Mr Mohammed Reza Rahimi, recently told a conference in Tehran that the Talmud, the canon of Jewish faith, teaches how to destroy non-Jews. Such rhetoric combined with Iran’s support for fringe groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, complicate issues further.
Israel and the US seem to have no hesitation in seeing Iranian nuclear scientists killed and in sabotaging the Iranian nuclear programme through measures such as the introduction of the Stuxnet virus.
Iran doubtless knows that Israel has undersea and land missile capability. Israel and its western backers, in turn, have to realise that while Iranians would be ready to accept limitations along the lines agreed to with Turkey and Brazil, they are unlikely to agree to irrevocably closing their nuclear options. This has become an issue of national pride for most Iranians.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)