Possibly exhausted by sanctions, Iran is open to a nuclear pact with the West. But it’s still early days.

The move by the EU and US towards a nuclear restraint pact with Iran is making slow, tentative progress in the face of contrary pulls and pressures from Saudi Arabia, Israel and their supporters in the West.

However, there have been some important developments. The foreign ministers of India, China and Russia have recently issued a statement in Geneva, recognising “the right of Iran to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including for uranium enrichment, under strict IAEA safeguards and consistent with its international obligations”.

This was just after the foreign ministers of the self-styled ‘international community’ (comprising EU, its members and the US) together with their Russian and Chinese counterparts met the Iranian foreign minister in Geneva to thrash out a nuclear pact with Iran.

The declaration by India, China and Russia is significant. The Republican right wing in the US, egged on by a predictable alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia, would like to scuttle any possibility of an agreement that ends sanctions against Iran, in return for Iran accepting safeguards mandated by the IAEA on all its nuclear facilities. Israel wants a termination of uranium enrichment and plutonium production in Iran.

US policies on clandestine nuclear enrichment have been remarkably inconsistent. The country responsible for triggering the proliferation of centrifuge-based uranium enrichment technology was the Netherlands. The Dutch carelessly granted the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan access to sensitive design documents on centrifuge enrichment technology when he worked at the Holland-based Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory, a sub-contractor of Ultra Centrifuge Nederland. Former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers has revealed that after Khan’s activities came to light, he was prepared to arrest Khan in Holland, but was prevented from doing so in 1975 and 1986 by the CIA.

It is well known that the Reagan administration had tacitly assured Pakistan that it would look the other way at Pakistani efforts to build the bomb. If Reagan looked the other way, Bill Clinton winked at Chinese proliferation involving the transfer to Pakistan of more modern centrifuges, nuclear weapons designs and ring magnets, apart from unsafeguarded plutonium facilities.

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The Khan-Iranian nexus goes back to the days of General Zia-ul-Haq.. Iran is now known to possess an estimated 19,000 centrifuges, predominantly at its enrichment facilities in Natanz. It has an old plutonium reactor used for medical isotopes which it says is to be replaced by a larger reactor together with reprocessing facilities, being built at Arak.

Given the clandestine nature of its nuclear programme, its activist role in the Islamic world and its virulent anti-Semitism, Iran’s nuclear programme has invited international attention. This has resulted in seven UN Security Council resolutions since 2006 calling on Iran to halt enrichment, and to freeze assets of persons linked to its nuclear and missile programmes.

There have also been cyber attacks (through Stuxnet, a computer worm) by the Americans and the killing of some of Iran’s key scientists, believed by the Iranians to have been engineered by the Israelis. While Iran’s nuclear programme enjoys widespread domestic support, what has really hurt the Iranians are the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the US and its European allies.

These sanctions have led to a shrinking of its oil exports and spiralling inflation. They have been crucial factors compelling Iran to seek a negotiated end to sanctions, without giving up the inherent right it enjoys under the NPT to enrich uranium.

Crucially, the US can now afford to review its policies in West Asia. Its dependence on oil imports from the Persian Gulf has ended, its oil production will exceed that of Saudi Arabia in the next five years, and it is set to become a significant exporter of natural gas.

Discomforting development

Saudi backing for Al Qaeda-linked Salafi extremists in Iraq and Syria is not exactly comforting as the Americans prepare to pull out of Afghanistan. While the Obama administration may make soothing noises to placate ruffled feathers in Riyadh and Jerusalem, rapprochement with Iran does widen its options in the Muslim world.

But, it would be unrealistic to expect that negotiations between the P5 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — and Germany on the one hand, and the Iranians on the other will produce any immediate end to the nuclear impasse.

The Israelis and Saudis, who wield immense clout in the Republican right wing, the US Congress and in many European capitals, will spare no effort to push conditions that the Iranians will not agree to.

Iran already has one nuclear power plant built by the Russians at Bushehr, with another 360 MW plant under construction at Darkhovin. It currently has stockpiles of uranium enriched to either 3.5 per cent, which can be used in power reactors, or 20 per cent, which can be relatively easily further enriched and made weapons grade. The Iranians are reported to have agreed that the highly enriched uranium will be converted into fuel rods or plates.

Unconvincing explanation

Iran has an old plutonium reactor for medical isotopes, which it requires to shut down. It is constructing a larger plutonium research reactor in Arak. The Iranians claim that the reactor at Arak is set to replace the existing plutonium reactor, which is being shut down.

This is not an explanation that sceptics readily buy. In negotiations in Geneva, France reportedly took a hardline position, demanding that the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor be stopped and that there be no reference to Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium. This is not surprising. France recently concluded a $1.8 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and is the recipient of large Saudi investments in its sagging agricultural sector.

The Iranians are hard bargainers and will not unilaterally give any concessions unless they are matched by a corresponding and simultaneous lifting of economic sanctions.

Having already concluded an agreement with the IAEA, granting the IAEA access to its uranium mine and heavy water plant, Iran is unlikely to agree to yield to demands to stop construction of its new plutonium reactor.

Given the continuing gridlock in Washington between the Obama administration and a Republican-dominated Senate, the Obama administration will not find it easy to secure Congressional approval for easing sanctions on Iran --- especially in the face of Israeli and Saudi opposition. It is not going to be easy for Iran and the US to end over three decades of mutual hostility and suspicion.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

(This article was published on November 22, 2013)
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