Wednesday, August 10, 2011

US stalls on Russia's Iran plan

Written by: Kaveh .L. Afrasiabi

The United States government has various policy options with respect to a new "step-by-step" proposal by Russia to resolve the Iran nuclear standoff. Cautiously embraced by Iran, this proposal has the potential to cause a major breakthrough in a potentially dangerous crisis that could substantially deepen the present Middle East cauldron.

The so-called "Lavrov plan", named after Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, was submitted to Tehran late last month and calls on Iran to expand its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), envisaging a scenario whereby for every proactive Iranian step to resolve any outstanding issues with the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the international community would Iran limited concessions, such as freezing some sanctions, for each step it takes toward meeting the demands to clarify its nuclear intentions.

So far, except for a passing reference by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a recent press conference, promising to give the Russian plan serious attention, there has been no official reaction. Yet the mixed to negative responses by US nuclear experts and pundits signal the likelihood of an American rejection. This is principally because the plan allows Iran's possession of a full nuclear fuel cycle, albeit under increased outside scrutiny and Iran's full cooperation with the IAEA.

Thus, for example, Iran experts at the Institute For Science and International Security (ISIS), have questioned the Russian plan:
[It] does not appear to include any requirement for a halt to Iran's enrichment program in general before these actions are taken. Without such a halt, Iran's enrichment program would continue to grow in capacity and increase Iran's ability to quickly, and perhaps secretly, make highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons in its centrifuge plants. [1]
This analysis overlooks the proposal's accent on nuclear transparency, regular IAEA inspections and Iran's satisfaction of the IAEA's lingering questions, incrementally and step by step, which in turn render moot such concerns about secret Iranian proliferation efforts. Implicit in the ISIS's analysis is an endorsement of the hitherto inflexible American position that Iran must cease its entire enrichment program, and any future reprocessing activities, in order for the sanctions to be lifted and for Iran's dossier at the UN Security Council to be returned to the IAEA, as demanded by Iran.

The so-called zero centrifuges option at a time when Iran is installing more advanced centrifuges, some of them at the new Fordow facility, has zero chance of acceptance by Tehran, which has invested billions of dollars and substantial scientific manpower to acquire the current level of nuclear know-how that is a source of national pride. In turn, this has led to the US's consideration of a second option, "limited enrichment" advanced by a number of US experts such as Harvard University' s Matthew Bunn, that has the advantage of greater realism about the virtual impossibility of the first option's success no matter what the pressure of sanctions.

Also, this option tacitly recognizes Iran's right under the articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to engage in uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes, in contrast to the hawkish advocates of the first option, who claim that due to its past secrecy, Iran has essentially forfeited this right - an arbitrary political conclusion on shaky legal ground.The trouble with the "limited enrichment" option is that it envisions a purely scientific, laboratory-scale enrichment program that does not have any practical purpose, such as providing fuel for Iran's reactors and thus lessening Iran's foreign dependency on energy. For Iran to accept this option would mean dismantling a bulk of its cascades of centrifuges and reverse engineering.

In that case, the international community would have to agree to compensate Iran for billions of dollars and to guarantee the delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran - unlikely to happen as no nation is willing to foot the bill or give Iran the kind of assurance it needs to set aside its reservations due to numerous past broken promises. Realistically, there is only one viable option, reflected in the above-mentioned Russian proposal that has yet to be seriously considered by the US and other Western powers, although in his Prague speech of three years ago, US President Barack Obama hinted that the US was willing to recognize Iran's nuclear program as long as it was in good standing with the IAEA and its program was fully transparent.

Unfortunately, much as happened since then and now the argument that Iran is marching toward nuclear weapons in a transparent manner, ie, exercising its legal rights, has become an article of faith in Washington, thus precluding the White House's ability to endorse the Russian proposal. A complicating factor is the current disquiet on the US-Russia front, resulting in Washington's suspicions of Moscow's real motives behind its Iran nuclear initiative. Easing this concern would mean that Moscow would have to convince Washington that this is not a tactical ploy to befriend Tehran, surpass Turkey in regional affairs, and undermine the US's standing in the region.

Rather, it is an earnest diplomatic effort to put the genie of Iran's nuclear crisis back in the bottle, in the interests of regional and global peace and security. An American rejection of the Russian plan, on the other hand, may reinforce the suspicion of Washington's own motive, in light of reports of coming US-Saudi Arabia nuclear cooperation, rationalized in the name of an Iranian nuclear threat, tantamount to discrete proliferation under the guise of counter-proliferation, already witnessed in the US-India nuclear cooperation pact.

In calculating the various pros and cons of the Russian proposal, the US must weigh the likely effects of lifting sanctions on Iran, which have introduced significant strains for the Iranian economy. Such removal, including the taboos on the sale of conventional arms to Iran, would help it strengthen its economy and thus improve its power projection ability in the region, not a favored prospect by the US, whose policymakers by and large perceive US-Iran competition in zero sum terms. By the same token, the release of sanctions would permit US trade with Iran, benefiting US companies and creating a net of mutual interests between the two countries, perhaps even fueling cooperation on regional security issues.

Thirty-six European shipping companies have lodged a complaint with the European Union, questioning the wisdom and justifiability of Iran sanctions, thus prompting speculation in Tehran that whereas the US is hardening its stance vis-a-vis Tehran, the EU is contemplating a relaxation of sanctions in light of the European economic crisis and European concerns over the loss of Arab markets due to the current upheavals.

An outright US rejection of the Russian proposal and continuing with the regime of sanctions and (military) threats against Iran is bound to escalate the threat level of the Iran nuclear crisis, introduce new rifts among the "Iran Six" nations, and dispel any myth of a united international community against Iran's proliferation threat. According to a number of Iranian policy experts, the US has been "sanctioning itself" and if it opts to remove Iran sanctions, then billions of dollars in US-Iran trade could materialize within a few years.

Cognizant of the sharp contrast with Europe, which is Iran's main trade partner and on the whole increasing its trade with Iran despite the sanctions, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in a recent interview with the European press expressed optimism about the future of Iran-Europe relations. He reminded that the US has comparatively no economic interests at stake with Iran and this shows a discrepancy between US and Europe when it comes to Iran. Clearly, Washington has at its disposal a number of instruments to narrow this gap, requiring an Iran "smart policy" instead of the current "stick only" approach that has failed to bring Iran to its knees on the issue of uranium enrichment.

In essence, the smart policy would mean accepting the fact that Iran has reached the point of no return in terms of latent and/or potential nuclear capability, and that what needs to be done is to rely on various policies that ensure that Iran does not eschew its stated aversion toward nuclear weapons - due to national security fears first and foremost. Thus, a US pledge of non-intervention in Iran's internal affairs and respect for Iran's national and territorial sovereignty would go a long way in assuring that Iran's nuclear potential remained latent.


Anonymous said...

no plan has even a remote chance of being useful until one side or the other changes position.

dump the Assad regime, roll back Hezbollah's grip on Lebanon, increase the number and severity of the sanctions imposed on Iran while the Saudis keep flooding the oil market and driving down prices....and even that might not be sufficient to get Iran to change.

and there's nothing on earth that's going to get the west happy to see Iran assemble nuclear weapons.

Anonymous said...

Iran must drop out of IAEA immediately. No one in Iran ncluding the leaders have the right to negotiate the safety of Iranians with forigners which time and again proven their contempt to international law. IAEA is bought and paid for by US and therefore has lost it's objectiveness and legitimacy. Iran will abandon it's nuclear activities just as soon as all other countries in the world abandon theirs. It's this simple.

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