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July 22, 2010

The Uranium Core of Obama’s Iran Strategy

This post originally appeared at Talking Warheads:

In dismissing the Tehran Declaration in May, US officials said the fuel swap proposal doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. The core issue, according to four UN Security Council resolutions and two successive US administrations, is Iran’s enrichment program.
That’s why Uranium Intelligence Weekly thought it noteworthy to point out some recent changes in the US National Security Strategy that seem to indicate the Obama Administration might drop its zero enrichment redline on Iran.

Despite UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend enrichment, it’s probable that at some point the P5+1 negotiators (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) will have to consider the unthinkable — allowing Iranian enrichment activities to continue. Intriguingly, a shift in the most recent May 2010 NSS, while open to a variety of interpretations, is seen by some as tacitly recognizing that fact, suggesting scope for an eventual shift on the issue — assuming Iran meets international demands to come clean about its nuclear program and adheres to the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol.

Jeffrey Lewis is intrigued, though mistakenly called the US demand a precondition for talks.  It’s not.  Dropping that precondition and going ahead with direct talks (albeit few and far between) was Obama’s first policy major shift.  The next step will be to make some move toward accepting Iran’s right to civilian applications of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Most Iran experts see this as a no-brainer.  But arms control people are less willing to blow open the loophole in the NPT that allows countries like Iran to produce fissile material under cover of a civilian program.  So it’s a squabble that keeps the progressive community divided, clearing the way for the hawks and ideologues to sell their simple and concise narrative of “bombs away.”
It’s important that those groups not looking to go to war develop a clear idea of what needs to happen next.  Fortunately, there have been some good discussions in recent weeks among NGOs about exactly that sort of thing.  There’s a consensus emerging that could serve as something of a road map for American negotiators.
Solving the Nuclear Issue in 3 Easy Steps
Now that newly-imposed sanctions have taken some of the pressure off, the Administration needs a renewed commitment to diplomacy.  That means face time with Iranian negotiators — no more negotiating through the press.  It also requires effective partners, building on the progress that Turkey and Brazil gained in May to break down or at least circumvent some of the mistrust that poses such an obstacle.  A plan is already underway for yet another revival of the zombie fuel swap in August, using Turkey as an effective mediator.  Assuming a deal is finally reached to send some uranium out of Iran, both sides can finally declare victory on a confidence-building measure that wraps up outstanding concerns regarding 20% enrichment and the size of Iran’s stockpile of LEU.
Then comes the hard part: the enrichment program itself.
The US has to compromise on its demand of zero centrifuges in Iran.  But it likely won’t lay down its trump card at the beginning of negotiations.  So the goal will be to get Iran to agree to a suspension in line with UNSC resolutions and similar to the suspension it began in November of 2004.  [A suspension; not a halt — demonstrating that a suspension is by definition temporary will be key.]  That will be the objective: trading an acceptance of Iran’s right to maintain an enrichment program for a temporary suspension and reasonable limitations once the program is restarted.
Getting Iran to agree to a suspension, I believe, will be the biggest challenge of all.  They’ve gone down that road before, agreeing to a full suspension in 2004 only to resume it two years later.  The task for the P5+1 will be to convince the Iranians that it will be different this time.  The US will be at the table — a key difference from before — but will still depend on credible partners like Turkey to convey its good intentions. In short, we’re going to have to trust one another.
After that, all that’s left is gaining Iran’s accession to the Additional Protocol and/or other mechanisms for verifying the absence of a weapons program.  Iran’s ratification of the CTBT would be a nice bonus, as it’s a prerequisite for the treaty’s entering into force, and such a gesture would be a sign of Iran’s commitment not to develop bombs.  In exchange for all of this, the international community would have to welcome Iran back into the fold, removing sanctions and reintegrating Tehran into the economic, political and security establishment of the region.
So that’s it.  Not too hard, right?

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