Washington DC – “The United States and the West have painted themselves into a corner,” Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Wednesday. Blix was referring to the Bush administration’s insistence that Iran suspend enrichment of uranium before talks can proceed. Iran has refused to do so, claiming that it is unacceptable to be expected to concede the main object under negotiation before talks even begin.
Blix made the comments during a Capitol Hill conference titled “Breaking the U.S.-Iran Stalemate,” hosted by the National Iranian American Council. Both Blix and co-panelist Ambassador Thomas Pickering, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, strongly advocated direct and unconditional engagement with Iran over its nuclear program and also assessed the merits of a proposal to create a multinational uranium enrichment facility on Iranian soil.
The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency argued that the West has a “thin legal argument” when it comes to forcing Iran to halt its enrichment since such activities are allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is despite the fact that for years Iran hid aspects of its nuclear program from the international community.
Pickering agreed that the preconditions have delayed talks, to the detriment of the United States. “Time is not on our side,” he said. “Iran can certainly build centrifuges faster than we can exert pressure, unfortunately.”
Pickering, who has had a career spanning five decades as a U.S. diplomat, serving as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, ambassador to the United Nations and Israel, and special assistant to Henry Kissinger, raised the notion that zero enrichment on Iranian soil even as an end goal has become “increasingly more remote as a possibility.”
“We should not let the perfect become an enemy of the good,” Pickering said in reference to Washington’s insistence on zero-enrichment.
Instead, Pickering and colleagues William Luers and James Walsh have recently advanced a proposal to house a multinational uranium enrichment facility on Iranian soil. According to the ambassador, the joint program would meet Iran’s desire for nuclear independence while at the same time providing strong barriers against Iranian pursuit of a weapons capability.
In fact, he argued, “this is better than a unilateral Iranian” promise to not enrich uranium, (which is what the Bush administration currently requires) since a large number of inspectors would permanently reside inside the country as part of the deal. The inspectors would closely monitor Iranian nuclear scientists-most of whom have been trained in the West-in order to ensure that they do not participate in clandestine activities.
The facility would be under the joint ownership of a number of different governments who would collaborate with Iran, helping to finance the project and sharing in its revenue. In return for international help with the nuclear program, Iran would be prohibited from reprocessing spent fuel or plutonium, which could be used for a bomb. No research and development on the nuclear fuel cycle outside of the “narrow confines” of the deal would be permitted either. Finally, the Iranian military would be prohibited from maintaining any involvement in the nuclear program.
Blix addressed the concern that many have raised over a possible spread of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East if Iran were allowed to enrich its own uranium. He suggested that the Arab countries should be allowed to participate in a multinational Iranian program so that they would not feel the need to create their own.
Blix saw the proposal as a “welcome contribution” that would “add considerable transparency.” As the former executive chairman of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), Blix gained world notoriety for his part in successfully verifying the dismantlement of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. As for the Iranian nuclear program, he concluded that the current level of IAEA inspections in the country is insufficient in ensuring against proliferation, and that the Pickering proposal would allow for better safeguards.
Co-panelist David Albright applauded Pickering’s “courage” in advocating what some feel to be a controversial position. Currently president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C., Albright also cooperated with the IAEA Action Team from 1992-1997, focusing on analyses of Iraqi documents and past procurement activities.
He stressed the importance of understanding that any possible suspension of enrichment by Iran during future talks would likely be only temporary. As a result, guaranteeing a future international monitoring presence in the country would be essential, after which the Iranians “can restart a centrifuge program, but with our blessing.” Albright used the Bushehr reactor as an example. After years of protest over activities at that facility, the Bush administration is now less concerned after IAEA inspections.
The three panelists also provided their thoughts on a proper U.S. policy to deal effectively with Iran.
“We are guilty of erecting barriers,” said Pickering, which has impeded diplomacy with Iran. Along with dropping the preconditions, the U.S. should also be open to discuss all mutual grievances.
The United States has become increasingly concerned recently with Iran’s alleged hand in fomenting violence in Iraq. NIAC’s event occurred at the same time that General David Petraeus was testifying on Capitol Hill about the situation in Iraq. A portion of his testimony dealt with Iran’s growing influence in the neighboring country.
For its part, Iran has lashed out against the West for what it feels to be threats to its independence and internal stability. Blix stressed the essential part that security guarantees from the United States would play in convincing Iran to come to the negotiating table.
Albright also criticized U.S. sanctions against Iran. Only hours before the NIAC event, the Senate Finance Committee held a sanctions hearing, in which most of those testifying advocated a new and harsher sanctions bill that would further punish Iran. Panelists at the sanctions hearing argued that economic isolation was the only viable alternative between war and complete submission to Iran.
Pickering disagreed with this sentiment. “When you’re in a deep hole, you should stop digging,” he said. Years of isolation and threats have not solved the problem, and have actually strengthened the Iranian government’s hand by delaying negotiations.
“The longer we wait the more centrifuges we have to deal with,” he said.