Ending the “hurting stalemate” on Iran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has surprised observers by failing to mark the anniversary of the Islamic revolution with a further escalation of nuclear tension. He was widely expected, over the past weekend, to claim breakthroughs in Iran ‘s nuclear, especially uranium enrichment, program. Instead his tone was conciliatory. He promised to remain within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared Iran ready for a new set of talks.[i]

Somewhat more predictably, Ahmadinejad did not agree to remove the central obstacle to such talks, that is Iran’s continuing experimentation in uranium enrichment – a technology for making civilian reactor fuel, but also applicable to making nuclear weapons if the enrichment is taken to high enough levels.

But if a crack in the consensus within the non-proliferation community on how to deal with Iran were to develop, it would probably be over the question of whether a suspension of enrichment activity should continue to be a prerequisite to fulsome engagement with Iran. While the Security Council is now of a single mind on the issue, no small achievement, the expert and advocacy non-proliferation community, while largely supporting that view, is not unanimous.

In the past, Tehran has put forward compromise suggestions that would allow it to enrich a small amount of uranium for research purposes, while agreeing to forgo industrial-level enrichment and to rely on foreign sources, notably Russia , for reactor fuel.[ii]

German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung last year also expressed the view that Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium if it remained at the experimental level and if it was under the reliable scrutiny of the IAEA. “One cannot forbid Iran from doing what other countries in the world are doing in accordance with international law. The key point is whether a step toward nuclear weapons is taken. This cannot happen,” Jung said. According to the Inter Press Service, he insisted that close IAEA oversight could confirm whether Tehran ‘s nuclear program was actually peaceful. “IAEA inspections can provide those assurances through monitoring,” he was quoted as saying. “That is not a problem.”[iii]

By confining itself to research on uranium enrichment, it would be following a much more restrictive path than other states, notably Japan , that are in full compliance with IAEA inspection requirements. Japan is fully engaged in industrial level uranium enrichment, but of course the big difference is that Japan has been open and transparent, whereas Iran has been clandestine and deceitful. But even that distinction suggests that the real objective regarding Iran ought to be transparency and compliance with IAEA safeguards, not a ban on non-weapons enrichment.

Even if Ahmadinejad’s conciliatory demeanor were to hold, he and his country are a long way from winning back the trust of the international community – an essential requirement for any scheme to normalize relations with Iran. One measure of the depth of the mistrust is the unprecedented level of consensus at the UN Security Council. Despite Russia’s strong nuclear links to Iran and the intense suspicion of both Russia and China regarding American motives and actions, the permanent five members of the Security Council (the P5) have come together in a unanimous demand that Iran end all enrichment activity or face escalating sanctions and other unspecified consequences.

That in turn has set up the conditions for a “hurting stalemate”[iv] – that is, a stalemate that is contrary to the interests of all the parties, even if the resort to American/Israeli military force is kept out, as it surely must be, of the equation.

Under this hurting stalemate non-proliferation advocates, notably the three European Union states (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) heading negotiations with Iran, must watch while Iran continues to refuse full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and edges slowly closer to a nuclear weapons capability, although not necessarily toward a clear intention to acquire such a weapon. Iran , on the other hand faces escalating sanctions and continuing exclusion from beneficial international economic institutions and from cooperation in civilian nuclear power generation that could, by its own account at least, be a welcome diversification of its energy source.

Timothy Garton Ash, a respected analyst frequently turned to by the Globe and Mail, looks for a compelling mixture of carrots and sticks to end this hurting stalemate and to persuade Iran to meet its IAEA obligations and verifiably forgo pursuit of nuclear weapons. He rightly, and thankfully, insists that the threat of military attack be excluded from the array of available sticks,[v] but then more or less concludes there are few prospects that other measures will succeed.

He does, however, hint that it may be time to think again about a compromise on the matter of research-level enrichment. He says “the White House should open direct, bilateral talks with Iran, without conditions,” and that ultimately the US should seek full diplomatic and economic relations with Tehran, “provided Iran desists from developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorists.”

Does entering talks “without conditions” mean that negotiations should begin even though Iran continues experimental enrichment activity? And is limited experimental uranium enrichment compatible with a verifiable assurance that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons?

Most observers are reluctant to answer in the affirmative on either question, but it may yet turn out that a “yes” on both counts will be the most effective way to call Iran ‘s bluff.


[i] Doug Saunders, ” Iran warms to nuclear talks,” The Globe and Mail, February 12, 2007.

[ii] US, Russia reject Iran Compromise,” BBC News, March 7, 2006 [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4784262.stm].

[iii] Garth Porter, “German Official Urges Compromise on Iran Enrichment,” Inter Press Service, July 4, 2006 (http://www.antiwar.com/orig/porter.php?articleid=9238).

[iv] Bruno Dupre, “Iran Nuclear Crisis: The Right Approach,” The Carnegie Endowmen for International Peace, February 2007 [http://www.carnegieendowment.org/npp/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19002].

[v] Timothy Garton Ash, “Don’t bomb Iran – don’t let Iran get the bomb,” The Globe and Mail, February 9, 2007.

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