“Coming Clean” – where the pressure on Iran belongs

One welcome result of the discovery that Iran has been secretly building another uranium enrichment plant has been to refocus diplomacy more on demands for transparency, and less on the hitherto favored but largely ineffective demand that enrichment be suspended.

Today’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5[i] plus Germany, hosted by the European Union, appear to have been a relatively positive start to a new focus on diplomacy. They produced a commitment to talk again and, notably, a confirmation from Iran that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be given access to the newly disclosed enrichment site.[ii]

How soon and how much access (e.g. in addition to entering the site, access to personnel, blueprints, supplier invoices, and so on) are important details yet to come, but this attention to openness and transparency is where the emphasis needs to be.

The formal UN Security Council demand is on Iran[iii] to suspend all proliferation sensitive activity, notably uranium enrichment, and to comply with IAEA requests for information and access related to verifying such suspension. The Security Council has also emphasized transparency through its calls on Iran to ratify the Agency’s Additional Protocol, a supplement to safeguard agreements granting much more extensive and effective access to nuclear facilities. But the Council’s political energy has been heavily focused on suspending enrichment.

The problem with that obsession with ending Iran’s enrichment activity is twofold. In the first place, if it is done under safeguards, which it now is, it is a perfectly legal activity. Second, getting Iran to suspend its enrichment program without getting the kind of broad access offered by the Additional Protocol would end up being a pyrrhic victory – it would temporarily pause an activity that is already subject to IAEA inspection (and thus ongoing confirmation that it is not linked to a weapons program) but would do nothing to improve the IAEA’s capacity to confirm that there are no further unreported, or clandestine, nuclear programs underway.

So now the focus is turning to transparency. The Washington Post’s report on today’s (October 1) meeting says the six countries (P5 plus Germany) told Iran that a generous incentive was on the table “if Iran would open its nuclear program to inspection”[iv] – there was no reference to suspending enrichment.

In US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance on CBS last Sunday she reasserted Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear development that is appropriately safeguarded and did not refer to the call for a suspension of uranium enrichment.[v] The Obama Administrations shift to transparency was discussed in this space last April,[vi] noting an Administration Official’s comment that, “frankly, what’s most valuable to us now is having real freedom for the inspectors to pursue their suspicions around the country.”[vii]

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) reports on Iran[viii] have repeatedly confirmed that none of Iran’s declared nuclear activity and no declared nuclear materials have been diverted to military purposes. The problem is in developing confidence that there is no undeclared, or clandestine, nuclear weapons program – and the development of such confidence depends on significant increases in Iranian transparency.

In other words, if Iran is going to “come clean,” as President Obama put it,[ix] on all of its nuclear activity, it will have to ratify the IAEA Additional Protocol. Indeed, as noted before, the Additional Protocol should be compulsory for all states,[x] but at a minimum the Security Council should make the Additional Protocol one of its chief demands on Iran.[xi] Before the current stalemate, Iran did allow inspections in line with the terms of the Additional Protocol (even though it did not ratify it), but “since early 2006,” the IAEA’s 2007 report notes, “the [IAEA] has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing, pursuant to the Additional Protocol and as a transparency measure. As a result, the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current nuclear program is diminishing.” [xii]

That is not a good thing. In the meantime analysts are increasingly acknowledging that a full suspension of enrichment will be all but impossible to achieve.

Professor Peter Jones, an Iran and Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, wrote in the Globe and Mail this week that it is “difficult to see how a complete cessation of enrichment can be achieved – Iran has simply gone too far for that.” He suggests that an acceptable compromise would be to allow a small and fully inspected research-scale enrichment facility.[xiii]

Over at ArmsControlWonk.Com, an extraordinarily helpful nonproliferation blog, there is a similar recognition that “suspension is not the answer.” One idea explored there is the multilateralization of uranium enrichment in Iran.[xiv] A multilateral enrichment facility on Iranian soil that would fully engage Iranian engineers and scientists would also have the effect of keeping them away from covert endeavors. To have international personnel working alongside Iranians, supported by an intrusive inspection regime, would be “the best way to prevent Iran from getting a bomb.”

News out of Geneva that Iran is prepared to send its enriched uranium to Russia for the production of fuel for the small Iranian reactor that produces medical isotopes is a further indication that stopping uranium enrichment in Iran is no longer the objective of the international community. Sending its enriched uranium out of the country, all monitored by the IAEA, obviously means, of course, that it will not be stored for some possible future plan to enrich it further to weapons grade.[xv]

Ambiguity and secrecy are both fundamentally inimical to nuclear nonproliferation, but both have been two constants in Iran’s nuclear programs to date. Moving from ambiguity to certainty – to transparency and demonstrable confidence that Iran’s nuclear activities are pursued exclusively for non-weapons purposes – will obviously require major changes on the part of Iran. But it will also require the P5 and the UN Security Council to get focused on the core requirement of transparency and to move beyond the enrichment suspension deadlock. There is now evidence that is beginning to happen.



[i] The five permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, UK, and US.

[ii] Steven Erlanger and Mark Landler, “Iran Agrees to More Nuclear Talks with US and Allies,” New York Times, 2 October 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/world/middleeast/02nuke.html.

[iii] S/RES/1737, 23 December 2006.http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/681/42/PDF/N0668142.pdf?OpenElement.

[iv] Glenn Kessler and Colum Lynch, “US, Iran Hold Bilateral Talks,” Thye Washington Post, 1 October 2009.http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/01/AR2009100101294.html.

[v] “Face the Nation” (CBS), 27 September 2009.


[vi] “A Welcome Shift on Iran,” 14 April 2009.  http://www.cigionline.org/blogs/2009/4/welcome-us-shift-iran.

[vii] David E. Sanger, “US May Drop Key Condition for Talks With Iran,” The New York Times, 14 April 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/14/world/middleeast/14diplo.html.

[viii] Report by the Director General, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008) and 1835 (2008) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, 19 February 2009, International Atomic Energy Agency (GOV/2009/8).http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2009/gov2009-8.pdf.

[ix] “Obama Demands That Iran ‘Come Clean’ on Nuclear Work, 28 September 2009, Global Security Newswire. http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org/gsn/nw_20090928_9676.php.

[x] For example, Canada urged the 2005 NPT Review Conference to make “the Additional Protocol, together with a comprehensive safeguards agreement, …the verification standard pursuant to Article III.1” for fulfilling “the obligations of that section of the Treaty.” Canadian statement to the 2004 NPT PrepCom on “Implementation of the Provisions of the Treaty Relating to the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Safeguards and Nuclear Weapon Free Zones Issues” (http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/arms/2004nptcluster2-en.asp).

[xi] UN Security Council Resolution 1737 (2006) “calls upon Iran to ratify promptly the Additional Protocal,” but does not demand it in the same way that it demands that Iran suspend proliferation sensitive nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment. (http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/681/42/PDF/N0668142.pdf?OpenElement)

[xii] Report by the Director General, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” 15 November 2007, International Atomic Energy Agency (GOV/2007/58).http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2007/gov2007-58.pdf.

[xiii] Peter Jones, “Dealing with Iran will require diplomacy with a hard edge,” The Globe and Mail, 30 September 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/dealing-with-iran-will-require-diplomacy-with-a-hard-edge/article1304592/.

[xiv] Geoffrey Forden, “Paradox: Now is the Time to Deal,” 25 September 2009. http://armscontrolwonk.com.

[xv] Steven Erlanger and Mark Landler, “Iran Agrees to Send Enriched Uranium to Russia,” New York Times, 2 October 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/world/middleeast/02nuke.html?ref=world.

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