Reporting from the Rewriting the Middle East Agenda Conference
The United States has given the Iranian government a deadline of March 2010 to halt its nuclear weapons program. Former Weapons of Mass Destruction Commissioner Hans Blix said in the “Rewriting the Middle East” conference Nov. 9 that the U.S. will have no choice but to “take action” if Iran fails to comply. In 2003, President George W. Bush issued a statement to Iraq, giving Saddam Hussein a deadline of March 20 to disarm his weapons program or face consequences.
While Iran’s nuclear prospects align with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and can be used for peaceful means, its current lack of transparency leaves the international community concerned about Iran’s intentions with nuclear energy.
President Obama said in a speech on Oct. 1, 2009 at the White House that Iran must first demonstrate a commitment to transparency in providing the contents and locations of its nuclear facilities. This was in light of the discovery occurring in the same month where IAEA weapons inspectors found a covert facility in the city of Qom. The government argues that these facilities are meant to provide cheaper energy for the country.
“It’s rational for Iran to want to build nuclear weapons to generate electricity. But it could have a domino effect that other countries in the region will move in the same direction,” said Blix.
Obama discussed international efforts to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear weapons program in his speech, citing the meeting between the UN Security Council and the “P5 plus one,” or Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany in Geneva.
He said they met to reform the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear power, provided they live up to their international obligations.
This conference presented Iran with a united front from the international community, proving their commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament.
“This is why the Iranian government heard a clear and unified message from the international community in Geneva: Iran must demonstrate through concrete steps that it will live up to its responsibilities with regard to its nuclear program,” said Obama.
Obama emphasized that Iran must prove that its nuclear program will serve a peaceful purpose by allowing its low enriched uranium to go through a third country for fuel fabrication.
Robert Einhorn, special advisor to Hillary Clinton, said The U.S. and its P5 plus 1 partners are pursuing a duel track strategy to tackle Iran’s nuclear program: engagement and pressure are mutually reinforcing.
“Without the prospect of facing international pressure, Iran won’t have sufficient incentive to negotiate seriously,” he said. The key to the duel track system lies in unity from the international community to urge Iran to comply with IAEA and Security Council resolutions.
Einhorn confirmed that Iran has been building covert enrichment facilities without telling IAEA, which violates the safeguard agreement.
“Iran was on the wrong side of the law,” he said. This revelation disturbed nearby countries Russia and China, who Iranians would need to build the extended program it proposed as well as economic support. These countries could also receive Iran’s uranium for fabrication if negotiations mandate such action.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits countries to start their own nuclear programs, but under the conditions of peaceful and cooperative development. Iranian officials argue that the P5 plus one countries are on the brink of violating the treaty by setting conditions of cooperation on their own terms.
Einhorn reported that UN sanctions have in fact tightened towards Iran while the country’s cost of business increases. Engagement could come down to threatening the cut-off of Iran’s key economic partners, he said, depriving the country of its resources to build and maintain energy.
“Taking the step of transferring its low enriched uranium to a third country would be a step towards building confidence that Iran’s program is in fact peaceful,” Obama said in his speech.
Obama concluded by offering a threat to Iran of “increased pressure” if it fails to “live up to its obligations.” He said while the U.S. will attempt to engage Iran on the basis of mutual interests, “our patience is not unlimited.”
Former foreign correspondent to Tehran and Washington Post reporter Robin Wright said the Obama administration would be the first of the past five presidencies to take on the issue of Iran with the goal of effective engagement.
“Iran is one of the two issues that will most shape the Obama administration’s foreign policy,” she said. “The last five American presidents have put Iran on the backburner when they couldn’t make any significant progress. Because of the state of Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration does not have that option.”
President Ahmadinejad has since then defied U.N. sanctions and continues to build secret nuclear facilities. According to a report from Reuters news wire, Iranian foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki said Iran needs up to 15 nuclear plants to generate electricity for the country. According to the report, his speech also cast further doubt on drafting a nuclear fuel deal with the UN.
Mottaki said Iran doesn’t need a third party to inspect or provide energy for the country, and that the country can create the weapons on its own.
The potential UN treaty would regulate or decrease Iran’s low enriched uranium to minimize the potential of making 80-90 percent material adequate enough for a bomb. But keeping its uranium would benefit the Iranian economy because they can sell more of Iran’s oil to foreign nations with nuclear energy powering the country.
Radio Farda reporter Hussein Aryan wrote that Iran’s desire for more nuclear facilities and its capability to produce weapons do not coincide.
Building new facilities would total more than 500,000 centrifuges. However, an IAEA report released in October noted that Iran has built 8,745 centrifuges so far, but fewer than half are operational. This report indicates that key parts of the centrifuges would be obtained from abroad.
“If one compares Iran’s actual capabilities with its stated intention to build 10 sites with 500,000 centrifuges, the plan is a nonstarter. It is utterly unrealistic in terms of both human and nonhuman resources,” he said. “The most cogent explanation for announcing such an impractical, yet politically provocative plan is that Iran wants to build nuclear bombs.”
Former CIA director James Woolsey agreed that evidence is piling in support of the theory that Iran is pursuing weapons. He said it was more expensive to build nuclear facilities than natural gas facilities, so it would cost Iran more to switch to nuclear.
“I hold no particular hope for Iran not being in pursuit of a nuclear weapon more of sanctions we’ve seen so far to have any substantial effect,” he said.
He predicts that with Iran’s current resources, the country could build a simple bomb within months, and a more complicated nuclear weapon within a year.
Karim Sadjadpour, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Iran’s internal politics contributes to its lack of cooperation with Western countries. Some groups maintain power through their opposition to Western power while others, like the younger generation, are defined by defiance of the current government.
“The government went from pitch black to dark grey. It is central to their identity—opposition to the U.S. is linked to their identity as the Islamic Republic,” he said. “Many of these individuals, they can define Iran’s interests in which are against the U.S.”
The country is currently facing a deepening dichotomy between traditional authorities and the young population of dissenters who have lined the streets in protest for the past six months. The fragile internal state affects Iran’s international affairs because of the government’s push for legitimacy.
“There’s reason for the Iranian government to want to compromise: the regime is experiencing an unprecedented crisis, a truly historic change that they haven’t seen since 1979,” said Sadjadpour. “Right now the government is perceived as illegitimate and one way Ahmadinejad is relieving that is to show that great powers legitimize him by wanting to negotiate and engage in peaceful diplomacy.”
The path to engagement has halted due to internal conflict and Iran’s fear that Western powers will try to stop its nuclear program entirely through trade restrictions or military force. Woolsey said Iran’s back-stepping could be a tactic to stall inspectors from finding nuclear plants before they finish.
“We should realize that the Persians invented chess. We’ve seen a pawn on one side of the board converted to the queen while distractions occur in other parts of the board,” he said. “We need to play chess ourselves instead of being the only ones deceived.”
Einhorn remains hopeful for Iran’s compliance, but says the country should be prepared if the U.S. and its allies implement other enforcement strategies in the coming year. The future of Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t lie in outside pressures and regulations, but in the policies of the Iranian government and its willingness to engage.
“We’re ready to engage and test Iran’s intentions,” he said. “And we hope they respond positively and promptly. We don’t want Iran to play for time while a nuclear program progresses. The choice is Iran’s to make.”