Multilateral Enrichment in Iran Is An Investment in Nonproliferation

By John Thomson and Geoffrey Forden

Published September 15, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.

If the goal is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, the West needs to change course. Simply put, present Western policies are failing.

During the last three years, the West has set the bar unrealistically high, asking for more Iranian sacrifices than are necessary to ensure that Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons. As a result, the West has been obliged to retreat in the course of negotiations, and at present is acquiescing in Iran’s experimentation with uranium enrichment.

All this plays into the hands of extremists in Tehran. Indeed, the Iranian inclination to compromise may now be less than it was just a few months ago.

A new element needs to be injected into the Western approach to Iran’s nuclear program. That element, we believe, can be found in a proposal we drew up last year, the details of which have, at official request, only recently been made public.

Our proposal is a compromise designed to meet the bottom line of both sides — namely, enrichment on Iranian soil with the participation of Iranian scientists, but in a framework that prevents the Iranians from making nuclear weapons. This is to be achieved by a multilateral operation in Iran that includes all enrichment-related facilities and is run on a commercial basis and, of course, under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The proposal encompasses what we believe is the most important lesson to be learned from the recent search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: The best way of preventing proliferation is the most intrusive and comprehensive inspections possible, combined with the fulfillment of the Nonproliferation Treaty’s promise of peaceful nuclear technology to countries who forsake nuclear weapons.

A treaty between Iran and the EU-3 — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — would establish a commercial partnership with the governments as shareholders; others could be invited to join. The capital would be provided by the shareholders.

The board of the partnership would determine policy and control the budget. It would appoint an international company to run the day-to-day operations. And, of course, Western scientists and engineers would be present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing continuous scrutiny of Iran’s activities.

Iran would lease all its enrichment-related equipment and facilities to the partnership, and would undertake not to enrich and reprocess except through the partnership. The countries that formed Urenco, the European enrichment consortium, have already made exactly the same pledge regarding enrichment.

The partnership also would lease Urenco centrifuges and install them in the joint enrichment plan in batches, the first in a few months, the last seven or more years later — for a total of, say, 50,000 centrifuges. Until the first batch comes into operation, the partnership would use Iranian P1 centrifuges, very inefficient machines whose design the Iranians bought from Pakastani renegade scientist A.Q. Khan. All the P1 centrifuges would be phased out as soon as the Urenco centrifuges begin to operate. We estimate that during the interim period, Iran’s existing P1 centrifuges could not produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

To preserve secrecy, the sensitive parts of the P1 centrifuges would be “black boxed,” or fully enclosed behind opaque barriers, and handled only by Iranians. Similarly, the sensitive parts of the Urenco centrifuges would be black boxed and handled only by Urenco nationals. Self-destruct mechanisms would be installed in the Urenco cascades to deter and spoil expropriation.

Were the Iranians to accept our plan, they would be unlikely to expropriate the internationally owned facilities. In addition to technical measures that would help prevent such a takeover, doing so would be a seizure of the property of powerful governments well placed to retaliate by various means. Such a move would signal Iran’s intention to produce nuclear weapons while leaving the country vulnerable until the weapons had been built and tested.

The IAEA would be consulted on the design of the plant and would operate three forms of monitoring: full-scope safeguards; full-scope, additional protocol and specially agreed transparency measures. Full-scope safeguards and the additional protocol are the IAEA standards for ensuring compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty, and give inspectors considerable privileges in going where they will and inspecting what they want. They are, however, far from allowing inspections anywhere, anytime. The proposed treaty’s additional transparency measures could increase the inspectors’ rights and build up confidence that Iran was not pursuing enrichment-related research anywhere else in the country.

Each shift of workers would have a majority of non-Iranians, and non-Iranians would hold key positions in the management company. Together, these measures would protect against both diversion of material and the establishment of a clandestine facility.

The low-enriched uranium produced would be sold commercially on the global market as fuel for nuclear power reactors, and profits would be distributed according to shareholding. The Iranians would be customers like all others. Whereas the P1 centrifuges could never produce enough low-enriched uranium for more than one reactor, the Urenco machines could easily satisfy the needs of the full Iranian program — 20 nuclear reactors by 2035 — and still have approximately half the output to contribute to a virtual fuel bank.

Our scheme would keep critical secrets of the Urenco enrichment process from the Iranians. The Iranians would gain, no doubt, from performing sophisticated tasks alongside Western technicians — but it would not lead automatically or quickly to nuclear sophistication. Nor would it necessarily remove American sanctions against Iran.

To be sure, for some Iranians a multilateral project would be a poor second-best choice to a civil national program that could later be converted into a military one. These people will argue that Iran should not put itself in the hands of “neo-imperialists” and “Western exploiters.” But other Iranians will see collaboration with the EU-3 as an indication that Iran has been accepted into a respected position and as a symbol of the country’s emerging scientific prowess.

Those in Tehran who feel it is truly important for Iran to have a significant nuclear arsenal will not like our scheme. The penalties for either a breakout via expropriation or a clandestine program would be both high and virtually certain, and the latter would be operationally difficult. These critics in Iran would prefer no scheme at all — in other words, liberty to pursue their existing program, perhaps with a clandestine program on the side. It appears to us that this is where the current crisis is heading if the West does not change direction.

Much depends upon difficult-to-predict internal developments in Iran. Where there is a choice, the West should be careful to reinforce the position of the moderates. It is undesirable to challenge the Iranian nation in a way that intensifies nationalism. At the same time, it is desirable to make use of the Iranian sense of honor and their repeated claims that they seek no weapons and would welcome multilateral operations in Iran.

We do not argue that our scheme is ideal, merely that it is likely to be the best available option in difficult circumstances. Three years of a fairly consistent Western policy seem to be leading to a choice between military action and tacit acquiescence in the Iranians doing as they please. Both choices mean failure and defeat.

Are the risks of pressing on with a failing policy acceptable? Or should we modify the policy? If so, are the risks involved in our proposal not less than those of the alternatives?

After all, multilateral operations in Iran involving Iranian experts mean that the IAEA and the international personnel will have a thorough understanding of what the Iranians are doing. For this reason, a clandestine program is harder under our scheme than under any other. Expropriation is feasible, and cannot be dismissed. But it is not likely.

If the Iranians are determined to make nuclear weapons, they would do better not to agree to our scheme. To overthrow a treaty, seize the property of powerful governments, expel the IAEA and effectively announce a race to a bomb creates immediate and serious dangers which otherwise need not be experienced.

How the West deals with Iran will have ramifications for the health and effectiveness of the global non-proliferation regime. The Nonproliferation Treaty has always depended on a balance between measures to prevent the emergence of new nuclear-armed states and those aimed at delivering the benefits of nuclear technology to states that have foresworn the quest for nuclear weapons.

We who live in states that do have nuclear weapons must remember that, important though we are, we are still a small minority in the international community. If we are going to prevent proliferation, we have to persuade the “have-nots” to cooperate.

The Iranian case underlines the importance of keeping to a minimum the number of countries with enrichment and reprocessing facilities. Under the Nonproliferation Treaty, all countries legally have a claim to such facilities. So we have to be inventive and fairly generous to the vast majority of states that are not nuclear armed, in order to convince them to permanently forgo enriching and reprocessing on a national basis.

The West needs to consider carefully its priorities when it comes to Iran. Many would rather punish Tehran for aiding Hezbollah during the recent Lebanon crisis, as well as for its other connections with terrorists and for its human rights violations, than do business with such a regime. Over all these issues, however, preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb takes priority.

Sir John Thomson, a former undersecretary for defense and disarmament and head of policy planning in the British Foreign Office, was founding chairman of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. Geoffrey Forden was chief of multidiscipline analysis for the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, the Hans Blix-led weapons inspection agency in Iraq. Thomson is a research affiliate and Forden a research associate at MIT’s Science, Technology and Global Security Working Group.



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