Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Iran Celebrates National Nuclear Day; Experts Address Iran’s Nuclear Program

Although there was no yellow cake for dessert, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day by announcing that his country has made major progress on their nuclear program. President Ahmadinejad announced that Iran has started installation of some 6,000 new centrifuges and testing a new type of centrifuge that works five times faster. However, claims of progress on the nuclear program have been exaggerated in the past and Iran has had trouble operating the 3,000 centrifuges already in place. President Ahmadinejad's claims of a more advanced centrifuge appear to allude to the IR-2 centrifuge, which Iran announced to the IAEA in January.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the National Iranian American Council held a conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC that included a panel on the Iranian nuclear issue featuring Dr. Hans Blix, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and David Albright. Yellow cake wasn’t served there either.

Hans Blix said Iran’s nuclear program has led to increased tension in the region. He agrees that the U.S. should hold direct talks with Iran and said it was “curious” to ask Iran to suspend enrichment before entering into talks. Dr. Blix commented that it seems humiliating to make such a precondition and he can see why Iran has not done so. He also pointed out that no deal proposed to Iran has included security guarantees.

Dr. Blix put forward the idea of a Fuel Cycle Free Zone in the Middle East as a first step towards a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. He also noted the challenges posed by guaranteeing fuel assurances. He underscored the need for Iran to adopt the Additional Protocol.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering explained the ideas behind the recent proposal he put forward along with Ambassador Bill Leurs and Jim Walsh for a multilateral enrichment facility in Iran. Behind their proposal is an underlying belief that the perfect can become the enemy of the good and we are quickly running out of time to resolve the political standoff over the nuclear issue.

In terms of moving forward, Ambassador Pickering said the U.S. should open talks with Iran without preconditions and any or every subject should be put on the table. He noted that the multilateral enrichment facility should be for civilian uses only, that it should based on Iranian technology, but there should be no stockpiling of fuel and no research conducted outside of the confines of the facility. Finally, he noted that Iran can build centrifuges faster than the West can exert pressure. He said that a multilateral enrichment facility could allow for engagement with Iran and allow for wide-range inspection to restore confidence in Iran’s intentions.

David Albright’s began his talk by saying, “unfortunately Iran is never interested in proposals,” followed by “they are moving forward with a nuclear weapons program.”

There have certainly been a number of proposals and counter-proposals between the Europeans and Iranians with many areas of commonality. In past proposals both in European negotiations and the 2003 offer to the United States, Iran has offered: “a ceiling on enrichment” to keep it at low levels;” “approval of the Additional Protocol;” “additional confidence-building measures including on-site, continuous presence of IAEA inspectors;” “commencement of the work at the Isfahan plant at low-capacity and full-scope monitoring;” “presentation of legislation on Peaceful Use of Nuclear Techonology, including Permanent Ban on Production, Stockpiling and Use of Nuclear Weapons to Majlis;” reaffirmation of commitment “to all relevant international instruments on the elimination and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction;” and a reaffirmation of commitment “not to pursue nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction under any circumstance.” And these are just the offers on the nuclear program. Iran has also put forward offers to cooperate on nonproliferation; to cooperate on anti-terrorism; to support regional security arrangements; to adopt export controls; to cooperate on drug trafficking; recognition of the state of Israel and stopping support for anti-Israel terrorists. I would also consider Iran’s August 2007 Modality Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency a proposal that Iran accepted and fulfilled.

Ambassador Pickering put it most aptly when he said there is a saying in diplomacy, “when you’re in a deep hole, you should stop digging.” The U.S. is in a deep hole in regards to Iran. Despite many opportunities since September 11, 2001 to get out of the hole, it has only gotten deeper over the past seven years because of the failure of the U.S. to drop preconditions for negotiations, failure to approach Iran on the nuclear and other issues with respect, failure to offer Iran security guarantees, and failure to take regime change off the table.

The U.S. will never get out of the hole with Iran unless it takes a more comprehensive approach. A major deficit for U.S. policy is lack of expertise on Iran, its psychology and history in policy circles. Rhetorically, Iran certainly does not help itself. But the question posed today is how do we break the political stalemate. There simply can not be forward progress on the nuclear program, in Iraq or on other issues without courageous U.S. diplomatic leadership to engage Iran in sustained, direct negotiations.

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