Representatives from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom met with Iranian officials twice in October in an effort to head off a possible diplomatic showdown over its nuclear program. But Tehran sent mixed signals as to whether it will agree to a European compromise proposal or risk recriminations at a Nov. 25 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors.
The European proposal would offer several benefits to Tehran in return for the latter’s suspension of nuclear fuel activities.
A European diplomat told Arms Control Today Oct. 18 that the idea is to present a clear choice to Iran: accept the proposal or risk that the IAEA board refer the matter to the UN Security Council at the November meeting. Taking what appears to be a “wait and see” approach, U.S. officials have publicly distanced themselves from the offer and expressed doubt that Tehran will comply.
At the November meeting, the board is scheduled to assess Iran’s compliance with a September resolution and formulate a response. That resolution called on Tehran to suspend all activities associated with its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Such centrifuges can produce low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors and highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear weapons. (See ACT, October 2004.)
Under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the board is required to notify the Security Council if a state-party is found in noncompliance with its safeguards agreements with the IAEA. Safeguards agreements empower the agency to monitor civilian nuclear facilities to ensure they are not diverted to military purposes. The council may then take action against the offending state.
The United States has been unsuccessfully pushing for such a referral since November 2003, when the IAEA adopted a resolution stating that Iran had conducted several nuclear activities in violation of its safeguards agreement.
This recent proposal is similar to a deal the three governments struck with Iran in October 2003. At the time, Iran agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, but the scope of the suspension has been contentious for some time. Tehran had agreed in February to cease building centrifuges and manufacturing related components but did not entirely stop component production. In June, Iran fully resumed both activities after the IAEA adopted a resolution criticizing Iran. Tehran has not, however, resumed testing centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride—the feedstock for gas centrifuges.
Iran’s conversion of uranium oxide—lightly processed uranium ore—to uranium hexafluoride has also been controversial. Iran announced in September that it had begun to convert a quantity of uranium oxide sufficient eventually to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for several crude nuclear weapons. Hossein Moussavian, head of Iran’s delegation to the IAEA, told Agence France Presse Oct. 6 that Iran had processed “a few tons” of uranium oxide under IAEA supervision.
Tehran’s compliance with the other two provisions of the October 2003 agreement has also been limited. First, the agreement called on Iran to sign and ratify an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement. Iran’s parliament has not yet ratified the protocol, but Tehran has been acting as if the agreement, which augments the IAEA’s ability to detect clandestine nuclear activities, is in force. Second, Iran agreed to cooperate with the IAEA’s ongoing investigation of its nuclear programs, but its cooperation has often been grudging and incomplete. (See ACT, October 2004.)
Officials familiar with the issue confirmed details of the Europeans’ proposal, first presented Oct. 21 in Vienna. Matching the provisions set out in the September IAEA resolution, Iran would suspend the manufacture and import of centrifuges and related components, as well as the assembly, installation, testing, and operation of such centrifuges.
Iran would also freeze operation of its uranium-conversion facility and suspend any other efforts to produce feedstock for centrifuges. Any converted uranium would be placed under IAEA safeguards.
The suspension would be indefinite until the two sides reach an acceptable long-term agreement. Although the proposal promises to reaffirm Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology, European diplomats have said they ultimately want Iran to dismantle its nuclear fuel facilities. States-parties to the NPT may produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards.
Once the suspension is verified, discussions will focus on specific plans for implementing several incentives for Tehran to stop enrichment altogether. Perhaps most importantly, the proposal holds out the promise that the Europeans will guarantee that Iran can obtain nuclear reactor fuel from other countries. The spent fuel would be removed from Iran.
Additionally, the Europeans will support Iran’s acquisition of a light-water research reactor to replace a heavy-water reactor Iran is planning to construct. The United States has labeled the latter a proliferation concern. The Europeans would also resume negotiations on a trade agreement between the European Union and Iran, as well as support ongoing Iranian nuclear cooperation with Russia.
The proposal includes additional promises to pursue cooperation on other issues, such as a Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone and drug trafficking.
It is unclear when the other benefits would be provided.
If Tehran declines the offer, the three countries will support the referral of Iran to the Security Council. In that case, the council may consider making the suspension mandatory or increasing the inspection powers of the IAEA.
The council would also consider further measures if Iran still refuses to cooperate but the proposal does not elaborate.
Tehran has not ruled out reaching an agreement with the Europeans but has not yet accepted the offer. Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani suggested Oct. 25—two days before the second meeting—that Iran may agree to suspend its enrichment activities for the duration of the talks.
However, Moussavian expressed dissatisfaction with the Europeans’ proposal. He told the Financial Times Oct. 24 that the offer was not “balanced,” indicating that it should be more specific about the incentives and provide a “clear timetable.” He did not say whether Iran would comply with the IAEA resolution in the absence of an agreement with the Europeans.
Tehran has been ambiguous about dismantling its enrichment program. Iranian officials have repeatedly stressed that they want any settlement to recognize their “right” to enrich uranium, pointing out that any suspension agreement goes beyond Iran’s NPT commitments.
It is not clear, however, that Tehran will insist on exercising that right. Foreign ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Asefi would not say whether Iran would produce nuclear fuel when asked during an Oct. 17 press conference. Moussavian stated that Iran is “prepared for a mechanism” to provide “assurances” that Iranian enrichment activities will be peaceful but did not elaborate. He acknowledged that Iran’s enrichment capabilities will perpetuate concerns that it has a nuclear weapons program.
Perhaps providing a partial explanation for Tehran’s reluctance to go beyond the NPT, Moussavian expressed concern that there will be no limits to European demands if they go beyond Tehran’s current legal commitments. Iranian officials have also said they do not want to have to rely on other countries for nuclear fuel.
Moussavian also claimed that Iran did not fear a referral to the Security Council, saying Iran had made “preparations.” Iran may leave the NPT if Security Council demands “go beyond” the treaty, he added. Rowhani has previously warned that Iran may withdraw if the council imposes economic sanctions.