Since the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1737, which was unanimously passed on Saturday Dec 23rd, has a specified 60 day deadline for Iran’s response, ignoring it will force the Security Council to revisit the issue and increase the level of sanctions against Iran. Although, experts believe that tougher economic sanctions will be hard to approve given the reluctance of China, Russia, and some European countries, but it will be wishful thinking for Iran to assume that it is unlikely to happen. Therefore, there are three options that Iran can consider for its uranium enrichment fuel cycle aspirations in light of last week’s UNSC Resolution 1737.
The least confrontational approach is to accept the position that US has always wanted in the past two decades and most likely will be the hardened position of the new administration for 2008 and beyond. And that is for Iran to stay a member of NPT (Nonproliferation Treaty) and honor all the intrusive inspections which come with the Additional Protocol and allow even more flexibility if needed, but at the same time abandon the nuclear fuel cycle activities for ever, or at least the most sensitive portion as it relates to enrichment. Thus, Iran will become the first recognized member of NPT that does not benefit from Article IV (Article IV recognizes the inalienable right of NPT members for developing peaceful nuclear technology).
Ironically, the five nuclear weapon club members of this treaty continue to expand and modernize their weapon systems without honoring Article VI that was put in place for complete elimination of these weapons. If Iran chooses this approach, US may agree to uranium conversion steps in Isfahan, where uranium gas (UF6) is created from the yellow cake powder, but the Natanz facility that is designed for enrichment of UF6 to the level needed for a nuclear power reactor has to be mothballed for ever. This is more along the line of what South Korea is doing right now with their fuel cycle activities.
The second choice for Iran is to suspend all fuel cycle activities, as expected from UNSC Resolution 1737 and start a long and tedious political jostling that could go on for years, hoping to have the IAEA certify Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle facilities for peaceful purposes. This process for Japan took about 5 years, and experts have suggested that given the past ambiguities dealing with Iran’s dossier, this may take at least 10 years to complete.
As it has been suggested, after IAEA completes its evaluation and certification, US probably will demand Iran’s nuclear dossier to be approved by the Security Council, delaying it even more and most likely use its veto power to block it for a long time, inter alia, complaining about Iran’s economical justifications for needing this technology. Even if Iran receives its final approval with possible abstains from UK and US in the Security Council having pursued this second option, since Resolution 1737 demands suspension of all research and development activities, it will have to start around 2017 with a very old technology that is no longer economically feasible or practical. If Iran is only after a “grand bargain” with US to solve all the economic and security issues and not seriously interested in mastering a complete nuclear fuel cycle, then this is probably the optimum approach.
The last option is to have Iran’s IAEA representative in Vienna submit the required 90 day notice for withdrawing from NPT, but remain a member of IAEA, as is the case for India. This is probably the only sure way to guarantee immediate continuation of work on all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. If Iran is truly serious about its nuclear aspirations and not looking for bargaining chips, as it relates to its decades of confrontation with US, then this is the only way forward. However, this final approach carries with it serious confrontation with the Security Council and makes approval of sanctions under Article 39 of the Council probable which includes military enforcement.
Since the next US primary presidential elections will begin in earnest in late 2007, the first half of 2007 will be a deciding factor for the Bush Administration in dealing with Iran’s nuclear technology. Iran’s nuclear case has been a long and difficult road that may shape the future of NPT, as far as non-nuclear countries are concerned, and will have a profound impact for the structure of the proposed nuclear fuel suppliers group. This is a group of dozen countries that are only allowed to make nuclear fuel; forcing others to abandon their nuclear fuel development plans and become a costumer of this group for their needs, creating a cartel for this fuel source, similar to the OPEC cartel.
The most constructive way forward is to go along the line of Option 2 with an understanding that long and protracted negotiation and certification phases by IAEA will demonstrate to Iran the insincerity of this approach. By including fixed and short timelines–months and not years–for gradual certification of Iranian nuclear sites this should be a mutually beneficial approach that could bring both sides back to the negotiation table.
Nader Bagherzadeh, is a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. He has been following Iran’s nuclear issues, and given talks and written articles on that subject.