Talks between Iran and the leading world powers, including the United States, in mid-April have revived hopes of compromise on Tehran’s nuclear program. Essentially the two sides agreed that the basis for agreement would be the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) and so respect Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, with specialists preparing in advance for a second round of talks in Baghdad on May 23.
As I have written here before, the outlines of a potential agreement with Iran have knocked around for some years. But an article by Dennis Ross, the pro-Israeli former Obama adviser, in the New York Times in February was telling in suggesting Washington would accept Iran enriching uranium, a “concession” that could enable Iran to claim victory with its “rights” acknowledged.
In a second article, Hossein Mousavian, the former Iranian security official at Princeton University, argued Tehran’s bottom line was “the ability to produce reliable civilian nuclear energy” as “entitled” under the NPT, while the US and European bottom line was “never having Iran develop nuclear weapons or a short-notice breakout capability.”
Discussion in Washington over how to achieve its bottom line reflects the nature of nuclear technology. In broad terms, enriching uranium to low-level for civil use — to 3.5 to 20 percent — implies the ability to enrich to the higher level — 90 percent — required for a bomb. Broadly, you just keep the centrifuges spinning.
This is “break out”. A country can enrich uranium for civil purposes while developing missile delivery systems and so maneuver itself into a position where it can move relatively quickly towards making an atomic bomb.
Hence Mohammed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA), the UN body that monitors the NPT, said in 2004 that 35 to 40 states had the technology to make a bomb.
So why have the NPT? The first five states to possess nuclear weapons — the US, Russia, France, Great Britain and France — are among the 189 NPT signatories, but the only other states who subsequently developed weapons either left the NPT — North Korea — or were not signatories — Israel, Pakistan and India.
This suggests developing nuclear weapons within the NPT is far from easy, which is because signatories face IAEA monitoring, under article 3 of the NPT, to prevent “diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses.”
The limits of basic monitoring under the NPT led to additional protocols (APs) with over 100 countries giving the IAEA more intrusive powers of inspection of declared and “possible undeclared” nuclear facilities. Iran agreed an AP in 2003, when it also suspended uranium enrichment as a goodwill gesture during talks with the European Union, but in 2006 announced it would resume enrichment and no longer apply the AP.
The US and allies are now demanding that Iran re-apply the AP, so building confidence it could not undetected divert enriched uranium into a weapons program. This could happen in one of three ways: by operating clandestine plants, by diverting nuclear material from declared facilities, or by leaving the NPT.
An enhanced AP — known as a ‘Model AP’ — could widen monitoring from enrichment facilities to mines and waste disposal, and so reduce both the danger of diversion from declared sites and the feeding of undeclared sites. It could even involve 24-hour access to sites not under inspection.
Clandestine activity is considered the most likely and most dangerous option by the Americans, given IAEA inspections are currently limited to declared facilities. Hence Washington’s interest in an extensive Model AP.
One option is WAES (wide-area environmental sampling) under which monitoring stations would be built through Iran to check air, water and sediments for unusual readings. This would amount to what one US report calls “expansion from monitoring individual facilities to monitoring the state as a whole”.
The US considers the third danger — of Iran leaving the NPT, which any state may do under the treaty’s Article X on grounds of “supreme national interest” — the least likely. But even so, negotiators may want an Iranian commitment it would never do so.
There are certainly devils in the technical details. And there are also questions of political acceptability. Crucially, even if sanctions are lifted ‘step by step’ and Iran can unlock the real potential of its energy reserves, it remains to be seen how far the leadership in Tehran may go in accepting an inspection regime far beyond that agreed by any other country in the past.