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    Middle East
     Apr 1, 2006
Iran: Options for a face-saving solution
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The UN Security Council's statement calling on Iran to comply with the requests of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - above all, a full suspension of all uranium-enrichment related activities - has raised Iran's nuclear crisis to a new level of gravity that requires an objective assessment of the various face-saving options for the Iranian government.

The Security Council's "Presidential Statement", the outcome of three weeks of grueling, secretive negotiations between the five

permanent members plus Germany, says that the IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, must report back to the IAEA's governing board and the Security Council within 30 days regarding Iran's (non-)compliance with the IAEA's demands.

Henceforth, all sides need to resort to the arsenal of flexible diplomacy in order to prevent any further escalation of this crisis that now portends punitive measures by the Security Council against Iran.

Regarding punitive measures, China and Russia continue to insist that they are opposed to any sanctions against Iran, but their willingness to maintain a united front at the Security Council has generated momentum against their ability to maintain this position for too long.

On the contrary, assuming for a moment that Iran refuses to modify its present stance - of flatly rejecting the call to suspend enrichment activities (the resumption of which has been called "irreversible" by Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki) - then China and Russia will be hard-pressed to avoid taking a harder line at the next round of the Security Council's debate on issue.

Dubbed by China "one of the most difficult and complicated issues in today's world", this crisis is unlikely to be resolved without serious incentives that would make it politically feasible for the Iranian government to respond positively.

Iran's options: Differentiated response
A close scrutiny of the IAEA's resolutions on Iran, reiterated in the Security Council statement, shows that there are in fact three principal sets of demands that Iran has been told to meet: (1) suspension of enrichment-related activities, including research and develpment; (2) adoption of the Additional Protocol; and (3) the resolution of "a number of outstanding issues which could have a military nuclear dimension".

In light of Iran's declared willingess to continue its cooperation with the IAEA and its implementation of the Additional Protocol, which grants the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites, from December 2003 until February 2006, there is no reason to exclude the possibility of Iran's re-adoption of the Additional Protocol, as part of a "differentiated response" that would be distinctly different from the present zero-sum approach.

Indeed, in retrospect, one may argue that Iran's decision to scrap the Additional Protocol after the IAEA's decision to report Iran to the Security Council was uncalled for, given the fact that the IAEA inspectors have been visiting Iran without interruption during the past few of months.

Already, Iran has somewhat reversed itself by stating that it is willing to re-adopt and even legislate the Additional Protocol as part of a comprehensive formula to resolve the crisis. Now, Iran may need to take this one step further and unilaterally initiate this measure irrespective of other negative developments in the crisis.

Similarly, during the 30-day allotted time, Iran and the IAEA could deepen their cooperation with respect to the "outstanding issues", such as the sources of contamination of equipment (which has been largely resolved anyway), the chronology of P-2 centrifuges, etc, leading to a more positive report by ElBaradei.

As for the centrifuge pilot plant (designed to produce enriched uranium from uranium hexafluoride gas), its operation is partly symbolic of Iran's sovereignty and unwillingness to capitulate to outside pressure, and yet, in light of the disproportionate weight attached to it by the IAEA, which has called for its suspension as a "confidence-building measure", Iran should consider the pros of suspending operation for a specific period. In the last round of negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 (Germany, France, and England), Iran agreed to a two-year halt, compared to the EU-3's call for a seven-to-10-year halt. This quantitative divide could be conceivably bridged through balanced mediation by the IAEA chief. In such a scenario, Iran's enrichment facilities could be put on "cold standby", a technical middle position between being active and inactive.

The nub of the problem here is that the US-European Union approach within the Security Council appears to be set on a permanent cessation of all enrichment-related activities by Iran, as reflected in a leaked letter written by the top British negotiator, John Sawers, dated March 16. In this letter, Sawers writes: "We may also need to remove one of the Iranian arguments that the suspension called for is 'voluntary'. We could [make] the voluntary suspension a mandatory requirement to the Security Council, in a Resolution, we would aim to adopt ... say, early May."

Sawers' letter, counseling initiatives by keeping the Chinese and Russians in the dark, reportedly caused a mini-uproar, upsetting particularly the Chinese delegates to the UN, and reveals the extent to which the charted map of US-EU action over Iran remains incomplete. Sawers calls for a "shared concept of what would happen in the Security Council after the period specified by the proposed Presidential Statement", ie, "further measures".

Sawers' boss, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, has criticized Iran's "miscalculation" and yet he and his European counterparts gathering in Berlin to discuss Iran may have their own share of miscalculations, such as ignoring the implications of a shrewd Iranian differentiated response.

Clearly, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated, the UN Security Council should not supplant the IAEA's inspection regime. Nor can the Security Council contradict itself by backing the IAEA's resolutions calling for Iran's "voluntary and non-legally binding" confidence-building measures and, simultaneously, going beyond those resolutions, as called for in Sawers' letter, and insist on them as a "mandatory requirement". After all, the Security Council does not operate in a legal vacuum and, short of shredding the articles and norms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, cannot possibly fulfil Sawers' wish list.

Guaranteed nuclear fuel supply
If the Western powers and others are serious about de-escalating the Iran nuclear crisis, then an important prerequisite is occasionaly to put themselves in Iran's shoes and analyze the crisis and its potential ramifications from Iran's vantage point. John Bolton, the US envoy to the UN, has recently claimed to be "incredibly flexible", and now the onus is on him and other US decision-makers to prove themselves accommodating to a realistic formula, whereby Iran's chief concern of reliable and sustained nuclear fuel supply would be addressed. In the absence of a greater US willingness to go beyond vacuous rhetoric and commit itself forcefully to satisfying Iran's need, it is virtually guaranteed that the nuclear impasse will continue.

Should ElBaradei succeed in making tangible progress on this particular front and announce in the near future a firm commitment by the Western powers to a guaranteed nuclear fuel supply and, perhaps, even the stockpiling of nuclear fuel within Iran, the package of such incentives may prove too enticing to ignore by Tehran. Let us recall that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad proposed at the UN General Assembly meeting last year the formation of an international consortium to supply nuclear fuel to Iran - an apt suggestion sadly rejected rather instantly by the US and EU.

Henceforth, new packages from the IAEA are called for, otherwise the risks of escalation and even collision remain intolerably high. Contrary to the US media's stereotype of Iran's political leadership, it is sufficiently pragmatic to weigh the risks to its national interests and contemplate various options, some of which may have certain political price tags attached, albeit within tolerable limits.

The question of 'outstanding issues'
According to Iran's Communication to the IAEA, dated March 7, there are significant problems with the latest IAEA reports on Iran. This technical communication confirms that after more than three years of the agency's robust inspection, there has been susbtantial progress on the so-called "outstanding matters". Thus, for instance, with respect to the the issue of HEU (highly enriched uranium) contamination found at an Iranian facility, the Communication states that the agency has been provided with "extensive sampling, interviews and voluntarily presented all related documents", warranting the agency's conclusion of last September that "the results of the environmental sample analysis tend, on balance, to support Iran's statement about the foreign origin of most ot he observered HEU contamination".

Regarding the IAEA's questions about work on the P-2 centrigues between 1995 and 2002, Iran's Communication sheds considerable light on this issue and is worth quoting:

"P-1 was the National Project and not the P-2.

"Iran did not have any experience on centrifuge enrichment;
Iran had not not still obtained skills on P-1, thus it was technically a big mistake to jump to move to more advanced model such as P-2, before being mastered on P-1. This was also confirmed by the IAEA eminent enrichment expert.

"Had Iran conducted P-2 project during the said period, then it should have procured items such as magnets from abroad, for the assembly and operation of even a single P-2 machine. The information that the agency [IAEA] has obtained from sources including States Parties ... proves that such measures have not taken place ...

"Had Iran worked on P-2 and obtained achievement, there was no logic to continue the national project and invest on P-1 in Natanz."
The Communication then goes to say that "unfortunately this logic was not recognized by the agency", and criticizes the IAEA for being "politicized". Iran's foreign minister has gone one step further and claimed that Iran is being victimized by "unjustified propaganda" - not an altogether unreasonable criticism, and one that was echoed even by certain diplomats affiliated with the IAEA after a recent US claim that it had IAEA backing for its outlandish allegations against Iran.

In conclusion, the ball is now back in the IAEA's court, and history may judge the agency harshly should it fail to play an effective catalytic role in crisis prevention - a failure that it can ill-afford at a time when the viability of the entire non-proliferation regime is being questioned.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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