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Dealing with Iran's Nuclear Program
Middle East Report N°18
27 October 2003


The announcement on 21 October 2003 of an agreement between Iran on the one hand and Britain, France and Germany on the other, is an important and welcome step in resolving the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program. But it would be wrong to assume that it ends it. The challenge now is to use the breathing space provided by the agreement to tackle the questions – about its implementation, the future of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and Iran’s own security concerns – that, for the time being, it has deferred.

The evidence of Iran’s putative military program is mixed but disturbing, and by no means to the U.S. alone. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and European countries that have maintained close ties to Tehran have echoed Washington’s views. Iran did not disclose the existence of several nuclear facilities. When it finally did declare these facilities, it under-declared, downplaying what turned out to be extensive and sophisticated plants. It failed to report the importation from China of natural uranium over ten years ago. Most disturbing, there are indications that it introduced enriched uranium into a nuclear site without first notifying the IAEA.

Concerns about Iran’s capacity are matched by concerns about its intentions. While none of the above actions necessarily is a violation of Iran’s obligations, and while all would be consistent with a purely peaceful enterprise, Tehran’s pattern of behaviour is cause for unease. In many instances, Iran simply failed to explain its actions. When it did, those explanations were inconsistent or shifting. The IAEA has documented examples of lack of cooperation and candour. Iranian officials have placed hurdles in the path of nuclear inspectors and, in some cases, denied access. Its economic justifications for developing a nuclear energy program, while not implausible, are not fully convincing either.

Tension over Iran’s nuclear program is further aggravated by deeply-entrenched mistrust between Tehran and Washington. The U.S., alarmed at Iran’s support for groups engaged in terrorist acts and hostility to the Arab-Israeli peace process and persuaded that it is determined to develop a bomb, has grave reservations about allowing Tehran to develop any nuclear program at all. Iran believes it has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and is determined to be treated fairly as a member in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Powerful circles within the country, concerned about increasing encirclement by hostile or potentially hostile countries, fearful that the U.S. intends to change its regime by force, and deeply marked by the experience of its war with Iraq, when Iran was virtually abandoned by the international community, do not appear willing to forsake the possibility of a military nuclear program. Prospects for a durable deal on the nuclear issue are complicated by divisions within the U.S. administration and the Iranian regime alike that hinder clear-cut decision-making.

Ultimately, the nuclear problem will remain an issue of contention between Washington and Tehran at least until they are in a position to strike a grand bargain that addresses their wider and more fundamental dispute. But it would be foolhardy to bank on such an outcome, and in particular on the remote possibility of a change in regime in Iran. A nuclear-armed Iran could encourage similar efforts by neighbours, from Egypt to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and deal a deadly blow to the entire NPT regime. The combination of a bomb and Iran’s newly developed longer-range missile, the Shahab-3, could be perceived by Israel as a threat necessitating a military response. Conversely, a U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive strike to forestall development of a bomb could provoke deadly retaliation by Tehran in a variety of asymmetric or non-conventional ways. Moreover, should such a strike not wholly wipe out the program (as is likely), Tehran would remain with a wounded capacity to develop a bomb and a greatly enhanced determination to do so.

For these reasons, the initiative of the three EU countries should be embraced by the international community, including the U.S. On paper, the 21 October agreement signals Iran’s acceptance of the IAEA’s core demands. According to the joint statement it issued with the three EU foreign ministers, Iran will answer all the IAEA’s outstanding questions and clarify remaining gaps, discrepancies or inconsistencies in its previous explanations; sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol and commence ratification procedures; and suspend all uranium enrichment and processing activities.

Iran’s positive decision will avoid a collision with the international community and referral of the matter to the United Nations Security Council in the short run. It shows that Europe’s policy coupling pressure and engagement can produce results. But in order for the agreement to be more than a short-lived reprieve, it needs to be vigorously followed up and strengthened through the following:

  • Immediate and unconditional implementation by Iran of the steps to which it has agreed. Iran will be judged on deeds, not on words. That means, in particular, quickly providing the full transparency it promised and ensuring accelerated ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol.

  • Indefinite suspension of all uranium enrichment by Iran or, at a minimum, its resumption only under rigorous and intrusive international monitoring. Iran’s decision to suspend all uranium enrichment is a very important element of the 21 October deal. But it also is the most fragile. Iran made clear both before and after the agreement that it reserves the right to enrich uranium and has pointedly refused to specify how long its suspension would last. This issue needs to be nailed down lest it unravel the entire agreement. Ideally, Iran’s peaceful nuclear program would not include indigenous enrichment, but if Iran is otherwise in compliance with NPT, including Additional Protocol, requirements, it will be difficult to make that case. The key is to remain focused on the ultimate goal: preventing Iran from possessing an unfettered capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. At a minimum, therefore, Iran should state that while it reserves its right to enrich uranium, it will not exercise that right without agreeing to measures – such as intrusive, permanent international monitoring and perhaps joint Iranian/international management of its enrichment facilities – beyond those demanded by the NPT and Additional Protocol.

  • Pending establishment of a solid track record of transparent behaviour, a halt by Iran of any effort to build a heavy water reactor and a pledge not to put any such reactor into operation without reaching agreement with the international community on appropriate arrangements. While there is nothing in the NPT that requires such a step, there is much in Iran’s heretofore evasive behaviour that warrants it. Absent the requisite confidence that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapons program, a decision to proceed with its declared intent to build a heavy water reactor would have to be strongly resisted by the international community.

If Iran responds satisfactorily, along the lines indicated, the international community should respect its right to develop a peaceful nuclear program and provide it with the necessary technology and materials. It would be helpful at the same time to develop a set of confidence-building measures – such as a U.S. commitment not to use force against Iran and the establishment of a regional security forum – to reassure Iran about its own security concerns and to encourage it to become a fully participating, responsible international player. In all these respects it will be important to develop and maintain a strong international consensus, in particular between the U.S., EU and Russia, which will require adjustments in the positions of all parties.


To Iran:

1. Immediately and unconditionally implement the terms of the 21 October 2003 agreement, including by putting forward a concrete timetable for implementation.

2. Agree to intrusive, unrestricted onsite international monitoring of all nuclear sites and research centres.

3. Pledge that should it decide to exercise its right to resume its uranium enrichment activities, it will do so only after agreeing to appropriate further arrangements such as permanent onsite international monitoring, possibly involving joint Iranian/international management of the sites.

4. Halt any effort to build a heavy water reactor and pledge that any such reactor will not be put into operation until such time as agreement has been reached with the international community on appropriate further onsite monitoring or joint Iranian/international management arrangements.

5. Commit not to deploy existing Shahab-3 missiles within range of Israel, i.e., north or west of the city of Yazd, and to an immediate moratorium on construction of further Shahab-3 missiles and on research, development, construction and/or importation of any other missile with a range exceeding 320 kilometres (200 miles).

To the United States:

6. Assuming Iran implements the above recommendations relating to its nuclear program:

(a) refrain from interfering with the import by Iran of nuclear technologies and materials for civilian purposes, as permitted under the NPT; and

(b) commit not to threaten or use force against Iran

7. Seek to reengage Iran on issues of common concern, including the situation in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

To the European Union:

8. Make progress on negotiations for the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and all subsequent economic and commercial agreements with Iran conditional on its full compliance with the undertakings respecting its nuclear program outlined above and include in all forthcoming agreements with Iran a stipulation that such rights and privileges as may be granted will be immediately revoked should Iran hinder the IAEA’s work or take steps toward acquiring a nuclear weapon.

9. Assuming Iran implements the above recommendations relating to its nuclear program, provide Iran with appropriate modern nuclear technologies and materials for civilian purposes;

To all Gulf states and other states with special interests in the security of the Gulf:

10. Initiate preparations bilaterally and multilaterally for the convening of a Gulf regional security forum that might be held under the aegis of the UN, as a means of addressing sources of concern, in particular by:

(a) concluding an arms control agreement to regulate military size and capabilities of Iran, the sovereign government of Iraq (once it has been established), and other Gulf states, including controls on the numbers, payload capacity and range of Iraqi and Iranian missile forces;

(b) establishing a confidence building measures regime between the parties to that agreement; and

(c) holding out the prospect of participation by Israel, at such time as peace agreements have been reached with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon, with the goal of incorporating Israel into the regional security arrangements and working toward the goal of establishing a zone free from weapons of mass destruction.

To Russia and China:

11. Enforce full compliance with the provisions of the NPT and the Missile Technology Control Regime by institutes, universities, state entities, government agencies and private corporations, and, in cases of violations of agreements by these entities, effectively sanction violators.

12. Assist international efforts to ensure transparency of Iran’s nuclear program, including by giving international inspectors access to individuals and other entities involved in selling relevant technologies and goods to Iran.

To Russia:

13. Ensure expeditious return by Iran of all spent Russian-supplied fuel rods, in accordance with their bilateral agreement.

To the United Nations and NPT member states:

14. Take immediate steps to review and modify the IAEA regime to enhance its capacity to identify, publicise and prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons, including, inter alia, by:

(a) expanding the permanent international staff of professional inspectors and analysts to develop expertise on the nuclear programs of individual states as well as on strategies employed to deceive international inspections;

(b) maintaining accurate and up to date lists of companies and individuals identified as illicitly aiding in WMD proliferation;

(c) accelerating the speed with which the IAEA can identify problem states and refer cases to the Security Council for possible action; and

(d) identifying the specific sanctions to be applied to states that engage in nuclear proliferation.

To members of the United Nations:

15. Acknowledge that the international community’s response to Iraq’s behaviour during the Iran-Iraq war was inadequate by, inter alia:

(a) providing financial and technical aid to assist the victims of illnesses and infirmities provoked by Iraq’s chemical attacks; and

(b) supporting Iraqi and international efforts to investigate and, where appropriate, bring war crimes charges against members of the former government responsible for the use of chemical weapons.

Amman/Brussels, 27 October 2003

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