Today's date:
Spring 2007

Concessions on Iran's Nuclear Program Would Help Moderates

Muhammad Sahimi is professor of petroleum and chemical engineering at the University of Southern California. A close associate of the Nobel Prize-winning human-rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, Sahimi has written extensively on Iran's nuclear program and its political developments.

Los Angeles — Now that the United Nations Security Council has approved Resolution 1737 imposing sanctions on Iran for not suspending its uranium enrichment program, the question is, what is the path to a peaceful resolution of the problem posed by the program?

For such a path to develop, both Iran and the West must make concessions to address the legitimate concerns of the other. Iran must address the concerns about the true nature of its nuclear program. The West must offer Iran a deal that respects its dignity as an old nation with a glorious history, addresses its need for energy sources other than oil and gas, and guarantees its national security and territorial integrity.

The United States and the European Union troika of Britain, France and Germany insist that Iran must first suspend its enrichment program before any serious negotiations can start. But dignified treatment of Iran would mean offering it a concession, even if a symbolic one, in return for the suspension, and before the negotiations start.

Iran did suspend its program for more than two years while negotiating with the EU troika, but the negotiations did not produce any concrete results because the EU did not present any long-term solution to the problem; it only demanded indefinite suspension of the program. The West's proposal that, in return for the suspension, it would help Iran set up light-water nuclear reactors cannot be taken seriously without seriously addressing where the fuel for any such reactor would come from and at what cost.

A vast majority of Iranians despise their country's ruling hardliners but also support Iran's nuclear program because, above all, it has become a source of national pride. At the same time, though, internal opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is becoming increasingly louder, as Iranians are recognizing the dangers of his destructive foreign policy and his taunting of Israel. Recent elections in Iran showed that only a small percentage of the population supported candidates backed by Ahmadinejad.

Offering Iran a concession in return for the suspension would also provide political cover for Ahmadinejad's domestic foes—the people that the West should woo. The US should declare that it still abides by the Algiers Accords that it signed with Iran in 1981 to end the hostage crisis. Point I, paragraph 1 of the Accord stated, "The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs," implying an end to talk of regime change in Iran.

This simple reiteration of the already existing US legal obligations would be a powerful expression of its support for Iran's national dignity, and respect for the Iranian people's desire for nonintervention in their nation's internal affairs. It will also address Iranians' most important concern, namely, their country's national security, and would take away from the hardliners the excuse for silencing the opposition.

Closing the Natanz facilities, where Iran is researching uranium enrichment, is not by itself a long-term solution. Iran's enrichment program is completely indigenous—a nation cannot be forced to simply forget what it already knows. Plus, nowadays, most of the work for the development of any new technology can be done by computer simulations. If Iran is forced to close the Natanz facilities without being offered a viable alternative for obtaining fuel, it can either take the work underground or do most of the nuclear research by computer simulations, and without any international control.

The US and its EU allies must also pay more than just lip service to the premise that Iran needs nuclear reactors. My own analysis, published in the Harvard International Review in 2004, showed that, without an alternative energy source, Iran would become a net importer of oil by 2015. A recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed my contention. Once this premise is accepted, the question of where to get the fuel for the reactors and at what cost becomes paramount.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the price of enriched uranium has increased by 800 percent since 2001, and that the suppliers have already pledged their services for several years due to the growing interest in nuclear fuel. Given Iran's own uranium deposits and enrichment facilities, it cannot be exposed to such huge fluctuations in the price and availability of nuclear fuel. This means that not only must Iran be guaranteed a steady supply of nuclear fuel, but the cost must be the same as if Iranians were using the Natanz facilities to produce it themselves.

How should enriched uranium be supplied to Iran's reactors? The solution already exists. The International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005 proposed a multinational fuel consortium that could provide the way out of the current impasse. Along the same lines, Iran declared in October 2006 its readiness for setting up an international consortium on its soil for making enriched uranium. While the initial response of the EU troika to Iran's proposal was enthusiastic, it was, due to US pressure, ultimately rejected.

Members of the consortium could be the EU troika plus Russia. Iran has declared that, if its proposal is accepted, it would refrain from setting up separate enrichment facilities and would also allow permanent placing of the IAEA experts in Iran to monitor everything.

Such a proposal is, surprisingly, also in line with what the Ford administration agreed to 30 years ago. Specifically, National Security Decision Memorandum 292, dated April 22, 1975, stated that the US shall "permit US materials to be fabricated into fuel in Iran for use in its own reactors and for pass-through to third countries with whom we have Agreements." In NSDM 324, dated April 20, 1976, President Ford authorized the US negotiating team to "seek a strong political commitment from Iran to pursue the multinational/binational reprocessing plant concept, according the US the opportunity to participate in the project."

An international consortium safeguarded by the IAEA will not only help alleviate the concerns about Iran's enrichment activities, but it can also become a model for other countries that aspire to have an enrichment program.

Thus, a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran's uranium enrichment program is in hand, and only awaits serious negotiations.