On April 14 Iran returned to the negotiating table to address its nuclear issue with the members of the Six Nations talks. Since revealing its clandestine nuclear development program in the early 2000s, the Iranian nuclear issue has become a perennial problem for the international community.
It is true that Iran is entitled to civilian nuclear energy, as the recent BRICS summit in New Delhi concluded, but Tehran must commit its promise not to develop nuclear weapons. Though the IAEA has thus far not concluded that Iran is currently developing a nuclear weapons program, its report of the Board of Governors of November 8, 2011 suggested that Iran’s nuclear development could conceivably be used for military purposes.
The IAEA and the United Nations Security Council have produced various documents and resolutions requiring Iran to clarify its past dubious nuclear behaviors and demanded it to suspend uranium enrichment. Over the years, Iran has repeatedly attempted to clarify its covert nuclear developments, which have been presented as peaceful since their revealing. However, suspicions have deepened – why would Iran build its legitimate nuclear power program through illegitimate means? Initially Iran responded to the IAEA by stating that it didn’t know who sold it those centrifuges – only later admitting that it was A. Q. Khan and his clique in Pakistan who were responsible for the transfer. No one should believe that Iran suddenly regained its memory after first forgetting. So why would Iran lie to the IAEA concerning the origin of the centrifuges, and why did Iran keep their transfer secret, if it was for a legitimate nuclear power program?
It was for such numerous lies and unaccounted nuclear developments that the IAEA has raised to the issue with the UN Security Council, since the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog lacks the independent mandate to discipline violators of international nuclear conduct. Thus the UNSC has repeatedly demanded Iran suspend uranium enrichment. Before the UNSC can regain confidence in Iran’s stated intentions for its nuclear program, Iran is prohibited from continuing its nuclear program in its current manner.
Iran’s nuclear program has presented a serious challenge to international peace and security. The UNSC has reached consensus several times to prohibit Iran’s uranium enrichment. The United Nations is careful to note that Iran can still pursue nuclear energy but cannot generate the nuclear fuel by itself.
However, all such sanctions against Iran so far have failed to prevent its nuclear development. Instead of being compliant with UN demands, Iran has continued to enrich uranium 234, now to 20%. Compared with the entire process of enriching natural uranium to weapons grade, i.e., uranium 235 at over 90% level, it takes less than half the work to enrich uranium 235 from 20% to over 90%, as the amount of separative work required is not linearly proportional to the percentage of the enrichment.
The challenge Iran has presented the world is that without ending Iran’s uranium enrichment program, Tehran could acquire weapons grade fissile material much easier if it chose to do so. As one prominent Iranian parliamentarian, Mr. Mesbahi Moghadam, stated on April 7 “Iran has the knowledge and scientific capability to produce nuclear weapons but will never do so.” The world doesn’t want Iran to have the capability, let alone the intention, to produce nuclear weapons.
Therefore, to press Iran not to proceed with further enriching uranium is crucial to regional stability and peace. It is necessary to again make clear that Iran is entitled to nuclear energy but not to generate nuclear energy through its own enrichment of uranium. Iran has been asked to do so because of its past violations of obligation under the NPT Treaty and IAEA safeguard agreement. Given these restrictions, Iran could still do both – attaining nuclear energy without producing fissile materials by itself – by buying such materials from the international market legally. When Iran refuses to end its enrichment, it generates more suspicion as to why it feels the need to be independently sufficient in its nuclear fuel cycle. While Iran has sole control of its nuclear fuel supply, the world should worry given Iran’s past indiscretions.
Given this, sanctions are necessary to punish Iran’s violation of international laws. As mentioned earlier, the UNSC have passed several resolutions to impose sanctions on Iran’s nuclear and missile development. In addition, some countries have imposed their own sanctions upon Tehran.
Meantime, the international community has offered concessions to Iran, despite the regime’s repeated failures. In 2010, Turkey proposed a nuclear swap deal with Iran – Iran would ship its uranium enriched to 20% to Turkey to trade for low enriched uranium provided by Ankara. This proposal supported Iran’s civilian nuclear program while negating the threat of Iran’s possible diversion of its fissile materials for non-peaceful purpose. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon endorsed this plan. However, this formula has to some extent legitimized Iran’s right to enrich uranium to lower levels.
The negotiations which just ended in Turkey have been a new round of bargaining. Due to the pain that sanctions have wrought, Iran has shown more willingness to subject its enrichment to negotiation. However, the negotiations have led nowhere yet as Iran still refuses to end its enrichment of uranium 235 at 20% level. A delicate balance of give-and-take is needed presently, since without further hardship Iran would be inclined to negotiate, however too much additional pressure could drive Iran out of the talks.
It is by striking this balance that the cooperation between China and the US would play a critical role. If Beijing and Washington would each deemphasize their national interests and act more concertedly on Iran, Tehran would have less space to maneuver. In this vein, the US should ask China to be less dependent on Iran’s energy so as to accommodate America’s vital interests, while China should continue to press the US to respect Beijing’s core interests, namely Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, and parts of the South China Sea. Should Beijing and Washington be willing to better accommodate each other’s crucial interests, it is possible that together they would bring about more credible dissuasion against Iran’s defiance.
Shen Dingli is Professor and Executive Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University