The nuclear talks with Iran: A way toward grand bargain or regime change

Hossein Mousavian

Guest Column by Hossein Mousavian

The United States and many other western countries consider Iran the most urgent nuclear threat. This assessment is neither realistic nor fair. The U.S. and Russia possess 95 percent of the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, and the P5+1 countries (permanent members of U.N. Security Council plus Germany) negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program have perhaps 98 percent of the world’s stockpile.

Iran does not possess a single nuclear bomb. Iran has not invaded any country in the last two centuries and is the only country victim of weapons of mass destruction since the World War II. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons during his invasion of Iran in the 1980s, killing and injuring thousands. Unfortunately, the West supported Saddam Hussein during that period.

Eight years of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries on the nuclear issue have failed because of defects in the existing strategy for the nuclear negotiations and because of the deep hostilities between Iran and the West — especially the U.S.

Despite all the sanctions and other pressures it has been subjected to, Iran has remained a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Through eight years of cooperation between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, major technical ambiguities have been resolved, non-diversion of nuclear materials from Iran’s declared activities has been confirmed and there is no serious suspicion of undeclared production activities. What remains relates to questions about the past history of Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s intentions for the future.

U.N. resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program have no legal basis, because Iran has not diverted nuclear materials from peaceful use. Iran has a legitimate right to enrich for peaceful purposes under NPT. The U.S., Europe and Israel believe Iran has the ambition to become a “threshold country,” technically able to produce a nuclear weapon but not deciding to acquire one. Even if such claim were true, it would not be against international laws.

Several other countries, including Japan, Germany and Brazil, have reached a threshold, and the West has strategic relations with them. Even countries such as India, Pakistan and Israel enjoy strategic relations with the U.S. and the West, even though they are not members of NPT and possess many nuclear weapons.

Sanctions, covert actions, sabotage and attempts at regime change will not compel Iran to change its nuclear policy. No future Iranian government, of any political stripe, is likely to abandon its nuclear program. For Iranians, the nuclear program is a matter of national consensus and pride.

The U.N. Security Council’s measures against Iran are at least equal to those taken against North Korea, which withdraw from the NPT and tested a nuclear bomb. Therefore, in a way, the P5+1 are pushing Iran toward nuclear weapons. Iran has paid the cost; why not have the benefits of nuclear deterrence?

To find a realistic solution, the West needs to decide on its highest-priority objective. Currently, it appears to be to stop Iran’s enrichment program. But, more broadly, the U.S. and the West appear to be using the nuclear issue, the IAEA and the U.N. to increase pressures on, and the international isolation of, Iran to reach their ultimate goal, which is regime change. This is what I understood from reading the new book, The Age of Deception, by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Secretary General of the IAEA through most of 2009.

Iranian politicians believe this is still the U.S. goal and its main reason for insisting on suspension. If it is true, the world should expect in the near future a major confrontation engulfing the whole Middle East and beyond

But if the main concern is about a possible breakout of Iran and diversion of its nuclear program toward the production of nuclear weapon, we can reach a solution. A new round of negotiations should start with new initiative to discuss the “bottom lines” of each side.

Despite an absence of evidence on diversion from Iran’s declared program, the IAEA continues to demand more cooperation in order to be able to declare that Iran has no undeclared activities. The P5+1’s bottom line is no diversion. This requires Iran to become more transparent. Iran could commit to adhere to all international nuclear conventions and treaties at the maximum level of transparency and cooperation defined by the IAEA.

Iran also could further reinforce the Religious Leader’s fatwa banning its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Its parliament could pass legislation, declaring Iran a “non-nuclear-weapon state,” and Iran could establish a consortium with other countries to put its fuel-cycle activities under multinational control. Iran’s president already has offered this.

Iran also could commit to cooperate with the IAEA in the removal of all remaining ambiguities about its past nuclear-related activities.

Iran could limit its enrichment activities to its actual fuel needs and, during a period of confidence building, calibrate the rate of expansion of Iran’s enrichment capacity to actual reactor fuel needs. During such a period of confidence building, Iran also could commit not to enrich uranium above 5 percent as long as the international community sells it as fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which uses 20 percent enriched fuel. (This was offered by Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi in February 2010.)

Iran also could promise to export all enriched uranium not used for domestic fuel production, not to reprocess spent fuel from power or research reactors and to immediately convert all low-enriched uranium needed domestically into fuel rods.

In exchange to meet Iran’s bottom line, the P5+1 should respect the rights of Iran under the NPT, including its right to uranium enrichment; lift the sanctions; remove Iran’s case from U.N. Security Council and normalize nuclear cooperation with Iran.

To achieve such a realistic face-saving solution to the nuclear issue, I believe that in parallel, a comprehensive agreement on Iran-U.S. bilateral relations is essential. This package should be negotiated directly between Tehran and the United States, while Iran’s nuclear issue can be negotiated in the framework of the P5+1 talks.

And finally, a guarantee of the durability of this settlement would be a Treaty on the Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destructions from the Middle East that the U.N. Security Council should proactively pursue in cooperation with regional powers, including Israel as well as Iran.

Ambassador Hossein Mousavian is former spokesman for Iran on the nuclear issue (2003 to 2005) and head of the Foreign Relation Committee of National Security Council of Iran (1997 to 2005). He now is an associate research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.