Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ron Smith: Prospects for Iran and the Joint Plan

The implementation of a joint plan of action between Iran and the P5+1 countries, concerning Iran’s nuclear programme, has now begun.  What are its prospects of success?  

Of course, there are two sides here.  The P5+1 group may be taken to be more or less agreed on the outcome they desire; which is (so they say) to eliminate any potential that Iran may have to develop nuclear weapons.  On the other side, it seems reasonable to assume that Iran will wish to retain as much as it can of the nuclear infrastructure that it has built up over nearly forty years, whilst conceding what it has to in order to reduce, or even eliminate, the sanctions burden that they have been under.
The first thing to note about this is that there isn’t really any middle ground.  To echo what I noted in a previous posting, it is simply a question of how far Iran will be from the capability to make nuclear weapons at the end of the process.  At the present time, some experts estimate this to be no more than a matter of weeks.  So, another way of looking at this, is to ask how might this situation be changed by the end of the process?

Of course, it is possible that, over a period of firm and united negotiations by the international group (P5+1), Iran, with whatever misgivings and regrets, ultimately engages in a process which entails a genuine renunciation of its nuclear weapon aspirations.  This would clearly need to go beyond the six months of the present ‘Joint Action Plan’ and it would have to be based on the persistent application of a substantial repertoire of political and economic ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’.  This is not excluded by the present arrangements but neither is it envisaged.  Crucially, the present agreement seems to envisage that Iran will retain a very substantial enrichment capability, which would be crucial to any future weapon development programme.  As I have previously noted, this is manifestly greater than any need for civilian purpose, given how many reactors it has.  This could change down the track but present intentions seem to be directed more towards slowing Iran’s progress towards a nuclear arsenal, than to preventing it altogether.  This is consistent with the statement of goals issued by the White House to, ‘stop the advance of (Iran’s) nuclear program and roll back key aspects of the program’.

To this end, Iran has agreed to halt production of 20% enriched uranium (which is a major step towards weapons-grade material) and to ‘denature’ existing stockpiles.  There are two possibilities for this ‘denaturition’.  In one, the uranium hexachloride, which is the volatile form of uranium suitable for the centrifuges of the enrichment plant, is converted to uranium oxide, which is not volatile, and thus not suitable.  The snag here is that the oxide can be converted back to the hexachloride.  The other possibility is to ‘dilute’ the 20% hexachloride with sufficient unenriched uranium hexafluoride to produce 5% material. But again, the fact is that, at some point in the future, this could be put back into the centrifuges and enriched to 20%, or beyond.  In both cases the best that could be claimed is that the process of obtaining highly-enriched or weapons-grade material has been set back.

Iran has also agreed not to add to its inventory of centrifuge machines, not to construct additional enrichment facilities and not to continue with the commissioning of the Arak reactor (or produce fuel for it).  This is potentially a weapons-grade plutonium production reactor.  Iran has also committed itself to ‘unprecedented transparency’ in its nuclear programmes, including frequent and (no-notice) ‘intrusive’ inspections by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  This latter will undoubtedly be a shock to the (Iranian) system but it is really no more than is expected of states with significant nuclear capability under the IAEA ‘additional protocol’ requirements.  In return for this, Iran will progressively get some relief from sanctions and some access to (Iranian) frozen funds (the ‘carrots and sticks’), as it complies with the terms of the joint agreement.

There are problems with all of these things.  Unless the partially-completed Arak reactor is demolished (which is no part of the present agreement), its commissioning can be recommenced.  Likewise, the capability to manufacture more (and more efficient) centrifuges is retained.  In this context, a recent interview with Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, may be relevant –
(CNN interviewer); “So there would be no destruction of centrifuges?”(Rouhani);  “Not under any circumstances!  Not under any circumstances!”
White House press secretary, Jay Carney, commented on this that it was said, “just for domestic consumption”.  This may be true, and understandable but the observation may also be linked with something else that Carney had said, a few days before.  That was that the White House had ‘withheld many details’ of the agreement, claiming that this is “usual practice”.

Keeping parts of an international agreement out of the public domain may be justifiable on security grounds.  Indeed, in this case it appears that the IAEA had specifically requested that certain technical details be kept secret.  Beyond this, we may understand that individual parties may wish to protect their political position in order to better finesse a difficult outcome.  We might even think some concealment, in order to achieve an ultimately more valuable end, might be justified (think NATO missiles in Turkey at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis) but not simply to conceal negotiations that had essentially failed.

Of course, such concealment, adds further barriers to the possibility of outsiders assessing prospects.  We can only await developments.


Brian said...

Prospects for Iran!
Why when I had read Dr Smith’s “Prospects for Iran” did I not feel that somewhere in the past a bell had rung a similar dirge. Why am I not filled with a sense of elation and expectation, that finally, thru the good offices of the P5-1 group Iran has finally seen the light?
Not only that, but it will be co-operative and its assurances to the rest of the world that all the expense it has incurred over the last forty or so years has been a mistake, and any ambitions Iran may have had in gaining a nuclear bomb (and its means of delivery), is now all in the past.
Well the Bell rang and it was a 1930’s peal, a repartition of Nazi Germany diplomatic overtures to both France and Britain; that Mr. Hitler only wanted to straighten things out. Like claim back that little piece of Czech land, (occupied by Germans anyway) annex Austria (it was really part of old Germany) and then that irritating Danzig corridor!!!
Well here again have those U.N. sanctions really worked, or is Iran playing the Hitler game, with a similar set of political naive negotiators, after all it worked once..Why not give it a try?
I’ll take a bet right now that Israel does not believe a word of it; but it is the media copy the world wants to read and hear about, not that worrying pessimistic “Sword of Damocles” ruining all our enjoyment. Well at least the Greens will be pleased, but then they would believe anything.
It seems that the Obama administration wants to go out on a blaze of glory, the Iranian problem fixed, the U.S.A on the road out of the financial morass, and a new type Teddy Roosevelt ready to tour the world as an ex United States saviour President.
This P5-1 Group spells appeasement with a big capital A, but to be safe I’ll keep my powder dry.

Peter Caulton said...

Of course Israel will not believe a word of it Brian. That is exactly how they got their hundred or so illegal nuclear arsinal