The foreign ministers of the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1), met in New York with the foreign minister of Iran to initiate a series of meetings, to address what various Iranian spokespersons have called ‘misunderstandings’ over that country’s nuclear programme. They propose to continue the talks in Geneva at foreign minister level, beginning on 15 October. So what, realistically, are the prospects of success for these meetings?
Probably they are not good. The Iranian initiative has a fresh face and the recently-elected Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani has a little more charm than his predecessor (Ahmedinejad), but he is equally in denial about the nature of the programme and, specifically, he is insisting that Iran has a right to continue enrichment, which is a key issue. Equally President Rouhani has insisted that his nuclear programme is ‘peaceful’, and simply a matter of ‘generating electricity’. It is important to be clear on these things.
Iran has a nuclear power programme and there is no difficulty with this. It consists of a recently completed 1, 000 MW light-water reactor at Bushehr, on the Gulf coast, which the Russian constructors have recently handed over. It has also been announced that Russia will build a second reactor of the same kind and that Russia has undertaken to provide fresh fuel for these plants for at least ten years. To generate electricity Iran does not need anything else. Indeed, earlier undertakings by Russia have also suggested that, in due course, they would also be willing to take away the spent fuel for storage or reprocessing. For a simple civilian nuclear power programme this is all Iran needs.
But this is far from what Iran has actually got. The bulk of its nuclear activity is focussed on uranium enrichment and it has thousands of centrifuges at several sites, including some at a more recently developed underground location. To be sure, fuel for a light-water reactor of the Bushehr type requires enrichment to 3-5% uranium-235 but Iran is enriching well beyond this. In any case, Iran does not presently have the capacity for fabricating such fuel and, as noted in the previous paragraph, it doesn’t need to, since the builder of the plant(s), has undertaken to supply the fuel.
The most obvious explanation, for their behaviour, is to ultimately produce 90% enriched uranium, which is weapons-grade. That is why the world community is concerned; and it justifies the title of this blog. Again, it should be noted that, at present, Iran is not known to have gone beyond 20% enrichment (and appears to be stockpiling at this level) but there is no plausible purpose for this, beyond the obvious. Natural uranium (before enrichment) is less than 1% U-235. At 20% it is most of the way to bomb material. That is why IAEA estimates of the bomb-making potential of present Iranian stockpiles, contain an estimate of how long the final enrichment might take, as well as the number of uranium bombs that might be made. The former figure is only a matter of months.
This is why the P5+1 group is demanding that Iran halts the production and stockpiling of 20% enriched uranium-235, as well as the closure of the newer Fordo enrichment plant. It is part of a nuclear weapon programme and, in that sense, it is not ‘peaceful’. As noted above, it also has nothing to do with generation of electrical power in Iran.
But this is not all. Iran is also building, near Arak, a plutonium production reactor, which is scheduled to start operating early next year. As the name suggests, this facility will produce plutonium; in fact it will produce the isotope plutonium-239. Like uranium-235 this material is fissile and the plant will be set up to produce it in weapons-grade form (i.e. around 90% Pu-239). Again, this has nothing to do with the production of electricity and everything to do with a nuclear weapon programme. Plutonium is simply the alternative material from which to make a nuclear bomb.
It is notable, though, that IAEA inspectors have been consistently denied access to the Araq reactor and the associated heavy water plant (heavy water is required as a neutron moderator in dedicated plutonium reactors). The same applies to access to the Parchin site, to which I briefly referred in a posting in March last year (‘Looking at maps of war’). Here the inspectors were prevented from looking over a facility at which, intelligence suggested, there had been a small-scale test of a ‘neutron device designed to initiate a nuclear explosion’. Whether or not such a test had taken place, it is a fact that the IAEA inspectors have still not been given access to Parchin and satellite photographs have since indicated a lot of cleaning-up activity.
So how does a ‘time-bound and results-orientated’ (President Rouhani) resolution come from this? There are three possibilities.
In the first, the Iranian leadership (i.e. the Supreme Leader and his coterie) recognise that the game is up and that the sanctions are hurting the Iranian people too much. They thus accept that their nuclear weapon programme (which is costing Iran so dearly) must end and they must accept an internationally-monitored phase out; this agreement within the ‘three to six months’ deadline that President Rouhani set in his UN speech.
The second possibility is that the P5+1 leaders find a formula that obscures most of the issues raised above and enables a (for them) politically desirable outcome (undertakings, inspections) but an outcome which ultimately fails to solve the problem.
The final possibility, which is maybe a variant on the second, is that the talks just go on with a series of false-dawns and disappointments, until Iran tests its first nuclear device, or until a third party intervenes. Which are you picking?