Iran's nuclear programme - a transatlantic assessment

27 March 2006

The European Policy Centre hosted a Policy Briefing on Iran’s nuclear programme: a transatlantic assessment in cooperation with the United States Mission to the European Union. The speakers were Gregory Schulte, US Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Gareth Evans, President and CEO, International Crisis Group (ICG); and Björn Larsson, from the European Council’s Middle East Task Force, Secretariat Policy Unit. The EPC’s Chief Policy Analyst Antonio Missiroli chaired the event.

Gregory Schulte warned that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were threatening global and regional security, and had damaged the international community’s trust in Iran.

After three years of negotiations, the IAEA concluded that Iran had not complied with its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and attached Protocols. It had acquired the necessary equipment and expertise to enrich uranium, had not been transparent in its reporting and was almost capable of producing nuclear weapons.

The IAEA had asked Iran’s leaders to suspend all nuclear activities and gave them a month to comply. However, they had “shut the window of opportunity on their own fingers” and the issue had now moved to the United Nations Security Council. The US was working with EU and other countries in New York to persuade Iran to agree to a negotiated solution. Mr Schulte stressed the importance of transatlantic unity to bring about a solution, as the Iranian people “deserved to be treated better” by their leaders.

Gareth Evans said he had no doubt that the best solution would be for Iran to commit to zero nuclear fuel enrichment, in exchange for nuclear power from external sources. However, he admitted that this might not be possible, since Iran wanted to move into the regional “big boys” nuclear league.

Mr Evans said he did not find enough “big sticks” to convince Tehran to change its viewpoint: the biggest disincentive - reporting Iran to the Security Council - had already been used.

Since it would be self-defeating to introduce an oil or gas embargo, the “only game in town” would be to threaten EU sanctions against investments in Iran’s oil and gas. The US, on the other hand, could offer several “carrots”: it could re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran or support its accession to the World Trade Organization. However, Mr Evans saw little prospect of the current US administration offering either of these.

He outlined three alternative solutions:

1. Leave Iran with a wholly unsupervised nuclear programme, which would allow it to acquire a nuclear capability and manufacture weapons. This would be “disastrous”, with dangerous reverberations in the Middle East.

2. A preventive (or rather pre-emptive) military strike. This would not succeed for practical reasons, would cause terrible damage and generate a “nightmare” backlash in the Middle East and increase terrorist activity in the West.

3. The delayed enrichment option: Iran would agree to a complete suspension of its nuclear programme leading to an eventual IAEA clean bill of health. Iran would then be allowed limited enrichment, with its nuclear material stored outside the country. During the final stage, Iran would be allowed industrial-scale enrichment for nuclear power.

The ICG preferred the third option as it acknowledged that Iran had the right to enrich uranium, and would allow it into the category of countries that had the capability to acquire nuclear weapons. This would be acceptable for Iran, as it would give it status, and the West could agree to it, as it would buy time and enable more intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Mr Evans said this package of measures would create dialogue. “Tough talk” in Western capitals, he argued, simply empowered Iranian extremists. The bottom line was “to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be”.

Björn Larsson explained that while Europe shared international concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons’ capability and a possible Middle East arms race, it had a pursued a different strategy from the US.

Europe was suspicious about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and believed that Tehran had been developing a clandestine weapons’ programme. Mr Larsson felt that the IAEA had rightly pinpointed the “confidence deficit” over Iran’s intentions. While Tehran claimed it needed a secure energy supply, there was no economic justification for its enrichment programme: “Where are the nuclear reactors that will use all their enriched uranium?” he asked.

What is Europe’s next move? Mr Larsson was convinced that direct negotiations should continue and said Europe would be an active player in the next round of diplomacy being pursued in the UN Security Council and with the IAEA Board of Governors. The EU favoured a graduated, incremental approach with international consensus.

The Union would prefer Iran to suspend its nuclear programme totally and believed that one option would be for the Security Council to use measures that would damage Iran’s political prestige. By influencing Iranian public opinion, this could persuade the leadership to change its mind.

Mr Larson added that there were other aspects of Iranian politics that should not be ignored during the negotiations: human rights, terrorism and Iran’s belligerent attitude towards other countries in the Middle East.