US Should Accept Reality of Iranian Enrichment
September 12th, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi
Will the ice melt in Tehran-Washington relations? Since the government of Hassan Rohani came to power in Iran, this question has turned into the most important issue discussed in regional and western media. Iran’s nuclear talks with the West are experiencing a period of silence and calm. While the new Iranian administration led by Hassan Rohani has extended its hand for cooperation with the West and while the President himself has stressed several times the possibility of resolving the problems of the nuclear dossier through transparency, we still hear news of further sanctions and intensified pressures by the Americans. Meanwhile, regional developments from Egypt to Syria and Iraq have rendered the need for cooperation between Tehran and Washington even more crucial. Dr. Jim Walsh, an expert in international security and a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program (SSP), believes that despite their many differences, Tehran and the White House have many common concerns as well. Dr. Walsh, who was Executive Director of the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government before going to MIT, stresses that the US must officially recognize Tehran’s nuclear capabilities in order to move past the crisis related to the nuclear dossier. In a recent letter written by Dr. Walsh, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering, they have warned the Obama administration that the opportunity for negotiation with Iran will not be repeated. The following is Iranian Diplomacy’s exclusive interview with Dr. Jim Walsh.
How would you evaluate the impact of Iran’s new moderate government on Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West?
Well I think the election of President Rohani presents a new opportunity to make progress on the nuclear issue and more generally on Iranian-US relations. Now, I think it’d be a mistake to set expectations too high and think that this will magically change the situation because there are some fundamental differences between the US and Iran, but I also think it’s a mistake as some had made in the United States for political reasons to simply dismiss the election as irrelevant. I think it’s important because first, President Rohani has direct experience with these issues, secondly, because he has the confidence of the Supreme Leader, of Mr. Larijani and the Majlis, and other important political leaders in Iran, and that’s a big difference from his predecessor. So I think you have a unified Iranian government, a government that has the confidence of the people that wanted the election, and is led by someone who is knowledgeable and has appointed people who are knowledgeable, and so I think there’s a real opportunity here. Now, whether both sides will seize the opportunity remains to be seen. In this difficult relationship over many decades, both the United States and Iran have had opportunities and missed those opportunities. So, I think this is a new opportunity and I hope both sides find a way to move forward. I would expect that in the near term, progress will be focused and limited and an agreement might be focused and limited. There is no room I think, even under these positive circumstances, for a grand bargain, but I think if we can get an agreement and some confidence and get the process moving in the right direction away from suspicion, that then you can build on that progress and move forward and build some momentum and have a virtuous circle rather than a vicious circle which is what we have now where each side judges the other with suspicion and where any action is seen as evidence in support of suspicion. So, if we can move that in the opposite direction where we get something positive even if it’s small and then those small accomplishments can build with momentum, then I think that will put us on a different path.
As you know, in his inauguration speech, Mr. Rohani emphasized that if the US intends to open a dialogue with Iran, it shouldn’t speak with the language of sanctions but rather with the language of respect. What steps should the US take, in your opinion, to reach this objective?
I agree with President Rohani that all sides should use the language of respect and I know that there’s also sort of a cultural issue here. It’s really common for US politicians to talk about carrots and sticks; that is normal for us and is not meant as an insult. But I can see how that in other cultures can be seen as disrespectful. So I think we have to change the language. I think on the issue of sanctions, that is policy rather than language. I don’t think either side is going to make big changes in its policy prior to negotiations. Diplomats will tell you that’s negotiating against yourself, to make big changes before you even sit at the table. But I do think there are things that the US can do, that the US should do, to signal that it is serious and prepared to negotiate in good faith. It could be gestures such as allowing direct flights between Tehran and the US, the supply of spare parts for civilian aircraft, it could be allowing American diplomats to speak to their Iranian colleagues in embassies around the world, it could be allowing Iran’s ambassador to the UN in New York to travel to the United States without restrictions that he currently faces. I think there are a number of different things that the US can do that are like that that would be useful, respectful, and would set the right tone before a serious negotiation.
Iran always reiterates that, as a member of the NPT, it has the right to enrich uranium. How can a balance be made between this right and international demands from Iran?
Let me with respect give an unpopular answer. I cannot believe in a universal right to enrich. I’m a nuclear specialist; the word enrichment does not appear in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article 4 of that treaty says that countries have the right to full peaceful uses and I support that as part of the NPT bargain. But my own personal view, and I want to stress that it is my personal view, is that the NPT cannot survive in a world in which every country has a right to have the technology that allows you to produce bomb-related material. So I believe that the US does not have a right to enrichment. I believe that enrichment and reprocessing, as the sensitive nuclear weapons-related features of the nuclear fuel cycle, that those be managed internationally or multi-nationally where no country is the sole owner of that very sensitive technology. And then under international ownership, the fuel or power reactors or research reactors, etc. is made widely available to any country that needs it. Now as for the practical dimension, the fact of the matter is that Iran already has thousands of centrifuges and so I think the US should recognize the current status of the Iranian program; that is to say it accepts that Iran is engaged in enrichment. That is not the same thing as endorsing a universal right to enrichment which I personally think is not true. But as a practical matter the US can say we recognize Iran’s program, we recognize that it is engaged in enrichment, and then the policy question is what steps can we take with the program as it is currently operating that will give all parties confidence that this program is, as Iran says, intended for peaceful uses. And those designed rules and mutual obligations would give all parties confidence. So I think we can recognize Iran’s program but I don’t see a need to create a universal right that in my mind does not exist.
How possible, do you believe, is the establishment of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East? And if you think that it is possible, will Israel give up its nuclear weapons too?
I think that the Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East is important. It was an important victory won by the NPT parties from the Middle East, at a previous NPT review conference. Certainly we need to have more WMD-free zones. We have a few international now and there is no region that needs it more than the Middle East and Southwest Asia. I think it is going to be a process that takes time, just like all arms control treaties take time. I think in the near term it is important to have a meeting and Israel has shown reluctance to meet. Some have suggested that Iran has been reluctant but I don’t know. But I think we need to sit down and talk. In Israel, based on my conversations with Israeli policy-makers, they make what are called slippery slope arguments where we sit down and meet and then this is going to happen and that is going to happen. I reject those arguments. Obviously the parties have to meet and there is plenty of work to be done. At the end of that process, which will take years, and which will require new institutions, new rules of the road, new technologies, new practices and I absolutely hope that Israel would at that point in the process renounce its nuclear weapons, as South Africa renounced its nuclear weapons and other countries in the former Soviet Union renounced theirs. But they are not going to do that until this new architecture is built and there are changes in the political environment. But the only way to get there is by starting and we haven’t started. So I am in favor of starting and, believe me, there are many many steps that we could be working on now that we should be working on now that will help prepare the ground for this later point when this process has matured and all sides give up their WMDs. Remember that includes not only Israel’s nuclear weapons but it includes chemical weapons in Syria and Egypt and other weapons in other countries. So, I think everyone is going to have to work on this and it is going to take time but the most important thing is that we start to do the work, and we really haven’t started to do the work yet.
As an expert on nuclear issues, do you think that the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran are compatible with its nuclear program?
I am not in favor of more sanctions, and I’m in favor of lifting the sanctions progressively and step by step as we make progress on the diplomatic side. But I think we have to be honest with each other and say at least some of these sanctions, not all of them, because the US has had sanctions on Iran for years and years going back to 1979, but the nuclear sanctions imposed by the international community, imposed by the Security Council, not the US, but the Security Council including Russia and China are there for a reason and that is there were facilities in Iran that were built, that were not disclosed to the International Atomic Energy Agency. If you read the latest report from the IAEA, it is obvious that the IAEA is very frustrated in its negotiations with Iran. The report speaks for itself but let’s be clear, some of these facilities are operating against UN Security Council sanctions. There are areas where the IAEA does not have access, the heavy water plant, for example. There are a number of unresolved questions about past activities. So there is a reason why there are sanctions and we are going to have to find a way to resolve those issues and then absolutely remove those sanctions. I know there are some people in the US, in Congress, who even if we make progress will want to keep sanctions or want to put on new sanctions and I oppose that. I think as we make progress, those sanctions should come off, but we need to make some progress first.
In one of your articles entitled “How to Deal with Iran”, I read that you criticized Bush’s policies for considering Iran’s nuclear program separate from other issues such as using its capacity in the region. Don’t you think that based on the current developments in the region, Iran and the US must experience different levels of cooperation on different issues?
I think while the nuclear issue is important, it is not the only important issue, as events in Syria should make clear to everyone. The US and Iran are different countries, they have different interests, but they also have shared interests. Both Iran and the US want a stable government in Iraq which is a Shiite government, by the way. We want stability; we don’t want Sunni extremism and car bombs destabilizing the government in Iraq. We want a stable government in Afghanistan. We don’t want to see a recurrence of civil war or a resurgence of the Taliban. So in Afghanistan and in Iraq, we don’t have identical policy goals but we have a lot in common and there is a lot that we can do together to support this as Iran and the US did before. Iran was very helpful and even critical after the war in Afghanistan for establishing the Karzai government. That was the point at which Iran and the US worked cooperatively and successfully on a common set of issues, which was the reconstruction of Afghanistan. I think in Syria, obviously Iran is a supporter of the Assad government, the US has been reluctant to get involved but increasingly has felt pushed over time to back forces opposing President Assad. But it seems to me that even on this issue of Syria, there are some common interests. Neither the US nor Iran wants this conflict to spin out of control, to spread to other countries, to lead to the use of chemical weapons which is an important issue for Iran’s government who has always opposed chemical weapons going back to the Iran-Iraq war. So I think we have some common interests here even if we are on different sides of this issue. And I welcome the Iranian government and the previous president’s call for US-Iranian dialogue on this issue. And I certainly believe that if the US participates in forums in Geneva or elsewhere, that Iran should be invited to sit at the table. We need Iran and Russia and all the parties if we are going to find some way to end this awful civil war.
Does the US still pursue the enforcement of a zero-centrifuge approach with Iran? What are, in your opinion, Washington’s nuclear demands from Iran?
As we go forward on the nuclear issue in the short term, the focus is going to be on 20% enriched uranium, and I think Iran has been very sensitive on this issue, and the IAEA reports show that. Iran has not produced large stockpiles of 20% which would be a real concern to some non-proliferation analysts and I think that voluntary restraint by Iran is an important confidence-building signal. But I think if we’re going to make progress, on the one hand, Iran is going to want to find ways to move away from enrichment beyond 3-5%, I think it should probably limit its enrichment to 3-5%, I think that greater transparency would be helpful, that means adopting and implementing the additional protocol, giving the IAEA access and information that it currently lacks, and also a different style of compliance, right now the relationship between the IAEA and Iran is an unhappy one. There are two ways to comply with rules. One is to be affirmative in your compliance, to be generous in your attitude, and another is to stick strictly to the letter, and I think if we want to build confidence, then Iran should adopt a style of compliance that is affirmative and generous and not wait for the Agency to have to punch and fight every little thing and force it to give up information. I think that if Iran maintains enrichment but limits it to 3-5% and is more transparent, which I think is accomplishable, then the US needs to respond in kind and begin taking off sanctions, including some of the more sensitive sanctions. And then if both sides do that and demonstrate their seriousness by following through on their commitments, then that creates the possibility of moving to a second stage, where each side can do more, the US can remove more sanctions, and Iran can do more to give confidence to the international community. But in the near term, I think the focus will be on 20%, limiting enrichment to 5%, and building confidence through transparency.