Seven Steps on the Way Towards a Peaceful Resolution of the Conflict Over Iran’s Nuclear Activities

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul

By Michael Brzoska, Oliver Meier, and Götz Neuneck

In a climate of escalation, the outline of a lasting and peaceful resolution of the conflict over Iran’s nuclear activities can be sketched with a good degree of clarity and certainty. Seven necessary elements of a compromise package can be condensed from the many political debates and expert discussions about Iran’s nuclear program. All of these should be acceptable to the United States, the EU and Iran.

However, as is often the case in such situations, the major problem is not defining the outline of a sustainable solution, but reaching it. While a compromise outcome is fairly simple to describe, the way towards such a solution is strewn with political obstacles, as the level of mistrust on both sides remains extremely high. Furthermore, it is by no means certain that leaders on both sides possess the political will and sufficient clout to take the risks involved in seeking a jointly acceptable solution.

Yet, the alternatives are even worse. Continuing the current course of confrontation instigates Iran to improve its capability to build nuclear weapons if it chose to do so. Military escalation is not likely to lead to a solution of the conflict and increases the danger of an escalation of violence in the region.

Elements of a Solution to the Dispute over Iran’s Nuclear Activities

What elements would a sustainable compromise package that is acceptable to both the West and to the Iranian leadership have to contain?

First, the West and the international community more broadly need to accept that enrichment of uranium takes place in Iran. A permanent abandonment of enrichment, as some have called for, is unrealistic, if only because there are no political actors in Iran would support such a step. Thus, Iran must be allowed to enrich uranium for civil purposes and in compliance with extended safeguards commitments.

However, if Iran wishes the United States and the EU member states to accept a compromise that includes uranium enrichment, it will also have to be prepared to take steps to assure that such activities are for peaceful purposes only.

As the second element of a stable settlement, Iran must ratify and implement in a binding fashion an Additional Protocol for the inspection of its nuclear activities. In contrast to the “comprehensive safeguards protocol”, which restricts the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the inspection of declared facilities and nuclear material, the Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to carry out – under certain conditions – inspections anywhere in the country. The Additional Protocol is therefore necessary to provide confidence that Iran is not carrying out a secret nuclear program. Iran has already signed an Additional Protocol but has stopped its implementation and has not ratified it.

As the third element, Iran must limit its uranium enrichment program. Being able to enrich uranium brings a country closer to nuclear weapons capability. The more efficient the enrichment capacity and the higher the degree of enrichment, the more rapidly weapons-grade material can be produced and used to make a nuclear device. Iran can justify, with reference to the use of such material in the energy generation programs in other countries, enrichment of uranium to a level of up to 5%.

More problematic is enrichment to a level of 20 %, ostensibly for use in its Teheran research reactor. However, this reaction only needs small amounts of 20% material. Based on the public justifications of its nuclear program, Iran should be willing to restrict enrichment activities, and generally limit the enrichment level to 5% material. If it can be agreed that one or more states can supply Iran with fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor, there would be no need to make an exception for the enrichment of 20% enriched material exclusively for that reactor. Restrictions of this kind would be more palatable to Iran if other states committed themselves to similar restrictions, thus removing the stigma of “special treatment” for Iran.

If proliferation-sensitive activities (particularly uranium enrichment) were conducted at a multilateral facility or managed by an international consortium, this would provide additional assurances, which would make a compromise solution more acceptable to the West. Teheran has in the past suggested similar approaches. A number of useful technical proposals have also been made that seek to make it more difficult to misuse civil uranium enrichment capabilities for military purposes. Technical details of how restrictions on uranium enrichment should be monitored could be worked out as soon as Iran accepts the concept in principle.

As the fourth element of a compromise package, Iran would have to give up the production of plutonium and the reprocessing of spent fuel. There is no current or planned civilian use for plutonium in Iran. The planned heavy water reactor at Arak, which will produce plutonium, presents additional dangers because it could easily provide plutonium for a military nuclear program. Yet, Arak does not make much sense in economic terms.

A commitment not to bring Arak into operation would be a means of building trust, and the abandonment of plutonium separation is seen in the West as a necessary precondition for a diplomatic solution. Here, too, similar undertakings by other states would help to make it easier for the Iranian leadership to agree.

The fifth element is the clarification of existing suspicions about past or current activities related to a possible nuclear weapons program. This does not necessarily require Iran to admit that it has breached the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). For instance, an IAEA commission could, in a confidential procedure together with Iran, clarify whether, when and how suspicious activities were discontinued. A precedent already exists: South Africa’s secret nuclear weapons program was dismantled in this way to the satisfaction of all concerned.

In return, the West must provide Iran with security guarantees. This is the sixth element. The United States, the UK, and France need to declare that Iran is fulfilling its obligations under the NPT and give formal guarantees that they will neither attack nor threaten to attack Iran with nuclear weapons. In addition, the United States needs to join France and the UK in granting the comprehensive security guarantees to Iran (which also covers attacks using conventional weapons) that were part of the offer made by European states in earlier negotiations. This could make reference to the ban on wars of aggression contained in the UN Charter.

Seventh, the West needs to gradually lift the sanctions that have been imposed as a reaction to Iran’s nuclear program. An agreement would need to be reached on the milestones for reversing the various sanctions, step by step. Parallel discussions on confidence-building with regard to Iran’s missile program and questions of maritime security would support efforts to reach agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. However, before both sides return to a regular dialogue on other matters, the dispute over the nuclear programme will need to be defused.

Obstacles on the Path to a Solution

While it is relatively easy to sketch out a compromise package consisting of the elements outlined above, in the current situation it will be difficult to implement such a solution. Two particularly serious obstacles stand in the way. The biggest hurdle is the high level of mutual mistrust. In the West, the majority of the political class is convinced that Iran is moving towards the development of an atomic bomb. Given Iran’s technical capabilities, it is impossible not to conclude that Iran is getting closer to being able to build nuclear weapons. Yet, other non-nuclear weapon states party the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including Brazil, have invested in enrichment facilities and are producing enriched uranium. But Brazil, unlike Iran, has not been found by the IAEA to be in noncompliance with its safeguard obligations and it does not face sanctions.

From the Iranian point of view, the West is applying double standards, and this is seen as a sign of hostile intentions towards Iran. The Iranian leadership believes that it is being singled out for punishment in order to justify Western support for regime change – potentially via the application of Western military force. As a first step towards a lasting compromise, it is therefore essential to mutually increase trust in the other side’s serious intention to seek a compromise solution.

The second major obstacle to a peaceful solution is differences regarding the form and content of a compromise package. There is no unity among the various political actors in Iran. Nor does the West speak with a single voice. In Teheran, various factions are using the nuclear issue to strengthen their positions in the domestic political power struggle.

The proposed “red lines” put forward by politicians in the West also vary widely. Here, too, the conflict with Iran is embedded in the domestic political context, including the U.S. presidential elections. These are perhaps the worst possible circumstances in which to try to reach agreement on a compromise that requires difficult concessions by both sides.

In the short-term, it will be crucial to prevent a military escalation through concrete confidence- and security-building measures. By actively participating in the conference planned for December 2012 on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and by ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), Iran can actively contribute to building trust. Equally, Western support for the goal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and further steps in the area of nuclear disarmament, such as the ratification of the CTBT by the United States could strengthen Iran’s willingness to compromise. These measures would indicate a readiness on the part of the West to reduce its own stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

However, such steps will not sufficiently reduce the currently high levels of mistrust to enable negotiations on a compromise solution to go forward. In order for this to happen, further measures and actions will be necessary, which not only seek to defuse conflicts but also attempt to establish and expand regional cooperation – from Afghanistan, via efforts to combating drug production and trafficking, to tackling piracy in the Persian Gulf. Neighbors, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, should also be involved in the regional dialogue.

The political recognition of existing realities and the abandonment of efforts aimed at regime change in Iran would serve to increase confidence under existing conditions. The West needs to accept that political change in Iran can only come out of the country itself. Iran needs to end aggressive rhetoric directed at its regional neighbors and at Israel. Whether it will prove possible to achieve the compromise sketched above in practice thus depends above all on domestic political developments in Iran, the United States and Israel.

Prof. Dr. Michael Brzoska is director and Prof. Dr. Götz Neuneck is deputy director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH). Dr. Oliver Meier is a research at IFSH and international representative of the Arms Control Association.

Note: This essay will also appear in the German-language journal Welttrends.

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