18 November 2011

What should we make of Iran's nuclear program?

The Iranian nuclear program is back in the news, with the media publishing a restricted report to his Board of Governors by the Director-General of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, on the subject of the implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Safeguards Agreement with Iran, and the compliance of that country with relevant UN Security Council resolutions (see full report here).

As predictably as death and taxes the news has been accompanied by Israel indicating that it is considering a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and demands from the United States for tighter sanctions.

This report has received more than usual attention on this occasion because the IAEA has crossed a kind of nuclear threshold of its own, coming explicitly to the conclusion, for the first time that I am aware of, that there are aspects of the Iranian program that are only relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device, and stating in its concluding summary:

53.     The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.  After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible.  The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured program, and that some activities may be still ongoing

Decoding that paragraph just a little, the IAEA feels it has a good picture of a structured program relevant to the development of a nuclear weapons capability prior to the end of 2003, but is not sure what the Iranians are up to now.  This does not tell us much that is new. A 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate stated (see here) as the first of its “Key Judgements”:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

The incoming Obama Administration was briefed in similar vein by US intelligence agencies in 2009.

This leaves us with many questions to be addressed. Does Iran have a “legitimate” reason for a nuclear electricity program, and if it does, why is it so insistent on developing its own enrichment capability and facilities?  Why does it have undeclared sites that come to light from time to time, and why are so many of these facilities, ostensibly for peaceful purposes, buried deep underground?  Is Iran developing a bomb, and if so, how worried should we be, and should we try to do something about it?

Many have for a long time drawn dark conclusions from Iranian insistence on having the full suite of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities in-country.  This insistence is in fact of little evidentiary value concerning the peacefulness or otherwise of Iran’s nuclear intentions, because Iran’s experience in this field would provide adequate justification for full independence for a purely civil program – which independence is the treaty right of all members of the NPT.

The history of the Iranian nuclear program dates back to the days of the Shah.  In 1978 I was involved in negotiating a nuclear safeguards agreement to cover the intended supply of Australian uranium, visited Tehran, and was given a site tour of the power station which had been under construction at Bushehr since 1975 by the German company Kraftwerk Union AG – the same plant that was finally completed by the Russians and began feeding power into the Iranian grid in September of this year (not much sense of urgency there!).  The Shah saw a nuclear power program as an alternative to burning the nation’s valuable petroleum resources, a sign that Iran was at the first rank of technological capability and hence a source of international prestige, and in all probability, the source of a nuclear weapons option – all views that in time came to be adopted by his Islamic Revolutionary successors.

In light of its historical experiences Iran’s attitude to any proposal for dealing with its emerging nuclear technological capability will be governed by three headline considerations:

(1)  Iran will not agree to any proposal which accords to it a status that is inferior to that of other nations. As is the case with China, Iran regards itself as the heir to one of the world’s great civilisations, and is a country which was very much put upon by the West at a time when it was militarily weak. Over the last century or so it has known foreign military occupation (Britain and Russia), resource theft (the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now known as BP), intervention in its internal affairs (the 1953 overthrow by the CIA of the Mossadeq government), military invasion (Iraq, assisted in a variety of ways by the United States), and of course economic and financial sanctions (ongoing). Accordingly, it will not settle for any arrangement which it regards as humiliating, even if there are costs in rejecting what might look like an attractive deal.

(2)  Iran lives under the constant threat of attack by Israel and will not do anything to limit the development of its military response options. I believe for a variety of reasons that Iran has not yet made a decision to move to a military nuclear capability, and is unlikely to do so if it feels it can avoid it, but the ambiguity about the extent of its nuclear capability is part of its deterrence strategy.

(3)  Iran has absolutely no reason to trust the West on this matter. In 1974, during the Shah’s time, Iran lent $US 1 billion to the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to build its Eurodif enrichment facility, and acquired a 10 per cent indirect interest in Eurodif through the Franco-Iranian company Sofidif – a stake that still exists. Iran paid another $180 million for future enrichment services to fuel its nuclear power plants. 

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Khomeini regime cancelled the Shah’s nuclear program and sought refund of this investment. There followed a decade of bitter litigation, as a result of which Iran was reimbursed a total of $1.6 billion for its 1974 loan plus interest. It remains an indirect shareholder in Sofidif, but under the 1991 agreement which settled the litigation it has no access to technology and no right to take enriched uranium. It has the shareholder’s right to dividends, but financial sanctions against Iran mean that it cannot even receive these dividends.

Iran also has a 15% stake in the Rössing uranium mine in Namibia, the world’s third largest uranium mine, of which the main other owners are Rio Tinto (68%) and the Government of Namibia (10%).  There are two Iranian Directors, Messrs S.N. Ashrafizade and A.V. Kalantari, but Iran does not have contracts for the purchase of uranium. It is ironic that a company partly owned by Iran, and which sells uranium to the United States, cannot sell uranium to Iran.

So a country which has for thirty years had a stake in one of the world’s largest uranium mines and in a uranium enrichment plant, but has seen those stakes effectively frozen all that time, is being asked to believe that it can “trust us” to look after its civil nuclear power needs. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred explicitly to this situation in various public comments.

The development of nuclear weapons capability by Iran or any other country can hardly be viewed as a positive development, but it is not an occasion for the international hysteria that Israel and its US partisans constantly attempt to drum up.  Since the early 1990s, when Israel started to run out of the sorts of threats that would enable it to engage Washington’s attention in a convincing manner, we have been hearing about how Iran is an ‘existential threat’ to Israel.  

There are two elements to this preposterous claim:

- An Iranian nuclear weapons capability is just around the corner, perhaps only months away

- Iran is run by mad mullahs, irrational and unpredictable people who could do anything, and who therefore could not be entrusted with nuclear weapons.

Regarding the first element, in 1992 Benyamin Netanyahu told the Knesset that Iran was 3-5 years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, and on the other side of the political fence, Shimon Peres told French TV that Iran would have nuclear warheads by 1999.  The Christian Science Monitor recently published a timeline of the “breathless predictions that the Islamic Republic will soon be at the brink of nuclear capability” going back to 1979.  The fact that Iran has been “on the brink” of a nuclear capability for almost two decades speaks to the credibility of that argument. 

As for the notion that Iran is run by “mad mullahs”, the fact is that the Iranian leadership has been quite rational and cautious in the conduct of its foreign and military policies, and can be expected to continue to be so. 

On the subject of the supposed “existential threat”, no less an authority than Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said

I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel. Israel is strong, I don't see anyone who could pose an existential threat.

Before he left office in 2008, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said:

Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportion is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself.

Whether anything should be done about Iran’s nuclear activities, that is partly a function of how serious the threat is, and partly a function of what the options are.  There are only two options for direct action: sanctions and air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities.

While restrictions on sale of relevant equipment and technologies make some sense, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has something else in mind: the “crippling sanctions” that she calls for from time to time. 
This is a seriously dumb idea, for too many reasons to enumerate here, but here are some of the main ones:

- It is highly unlikely that the United States will get sufficient support for such sanctions to gain agreement to their imposition.

- Even if sanctions are agreed, they will be almost impossible to enforce – Iran has land borders with too many countries, plus coastlines on the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is altogether too porous.

- Enforcing sanctions would almost certainly require patrolling of Iran’s offshore waters, with a high risk of confrontation and military escalation.

- The sanctions regime would cause all kinds of grief for the oil companies that need to do business in Iran in order to supply the West with crude oil.

- Iran demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq war an immense capacity to endure suffering. It is unlikely to buckle under any sort of sanctions regime that the West would be prepared to establish.

- Also, this is a society that is proud of its long history and possessed of great self-respect – the sort of self-respect that led Britain to resolve to fight on in the dark days after Dunkirk; in its own mind there was no alternative, no real question to be addressed. Iran will not buckle under external economic pressure.

- As explained in my 2009 blog piece Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has the option of retaliating by closing the Strait of Hormuz. The United States would have to respond, and the ensuing confrontation would pose a high risk of spiralling out of control.

Aside from all of the above, there is the morality of imposing “crippling sanctions” against anyone. As the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime demonstrated, general economic sanctions (as distinct from export controls on particular items of military significance) hit hardest the most vulnerable in society – infants, young children, the ill and the elderly. They do so by reducing access to electricity, clean water, safe food, emergency transport, spare parts for imported equipment upon which life or safety depend. Iran’s very poor air safety record is in part a product of the unavailability of aircraft spares under the existing sanctions. If the proposed “crippling sanctions” are introduced, the scarce available supplies of liquid fuels will be reserved for what the regime considers to be their highest and best use – the uses of the regime itself and of the Iranian military. For everyone else, life will be just that much tougher. In a country of 66 million, a 1% impact on whether any given person will live or die in the next twelve months amounts, across the population as a whole, to 660,000 avoidable deaths per annum. Sanctions are not a peaceful or low-harm way of going to war.

As for the pre-emptive strike option, that is dumber still.  Iran has nuclear facilities scattered across a country the size of Queensland, some of them deep underground and/or defended by Russian surface to air missiles.  Mounting the necessary air raids would be a stretch for the Israeli Air Force, and afterwards the IAF could never be sure whether the known facilities had been destroyed or whether there were alternative unknown facilities that had not even been attacked.  And anyone who thinks that the only possible consequence of an Israeli attack on Iran would be retaliation by Hezbollah from the Lebanon is dreaming.

There are some things in life that one just has to learn to live with, and I think an Iranian nuclear capability, if Iran chooses to go that way, is one of them.

Note: This item was first posted on the ABC’s The Drum website on 14 November 2011. Access it and 298 comments here).

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