The simple, logical answer to the Iran nuclear conundrum

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As negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme make faltering progress towards an interim agreement – minor gestures from Tehran in return for a partial relaxation of sanctions – it is essential to have a concrete idea of the goal of the overall diplomatic process. At first glance, reaching a comprehensive agreement might seem exceedingly complicated. Yet if we narrow our focus to the official, public statements of both sides, there is a simple, logical solution.

According to the public statements of Iranian leaders in the past decade, what Tehran really wants is “civilian nuclear energy”. What the rest of the world wants, meanwhile, is the confidence that Iran will not possess the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Conveniently, these two demands can be reconciled by the following formula: nuclear electricity, yes; uranium enrichment, no. Iran could be permitted to operate a civilian nuclear reactor for the production of electricity and medical purposes, but it should agree to buy its nuclear fuel rods elsewhere. This would create a win-win situation.

Why should Iran reject such an apparently satisfactory solution – one that could bring a quick end to the sanctions regime and immediate relief to its economy? Tehran argues that “uranium enrichment” has become part of its “national identity” and it would wound Iranian pride if it were forced to buy fuel rods abroad. Tehran also claims all signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty possess an inherent right to enrich, which cannot be disputed.

Both arguments are an insult to human intelligence. Acquiescence would result in an unreliable deal. In fact, there are 25 countries around the world that operate purely civilian nuclear programmes, and about 80 per cent of them import nuclear fuel rods. Has this wounded the national pride of Sweden, Spain, Mexico or South Africa?

Iran’s “legitimate right” to enrich is similarly preposterous. For starters, there is no such automatic privilege; rather, permission to enrich is conditional on International Atomic Energy Agency approval which, in turn, depends on meeting stringent requirements over a meaningful period. Second, the UN Security Council has already passed a series of binding resolutions contravening any Iranian right to enrich uranium.

Finally, and most important, even if we were to assume all countries, including Iran, are entitled to enrich, it would be eminently legitimate for the international community to demand that Tehran concede such a right. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect that the Iran of 2013, like Libya in 2003, would concede this “legitimate right” in return for rescuing its economy and placating the entire world.

Precisely because there is no valid justification for international consent to Iranian enrichment facilities as well as a plutonium reactor, any compromise on this crucial point will be interpreted as consent for its development of at least a partial military nuclear capability. This will inevitably sustain regional fears and suspicions, and conceivably spark new military nuclear programmes in several neighbouring countries. Such an accord will also complicate the inspection of Iranian nuclear facilities and obscure the red lines that, when violated, will compel the international community to resume economic sanctions or to consider military action.

In the same way, the forthcoming interim agreement is wrong – not just because easing the pressure now will make it harder to reach a satisfactory agreement in the future but also because it allows Iran to gain legitimacy for being a threshold nuclear country. Iran became a threshold state a year ago when it acquired the capability to produce a nuclear bomb within a year, but this was clearly considered illegitimate in the eyes of the international community and stood in clear violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. An agreement that will enable Iran to retain its breakout capabilities – this time under an international agreement that provides it with legitimacy – will make it very hard to reach a different end state in the final agreement.

There is only one logical solution that is profoundly simple: yes to nuclear energy; no to uranium enrichment. Any alternative deal would be evidently illogical, and thus incalculably dangerous.

The writer is Israeli minister of intelligence

Letter in response to this article:

Diplomacy should be encouraged / From Mr Michael Fernandes

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