US officials are considering whether to accept Iran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment, which has been outlawed by the United Nations and remains at the heart of fears that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability.
As part of a policy review commissioned by President Barack Obama, diplomats are discussing whether the US will eventually have to accept Iran’s insistence on carrying out the process, which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons- grade material.
“There’s a fundamental impasse between the western demand for no enrichment and the Iranian demand to continue enrichment,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former state depart- ment expert now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There’s no obvious compromise between those two positions.”
The US has insisted that Iran stop enrichment, although Mr Fitzpatrick notes that international offers put to Tehran during George W. Bush’s second term as president left the door open to the possible resumption of enrichment.
“There is a growing recognition in [Washington] that the zero [enrichment] solution, though still favoured, simply is unfeasible,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “The US may still have zero as its opening position, while recognising it may not be where things stand at the end of a potential agreement.”
Mr Fitzpatrick adds: “Obviously, no country wants to flag its fallback positions in advance. As soon as you let your falback position be known, it becomes the new position.”
On Friday, Mr Obama summarised the US message to Iran as, “Don’t develop a nuclear weapon” – a form of words that would not rule out a deal accepting Iranian enrichment. Mr Bush was much more specific in calling Iran to halt enrichment.
A series of UN Security Council resolutions since 2006 has forbidden Iran from enriching uranium, with the European Union, Russia and China backing US calls for Tehran to halt the process.
But Iran has sped up its programme during that time and has installed more than 5,500 centrifuges to enrich uranium and has amassed a stockpile of more than 1,000kg of low-enriched uranium – enough, if it were enriched to higher levels, to produce fissile material for one bomb. “Across the political spectrum in Iran, enrichment as a right has become a non-negotiable position,” Mr Parsi said.
Asked last month whether the administration was considering allowing Iran to keep a limited enrichment capability, Robert Wood, a state department spokesman, said: “I don’t know . . . Let’s let the review be completed and then we can spell out our policies.”
Some analysts say priority should be given to winning greater access for UN inspectors, to acquire more information about Iran’s enrichment plant in Natanz and fill in gaps in knowledge on Iran’s nuclear-related activities across the country.
That could provide warning of any move to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels at Natanz and ease fears of clandestine facilities.
Privately both US and Israeli officials say that even the current, more limited inspection regime at Natanz would provide sufficient warning of any “breakout” towards a nuclear bomb. Outside Natanz, by contrast, information on Iran’s programme is diminishing.
Indicating possible space for negotiations, Dennis Blair, Mr Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, said last month that he believed Iran had not yet made the decision to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a wearhead for a bomb. He added: “Iran at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop deliverable nuclear weapons.”
The US line that Iran is seeking the capability to develop nuclear weapons – but not necessarily such weapons themselves – contrasts with Mr Bush’s insistence while in office that it sought nuclear weapons.
Iranian regime insiders have said they would expect a compromise by the US on enrichment to be reciprocated. Such a move before the Iranian presidential elections in June would also be seen as a huge victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who has accused his internal critics of submitting to western pressures.
Additional reporting from Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran
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