Riding the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Rollercoaster

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who received his PhD at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, from which Ibrahim Kazerooni also received his PhD and where Rob Prince teaches. Image WikiMedia Commons

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who received his PhD at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, from which Ibrahim Kazerooni also received his PhD and where Rob Prince teaches. Image WikiMedia Commons

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

The recent information on a short-term agreement in the Iranian nuclear issue is welcomed news that presents unique and unprecedented opportunities for all parties involved. The least we can hope at this stage is that there is an encouraging shift in the United State’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue from the rigid ideological to a more realistic position. President Barack Obama’s commitment to veto any Congressional legislation that might intensify sanctions against Iran in the next six months is a refreshing development that helps add momentum to the success of these negotiations.

A brief history of how this saga began would be helpful in understanding the positions taken by all parties in these long and arduous negotiations.

The history of Iran’s nuclear research and development began with the bilateral agreements between Iran and the US in mid-1960. Tehran Nuclear Research Center (TNRC), founded in 1967, housed at Tehran University, and run by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) had a 5-MW nuclear research reactor, supplied by the US in that year. Iran signed the NPT on July 1, 1968 and after ratification of the Treaty by the Iranian parliament (Majlis), the Treaty went into effect on March 5, 1970. The Shah asked for and received assurances from the US that Iran would be given help and assistance to build as many as 20 nuclear reactors. He was encouraged by the US to expand Iran’s non-oil energy base and supported by a study by the influential Stanford Research Institute that concluded that Iran would need an electrical capacity of about 20,000-MW by the year 1990.

The Shah’s government awarded a contract to Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) of (West) Germany at the time, to construct two Siemens 1,200-megawatt nuclear reactors at Bushehr and the work began in 1974. In 1975, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) signed a contract with the AEOI for providing training for the first cadre of Iranian nuclear engineers. In the mid-1970s with the French assistance, the Nuclear Technology Center at Isfahan was founded in order to provide training for the personnel that would be working with the Bushehr reactors. In 1974, Iranian government signed a contract with the French company Framatome to build two 950 MW pressurized reactors close to the Iraqi border near Ahwaz.

In an address to the symposium, “The US and Iran, An Increasing Partnership,” held in October 1977, Sydney Sober, a representative of the US State Department, declared that the Shah’s government was going to purchase EIGHT nuclear reactors from the US for generating electricity. On July 10, 1978, only seven months before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the final draft of the US-Iran Nuclear Energy Agreement was signed. The agreement was supposed to facilitate cooperation in the field of nuclear energy and to govern the export and transfer of equipment and material to Iran’s nuclear energy program. Iran was also to receive American technology and help in searching for uranium deposits.

At the beginning of the 1979 revolution, Iran abandoned its nuclear power program. However, the considerable damage to Iran’s infrastructure during the Iran-Iraq war, and the demand by the growing population prompted the Iranian government to revisit and resume its quest for nuclear power.  It announced these intentions in 1982. By 1979, Bushehr-1 was 90% complete and 60% of its equipment had been installed, while Bushehr-2 was 50% complete. In all likelihood, had the 1979 Revolution not happened, the Kraftwerk Union would have continued its work with the cooperation of the Bechtel Power (US Company), which was its joint-venture partner in many power plant projects around the world.

After the Iraq/Iran war, Rafsanjani’s government first approached Kraftwerk Union to complete the Bushehr project. However, under the US pressure, Kraftwerk Union refused. Iran then asked Germany to allow Kraftwerk to ship the reactor components and technical documentation that it had paid for, citing a 1982 International Commerce Commission (ICC) ruling under which Siemens was obligated to deliver all plant materials and components stored outside Iran, but the German government refused to comply with the ICC ruling.

In the late 1980s, a consortium of companies from Argentina, Germany and Spain submitted a proposal to Iran to complete the Bushehr-1 reactor, but again, strong pressure by the US stopped the deal. US pressure also stopped in 1990 Spain’s National Institute of Industry and Nuclear Equipment from completing the Bushehr project. Iran also tried, unsuccessfully, to procure components for the Bushehr reactors, but her attempts were blunted by the US. For example, in 1993, Iran tried to acquire eight steam condensers, built by the Italian firm Ansaldo under the Kraftwerk Union contract, but they were seized by the Italian government. The Czech firm Skoda Plzen also discussed supplying reactor components to Iran, but, under the US pressure, negotiations were cancelled in 1994. Iran was also not successful in her attempt to buy nuclear power reactor components from an unfinished Polish reactor.

After years of searching in the West for a supplier to complete her first nuclear power plant, Iran turned to the Soviet Union then and Russia and signed, in March 1990, the first protocol on the Bushehr project with the Soviet Union. The agreement called on Moscow to complete the Bushehr project and build an additional two reactors in Iran, but financial problems delayed the deal. After the 1995 agreement was signed by Iran and Russia, the Clinton administration tried unsuccessfully to convince Russia to cancel the agreement.

David Albright, the President of the Institute for Science and International Security, has stated that, the US knew in the early 1990s that Iran was trying to import the parts for a centrifuge plant.1 For example, he cites a 1992 Italian intelligence report stating that Sharif University of Technology in Tehran had put an order in 1991 for a centrifuge component. According to Albright the US ignored the report, believing that the technical problems were too complex for Iran to overcome and that Iran would not be able to set up a uranium enrichment facility any time soon.

In 1993, the AEOI and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy signed another agreement for the construction of two Russian reactors at Bushehr, but the contract was never carried out as Iran was facing major financial problems. In January 1995 Iran signed a contract with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy to finish the reactors at Bushehr. Iran and Russia also agreed to discuss the construction of a gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility. After the 1995 agreement was signed by Iran and Russia, the Clinton administration tried unsuccessfully to convince Russia to cancel the agreement, but its entreaties were rebuffed by Russia, which saw the Bushehr project as an opening for her ailing nuclear industry to get itself back into the international market.

In 2002, Israel provided the means to place further obstacles in Iran’s path. It provided the MEK terrorist group a report indicating Iran had undertaken clandestine activities.2 Iran came under scrutiny for building nuclear sites (which it was entitled to as an NPT member). After Iran announced officially in February 2003, the existence of the Natanz’s facility, Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA, said:

“This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project [in Saghand, Yazd] for several years now. In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992.”

In 2003, as an act of goodwill, Iran voluntary suspended its enrichment program for two years and allowed intrusive inspections in order to alleviate concerns over its peaceful nuclear program (the Iran-EU Agreement). To understand what followed, it is imperative to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory.

The main pillars of the NPT are non-proliferation (Articles I and II), disarmament (Article VI), and peaceful uses of nuclear energy (Articles III and IV). While Article IV reiterates the “inalienable right” of member states to research, develop, and use nuclear energy for non-weapons purposes, Article III demands that non-nuclear-weapon States party to the Treaty “undertake to accept safeguards, as set forth in an agreement to be negotiated and concluded with the International Atomic Energy Agency.” Iran concluded such an agreement with the IAEA.

There is an international consensus that Iran has not proliferated. In other words, it has not weaponized its nuclear program or helped another state to do so, nor has it received or delivered weapons material from or to another state. This much is indisputable. Furthermore, in 2005, the IAEA reported that all declared fissile material in Iran had been accounted for, and none had been diverted. Yet, contrary to its findings, and in direct conflict with the safeguard agreement it had concluded with Iran, specifically Article 19 (the Agency may refer Iran to the UN Security Council if it is “unable to verify that there has been no diversion of nuclear material required to be safeguarded under this agreement, to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”), the IAEA reported that Iran “had violated Tehran’s IAEA safeguards agreement.”

What led to this decision was pressure by the United States.3  This was made possible due to the fact that there is no definition of non-compliance. As the prominent Arms Control Association opines: “Surprisingly, although the IAEA Board of Governors has determined on five occasions that a state was in noncompliance with its NPT safeguards agreement–Iraq (1991), Romania (1992), North Korea (1993), Libya (2004), and Iran (2006)–there remains no established definition of noncompliance.

So what are the benefits and the perils in the current agreement?

The most important confidence building measure in this agreement is requiring Iran to either dilute or convert to fuel rods most of its 20% enriched uranium during the six-month period and refrain from bringing more enrichment centrifuge cascades on line and Iran in return gets sanction relief and freeing up of frozen bank account. For Iran the most important outcome of the negotiation is the recognition of its right to enrichment technology that in previous negotiations the western powers were not prepared to accept.4

As explained earlier whatever the outcome, the deal should in principle contribute to improving the relations between Tehran and Washington. On the one hand, Obama desperately needs an international success to boost his flagging domestic popularity. A sustainable deal with Tehran could be the crowning moment of his remaining three years in office. On the other hand Tehran desperately needs to find a way out of current crisis that have put stop to major economic projects for one reason and another.

However, there are a number of factors that are determined to derail what has been achieved so far: Israel that bitterly opposes any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran that permits Iran to keep its nuclear facilities, not because they pose a threat to anyone, but because it challenges Israeli monopoly of nuclear technology and its overall political influence in the Middle East region. Netanyahu and his hawkish entourage know very well that they have little in the way of military options to seriously disrupt Iran’s nuclear program unless the US is brought into the fray and if there is a permanent deal, Obama will not even contemplate such action. The latest attempt by Israeli representatives to make deals with the Saudis clearly highlights their desperation.

Syria is another element in the search for closer relations with Iran that should not be dismissed that easily. As we predicted, the Syrian conflict did not go according to US plan. In the shifting dynamics of this conflict there is a confluence of interests of US, Russia and Iran. The recent deterioration of the mercenaries supported by the US and more prominent position taken by ‘radical jihadist’ element that has strong ties to al-Qaeda has certainly concerned the US.

It was recently reported that the US and Britain are ceasing to supply some equipment to “acceptable” rebels because of gains made by these radicals in the rebellion (see Michael R Gordon, “U.S. cuts off aid to rebels in Syria over jihadist fears,” New York Times, 12 December 2013). This followed the unification  of a number of jihadist groups into a new Islamic Front which has overrun some of the positions held by more secularist rebels. The Obama administration is in a bind over the rise in jihadism in Syria, to the extent that some in Washington say a deal with Assad may be necessary, however unpalatable, to avoid an al-Qaida resurgence in the heart of the middle east. Russia wants to avoid its own jihadists in the Caucasus exploiting Moscow’s support for Assad and especially the latter’s suppression of their ideological brothers.

Both US, Russia and China know that the resolution of Syrian quagmire cannot be possible without Iran.

Notes:

1. Connie Bruck, “A reporter at large: Exiles; How Iran’s expatriates are gaming the nuclear threat”.  The New Yorker, March 6, 2006

2. Ibid

3. See Seyed Hossein Mousavian, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir, p 173

4. Ibid

Ibrahim Kazerooni, originally from Iraq, just received a joint PhD in Religion and International Studies from the Iliff School of Theology and the Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.