Global Policy Forum

The Iran Issue: Backgrounder


By Prabir Purkayastha

Focus on Trade
June 2006

The Iran issue is now reaching a flash point with a number of reports coming out of the Bush administration of a military strike and even the possible use of nuclear "bunker" bombs to "destroy" Iran's nuclear capabilities. Even if the nuclear scenario is discounted, the move to bring Iran under Chapter VII in the Security Council and then legitimise future unilateral US military action under the fig leaf of a UN resolution brings a sense of deja vu to the whole issue. Once again we have unsubstantiated reports of weapons of mass destruction and ratcheting up of war hysteria on a future threat to the "civilised world" from a nuclear-armed Iran, followed by another possible US military misadventure in West Asia.

Such a military strike is unlikely to be a one-of affair as was Israel's strike on Iraq's Osirak plant. A simple war game would show that such a strike must be followed up by continuous aerial bombardment of the type we saw in Yugoslavia and a complete destruction of Iran's industrial and military capabilities. Otherwise, Iran could inflict heavy damage to the US interests in West Asia and on Israel.

For the sane, this is a horrifying scenario. The world is already dealing with the collapse of Iraq as a country, a major humanitarian disaster, along with the loss of oil that it used to supply to the world economy. An attack on Iran could conceivably lead to Iran blocking the straits of Hormuz through which 70 per cent of world's oil passes. At the very least, it will mean Iran's supply dwindling for the foreseeable future and oil prices climbing well beyond US$100 per barrel. The global economy, already on a knife-edge, could go into a catastrophic tailspin causing untold miseries to people all over the world. In all such economic downturn, the poorer countries and the global poor would be hit the hardest.

The case against Iran is that it has installed a cascade of 164 centrifuges in Natanz for enrichment of uranium, which opens the way for an Iranian bomb. The argument that the US and the European Union has been advancing for some time is that by enriching uranium, Iran will acquire bomb making capability, which they cannot accept.. What they do not say is that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for their nuclear power program under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Even if we accept that Iran may have long-term plans for the production of nuclear weapons using the nuclear power program as a cover, the number of centrifuges it has installed currently is too insignificant to be a real threat. Iran needs at least 1,500-2,000 to make enough weapons grade uranium for a couple of bombs per year. By all accounts, they are at least 5 -10 years away from such a scenario. Iran has repeatedly stated that it is willing to give up uranium enrichment except for laboratory scale and to have their supply enriched uranium for the nuclear power program come out of Russia. Instead of negotiating on this, the US is attempting -- in collusion with the Europeans -- to push them to a position where they either walk out of the NPT or state that they will go ahead with full-scale enrichment. In either case, the US could use this as a justification for a military strike claiming future security risks.

If we look at the last three years of manufactured crisis on Iran, it will become clear that it has little to do with the actual violations that Iran might have committed, but to use such allegations to deny Iran its right under NPT to the nuclear fuel cycle. Since such a denial would be patently illegal under the NPT, the case put before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is that Iran did not make full disclosure earlier about its nuclear program and therefore the onus of proving that there is no continuing clandestine program is on Iran and till that time, it should be denied this right. Even though after investigations, IAEA has accepted tha t the violations are procedural and reporting violations and not one of Iran carrying out activities in violation of NPT.


It is important to register here that what the US and its European allies are asking Iran to prove is impossible. To prove you have done something is simple; you can always show the evidence of what you have done. But if you are asked to provide evidence that you have not done something, this is impossible. How do you furnish a negative proof? What kind of proof will suffice? This is exactly the strategy that the US had adopted in Iraq too. Day in and day out, the demand was that Iraq should disclose where it had hidden its weapons of mass destruction. Denying this itself constituted proof that Iraq was not co-operating with the weapon inspectors. In other words, whether in Iraq earlier or Iran now, the only proof that will satisfy the US is proof they are guilty. Otherwise, it only shows that Iran is not willing to make full disclosure. This is what lies behind the US and its insistence that Iran must prove that it is not in violation of NPT.

Before the IAEA resolution referring Iran to the Security Council, the IAEA inspectors had unfettered access to Iran's nuclear facilities. Instead of continuing with the inspections, which would have made more and more certain that Iran was not hiding anything, the US and its European allies precipitated a referral to the Security Council. The provision for such a referral is finding some evidence of clandestine activity. IAEA chief, El Baredei, instead of presenting such evidence, issued a report that though such evidence had not been found, Iran had not been able to prove the impossible negative that it had disclosed everything. This is in line with the series of reports that IAEA has produced on Iran earlier that the IAEA is "unable to confirm the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities inside Iran". On the basis of this negative finding, the matter was referred to the Security Council, with the Indian Government also conniving with what was patently an illegal move.

Here again the parallel to Iraq is striking. Contrary to the myth that the western media has propagated, it is not Sadam who asked the weapon inspectors to leave. The IAEA inspectors withdrew when the UK and US had decided on a prolonged bombing campaign in Iraq and explicitly at their request. In Iran also, Iran had agreed to suspend enrichment and voluntarily accepted the much more intrusive regime of inspections under Additional Protocol of NPT while negotiating with the EU on the future course of its nuclear program. Iran had also made clear that any referral to the Security Council would mean that Iran would walk out of this self-imposed restraint regime it was accepting. It was only after being referred to the Security Council that Iran resumed enrichment and pulled out of the Additional Protocol obligations.

If we look at what the US has done, it will become clear that its intention was always to push Iran beyond the brink. It had no intention in a negotiated settlement in which Iran gives up certain rights it currently has under NPT for security guarantees as well as assured supply of enriched uranium fuel. From the beginning, the attempt was to force Iran into a path of confrontation, after which the US could declare, "All options including the nuclear option are on the table".


While agenda is obviously one of regime change in Iran, there is also another longer term US agenda. This is that the current NPT regime should itself be reconfigured to deny a number of countries their right to the nuclear fuel cycle.

The non-proliferation compact was simple; all countries that had yet not produced the bomb would give it up in lieu of unfettered access to scientific knowledge, technology and materials for the nuclear energy program. The only agreement that they had to make was that they would not make the bomb. This is the compact that the US and other nuclear weapons states now would like to change.

What the US and its allies are now asking is despite their not fulfilling their part of the nuclear bargain that they would negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament, the non nuclear weapon countries should give up their right also to the nuclear fuel cycle. Only a few countries defined as advanced countries should have this right. To quote George Perkovitch, one of the leading US non-proliferation ideologues, "The Nonproliferation Treaty's vague Article IV right 'to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes' should not be interpreted to endorse additional states' acquiring uranium enrichment or plutonium separation facilities." (Yale Global, March 21, 2005). This is what underlies the proposal that Iran give up enrichment completely and rely on Russia to enrich uranium for its nuclear power program.

The US believes that it can continue to keep nuclear weapons for itself in perpetuity, threaten other countries with pre-emptive nuclear strikes, build new generation of nuclear weapons and then deny other countries the right to even manufacture its own fuel. It is currently spending more than 6.5 billion dollars for nuclear weapons - 50 per cent more than it did on the average during the cold war. The new generation of nuclear weapons include low-yield bunker busters, precisely the kind of weapons being proposed to be used in Natanz.

It is comparatively easy today to start manufacturing nuclear fuel. Once a country has this capability, going the extra distance to convert this to nuclear weapons is not a major technical challenge. Thus, it is easy for countries to build nuclear bomb making capability under the guise of a nuclear energy program. The process of enrichment is same whether a country wants to make Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) or Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). Uranium Hexaflouride gas is passed through a set of centrifuges in a cascade, each of which produces a higher concentration of the fissile Uranium 235 isotope. While the power program requires enrichment to about 3-5 per cent, the bomb program demands an enrichment level of 90 per cent. As the number of stages that the material undergoes in this concentration process decides the level of enrichment, once the requisite number of centrifuges is in place, it is only a matter of time before a country -- if it wants -- can acquire weapons grade fissile material. However, running a large cascade of centrifuges is a complex operation and Iran will take some time to master this technology, if it wants to use its enrichment facility to develop the bomb.

The strategic shift that the US wants in the NPT regime was that the earlier NPT was a voluntary giving up of the bomb by the non nuclear weapons countries: it was a matter of political will. The new NPT regime contemplated would add a highly coercive regime to it by which either the technology or the knowledge to make the bomb would be denied to most of the countries. This also explains the far more intrusive inspection regime that the Additional Protocols in IAEA call for, which is now sought to be made mandatory, as also the desire to add clauses by which NPT signatories cannot walk out of NPT. Ring fencing the fuel cycle is another element in this new NPT scenario. In lieu of giving up the right to enrich uranium, these countries then would get the assurance of a supply of nuclear fuel from the same countries that have not kept their earlier promise to introduce nuclear disarmament. Interestingly, the interlocutors in the earlier negotiations with Iran, the E 3, consisting of France, Germany and UK would all be a part of this new nuclear fuel cartel.

In the US scheme, the nuclear weapon states plus Japan, Germany and Netherlands, the three other countries who also have uranium enrichment facilities, would become the new OPEC with complete monopoly of all nuclear fuel. If nuclear energy does become more popular, and there is evidence that it is becoming more attractive with the rise in oil prices and global warming from the greenhouse gases produced from fossil fuel, then these countries could dictate to the rest of the world their price for nuclear fuel. This has already made even countries such as Brazil and South Africa, who have given up nuclear weapons, quite uncomfortable, a discomfort that India also should share if it were not so enamoured of a strategic alliance with the US.


The problem with such a duplicitous policy is that not only is it immoral - you cannot tell the rest of the world to give up nuclear weapons while keeping them for yourself - but also it is foredoomed to failure. Year by year, the technology of producing centrifuges and other supportive technologies are becoming easier and more accessible. As the technologies become easier to acquire and their costs also drop, ring fencing the nuclear fuel cycle, as a part of a new NPT regime is unlikely to succeed.

The unfortunate part of the current Iran crisis is that IAEA and the UN are implicitly accepting elements of the new NPT scenario as legitimate objectives even if they are not in the NPT. The Iran case can then be used as the new international standard by which all non-nuclear weapon countries would be held to in the future. This is why most of the non-aligned countries in the IAEA have opposed the attempt to deny Iran the nuclear fuel cycle, with India proving the dishonourable exception.

The problem with a preoccupation with the non-proliferation agenda is that it does not address the reason why non-nuclear weapon states are attracted to nuclear weapons in the first place. If Israel has a monopoly of nuclear weapons in West Asia and the US demands the right to use nuclear weapons in "preventive" wars even against countries that do not have nuclear weapons, it should not surprise any one that nuclear weapons start to look more and more attractive. With the enormous superiority in conventional arms resting with the US and its ability to punch through conventional defences in any future conflict, weaker countries also look to nuclear weapons as "equalisers". We may condemn them for doing so, but cannot deny that it is a response to what they perceive as threats of war. Condemning them is not enough; we need also to address their legitimate security concerns.

Any attempt to impose a long-term non-proliferation regime on others without the nuclear powers disarming themselves is unlikely to hold indefinitely. It is a matter of time before nuclear weapons technology will be within the reach of any nation willing to go this route. Armed interventions by the US and local bully-boys such as Israel will only help to tip the world into the hot bed of nuclear weapons and make this world an infinitely more dangerous place.

India's record on the Iran issue has been one of hypocrisy and subservience to the US. Already, the Indian Government is visibly dragging its feet over the Iran pipeline, while jumping on to the US initiative over a new pipeline through Afghanistan. The Indo-US nuclear deal also seeks to tie India permanently to the US strategic interests. There is real threat that if there are military strikes on Iran, the Indian Government will be seen to be complicit in such an attack, with long-term consequences for India. Even now it is not too late. India must join other non-aligned countries to stop this madness of military action that the US is contemplating. It must intervene positively so that Iran's slide towards nuclear weapons is stopped as well as its rights to security and the nuclear fuel cycle retained. It is not only a moral necessity but in our national interest that such a confrontation and possible military action are averted.

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