The Geopolitics of Nuclear Proliferation It is not easy for Iran and the US to end mutual hostility

    The author sees no end to three decades of mutual hostility and suspicion between Iran and the US.

    Just after the foreign ministers of the self-styled “international community” (comprising the EU members and the US) together with their Russian and Chinese counterparts met the Iranian Foreign Minister in Geneva, the Foreign Ministers of India, China and Russia issued a statement which recognized “the right of Iran to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including for uranium enrichment, under strict IAEA safeguards and consistent with its international obligations”.

    This was an important declaration as the Republican right wing in the US, egged on by a predictable alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia, would like to scuttle any possibility of an agreement that ends sanctions against Iran in return for Iran accepting safeguards mandated by the IAEA on all its nuclear facilities. Israel wants a termination of uranium enrichment and plutonium production in Iran, together with an end to Iran’s implacable hostility to its very existence. American policies on clandestine nuclear enrichment have been remarkably inconsistent. The country responsible for triggering the proliferation of centrifugebased uranium enrichment technology was the Netherlands.

    It was the Dutch who carelessly granted A.Q. Khan access to sensitive design documents on centrifuge enrichment technology when he worked at the Holland-based Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory, a sub-contractor of the “Ultra Centrifuge Nederland”. Former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has revealed that after Khan’s activities came to light, he was prepared to arrest Khan in Holland, but was prevented from doing so in 1975 and 1986 by the CIA. It is well known that the Reagan Administration had tacitly assured Pakistan that it would look the other way at Pakistani efforts to build the bomb.

    If President Reagan looked the other way at Pakistani proliferation, President Clinton winked at Chinese proliferation involving the transfer of more modern centrifuges, nuclear weapon designs and ring magnets apart from unsafeguarded plutonium facilities to Pakistan. The A.Q. Khan-Iranian nexus goes back to the days of Gen Zia-ul-Haq when the Iranians received the knowhow for uranium enrichment from Khan. Iran is now known to possess an estimated 19,000 centrifuges, predominantly at its enrichment facilities in Natanz. It has an old plutonium reactor used for medical isotopes which, it says, is to be replaced by a larger reactor together with reprocessing facilities being built at Arak.

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    Given the clandestine nature of its nuclear program, its activist role in the Islamic world and its virulent anti-Semitism, Iran’s nuclear program has invited international attention. This has resulted in seven UN Security Council Resolutions since 2006, which called on Iran to halt enrichment and even led to the freezing of assets of persons linked to its nuclear and missile programs. There have also been cyber attacks (Stuxnet) by the Americans and the killing of some of Iran’s key scientists, believed by the Iranians to have been engineered by the Israelis.

    While Iran’s nuclear program enjoys widespread domestic support,what have really hurt the Iranians are the crippling economic sanctions by the US and its European allies. These sanctions have led to the shrinking of its oil exports and spiraling of inflation. They have been crucial factors compelling Iran to seek a negotiated end to sanctions, without giving up its inherent right to enrich uranium that it enjoys under the NPT. Crucially, the US can now afford to review its policies in the Middle East.

    Its dependence on oil imports from the Persian Gulf has ended, its oil production will exceed that of Saudi Arabia in the next five years and it is set to become a significant exporter of natural gas. The emergence of Saudi backing for al Qaeda-linked Salafi extremists in Iraq and Syria is not exactly comforting as the Americans prepare to pull out of Afghanistan. While the Obama Administration may make soothing noises to placate the ruffled feathers in Riyadh and Jerusalem, rapprochement with Iran does widen its options in the Muslim world at a time when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Sharif proclaims that Shia-Sunni tensions are “the most serious threat not only to the region but to the world at large”.

    But it would be unrealistic to expect that negotiations between the P 5 and Germany on the one hand and the Iranians on the other will produce any immediate end to the Iranian nuclear impasse. The Israelis and the Saudis, who wield immense clout in the Republican right wing, the US Congress and in many European capitals will spare no effort to secure support for conditions that the Iranians would not agree to.

    Iran already has one nuclear power plant built by the Russians at Bushehr, with another 360 MW plant under construction at Darkhovin. It currently has stockpiles of uranium enriched to either 3.5%, which can be used in power reactors, or to 20%, which can be relatively easily further enriched and made weapons grade. The Iranians are reported to have agreed that the highly enriched uranium will be converted into fuel rods or plates. Iran has an old plutonium reactor for medical isotopes, which it requires to shut down.

    It is constructing a larger plutonium research reactor at the city of Arak. The Iranians claim that the reactor at Arak is set to replace the existing plutonium reactor, which is being shut down. This is not an explanation that skeptics readily buy. In the negotiations at Geneva, France reportedly took a hard-line position, demanding that the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor should stop and that there should be no reference to Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium. This is not surprising.

    France has recently concluded a $1.8 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and is the recipient of large Saudi investments in its sagging agricultural sector. The Iranians are hard bargainers and will not unilaterally give any concessions unless these are matched by a corresponding and simultaneous lifting of economic sanctions. Having already concluded an agreement with the IAEA, granting the IAEA access to its uranium mine and heavy water plant, Iran is unlikely to agree to yield to demands to stop the construction of its new plutonium reactor.

    More importantly, given the continuing gridlock in Washington between the Obama Administration and the Republican-dominated Senate, the Obama Administration will not find it easy to secure Congressional approval for easing sanctions against Iran, especially in the face of Israeli and Saudi opposition. It is not going to be easy for Iran and the US to end over three decades of mutual hostility and suspicion.

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