Speech by Director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies Anton Khlopkov. The status of and prospects for resolving the Iranian nuclear problem

Speech by Director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies Anton Khlopkov.
The status of and prospects for resolving the Iranian nuclear problem

(Vienna, 8-9 April 2010)

One can talk at great length about both the Iranian and the North Korean problem, considering both the historical facts and the prospects for the future, but the diagnosis has already been made with absolute certainty. The situation, to our great regret, is truly deadlocked. Working from this premise, I shall endeavor to briefly highlight the changes that have occurred in recent months as regards the topic under discussion and that will undoubtedly have an impact on the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Firstly, the Iranian problem needs to be considered comprehensively. And here it is necessary to take into account four basic dimensions of that problem: the political, the technical, the legal and also the security dimension. From an engineering point of view, Iran has recently accomplished the nuclear technology objectives that were earlier set by Shah Pahlavi. As I see it, Iran has moved beyond the so‑called “point of no return”, when, regardless of the introduction of new sanctions or even the conduct of a limited military operation, it is technologically speaking at a level where it will be able to produce highly‑enriched uranium. At this point, it is a question of time. It is likely that this process can be slowed down, but Iran will nevertheless achieve the necessary technological capacity within the next decade.

The main question is how to bring about the kind of conditions to ensure that these technologies and the equipment that Iran already has or will obtain at some point in the future cannot be diverted towards military uses; how to make certain that the Iranian nuclear program becomes sufficiently transparent and that we can be at least relatively certain that Teheran will not be able to start producing weapons‑grade nuclear material any time soon. And here, I should like to return to a point raised in the discussions at the start of our meeting, namely that sanctions are clearly not working. What is more, the effectiveness of these sanctions was even less than non-existent since they have proven to be counterproductive in nature. To be sure, the sanctions demonstrated a unified approach to this problem on the part of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, but they have not led to any greater transparency in the Iranian nuclear program and have resulted in a systematic reduction in Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To begin with, Teheran refused to apply the Additional Protocol (1997) to the Agreement with the IAEA for the Application of Safeguards, and later the so‑called Code 3.1. A reaction of this kind by the Iranian side was entirely to be expected.

Undoubtedly, the problem of trust is one of the key factors in the escalation of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Here, I should like to draw particular attention to the proposal made to Teheran earlier regarding the exchange of low‑enriched uranium in return for nuclear fuel for the Teheran Research Reactor. In my view, this proposal created a unique situation as regards the Iranian crisis and made it possible to achieve progress with respect to trust, even if it did not solve the entire problem. This gave hope for a greater level of trust than had previously existed. And I am not inclined to blame Iran alone for the fact that this proposal has so far failed to work. I believe that the basic problem lies in the fact that, to use mathematical language, as of today the set, first of all, consisting of the western countries among the six international mediators, the set consisting of the approaches to the problem, and the set represented by Iran do not even intersect. Meanwhile, the main task within the framework of this proposal for the six mediator countries was to reduce the quantity of enriched uranium located on Iranian territory in the form of hexafluoride. Teheran, however, was attempting to obtain nuclear fuel for the Teheran Research Reactor. And, in my view, neither party was interested in a compromise, although the conditions for one existed. For example, Iran proposed a simultaneous exchange, which would have been possible. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

I should like to draw attention to a very important fact, especially on the eve of the NPT Review Conference. Current United Nations Security Council resolutions in force with respect to Iran do not prohibit deliveries of nuclear fuel for use in the Teheran Research Reactor. Iran will no doubt actively exploit this fact, claiming that the current market mechanisms for nuclear fuel deliveries are not working. This being the case, Teheran is unable to obtain nuclear fuel for its research reactor even though the enrichment level of this fuel amounts to up to 20% of uranium‑235, while nuclear fuel of this sort does not fall under the international sanctions regime. This will undoubtedly be yet another blow to the so‑called international approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle issue, since the mechanisms that are being created or have even already been created are still failing to provide solutions to the relevant issues and problems.

We need to examine the question of the possibility of nuclear fuel deliveries for the Teheran Research Reactor from the nuclear fuel bank that is currently being set up in Russia. And in this connection, it would be desirable if there were some progress as regards nuclear fuel deliveries for the Teheran reactor. Otherwise, this will be yet another argument that Iran will actively exploit during and after the forthcoming conference to discredit, among other things, the international approaches to this problem.

I should like once again to stress that a resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem through a sanctions regime is not in sight, at least not in the foreseeable future. Teheran’s response in this connection should not be forgotten either. In the light of the recent report on Iran by the IAEA Director General, pressure within Iran as regards the nature and scale of its cooperation with the Agency is unquestionably building up to a considerable degree. In these circumstances, it cannot unfortunately be ruled out that further United Nations Security Council resolutions will only reduce the transparency of the Iranian nuclear program. As a result, Iran may limit the access of IAEA inspectors to declared nuclear facilities.

As for the question of a military operation, about which many parties have recently been talking, I should like to make the following comments. An operation of this kind cannot help resolve the nuclear crisis, since in the middle of the first decade of the twenty‑first century the decision was taken in Teheran to make duplicates of all strategic facilities and enterprises. This being the case, only limited damage could be inflicted on the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, especially considering that the back-up facilities are located under ground and are well protected. Consequently, a compromise needs to be found. In my view, a compromise of this kind might take the form of an initiative to initiate some sort of practical cooperation with Iran, notably as regards the Teheran Research Reactor.

The second topic of interest to Iran is raising the safety level at this nuclear reactor built in 1967. Teheran is evidently willing to consider the possibility of drafting a trilateral agreement with the USA and the IAEA so that the existing safety system at the reactor might be upgraded. To be sure, this would not eliminate all our concerns, including those of Russia, regarding Iran’s nuclear activities and their transparency, but it would at least enable us to expand our cooperation with that country in nuclear matters. It could provide an additional instrument for collaboration. Of course, there is no guarantee that this approach will work, but this opportunity should at least be taken.

I believe that at some stage in the negotiations or consultations with Iran on nuclear fuel for the Teheran reactor the question of adapting the previous proposal must also be discussed. We also need to remember that the goal of independently producing enriched uranium was in fact set as long ago as under the Shah, when Iran was working with both uranium and plutonium. In other words, even back then there was the question of developing technologies that could, if needed, lead to the production of weapons‑grade nuclear materials. Bearing this in mind and looking at the Iranian question from a strategic angle, we need to resolve the safety issues since if we compare the current situation with the situation in the 1970s, from a technological point of view the goals set are roughly the same. However, Iran’s perception of its security today and in the 1970s is fundamentally different. And the likelihood that the situation will develop into a military scenario is much greater today than it was in the 1970s.

It should be mentioned that the issue of resolving the Iranian nuclear problem is inextricably bound up with the process of continuing cooperation with Teheran as regards the peaceful use of atomic energy. To begin with, the construction of the Bushehr power reactor needs to be completed. This is the tool that we can still use in explaining to Iran that we have no problems as regards the country’s development of atomic energy. Here I take the position that the actual start‑up of the Bushehr nuclear power plant could well occur in the summer of 2010. I do not think that anything out of the ordinary can happen here given that the strategic decision by Russia on the start‑up of the Bushehr nuclear power plant was taken in 2007, when the delivery of nuclear fuel for that site began. Some 80 tons of that fuel have been delivered. It is therefore fairly difficult to imagine a situation in which Russia would not complete the construction of the nuclear power plant, considering that such a quantity of our fuel is under IAEA safeguards there.

If we approach the current Iranian situation in the light of the upcoming NPT Review Conference, it is important in my view to avoid making Iran the central theme of that conference. That would be extremely counterproductive. What is more, Iran is very sensitive to the mere mention of it as a country in violation of the nuclear non‑proliferation regime. Accordingly, we need to find the kind of wording that, on the one hand, would enable us to outline the range of problems that exist from the point of view of Teheran’s implementation of its NPT commitments. On the other hand, we should not create additionally destabilizing factors, if only in the interests of the success of the upcoming conference. In addition, it would be useful, prior to the convening of the conference, to impart a fresh impulse to the discussions on the Teheran Research Reactor. Of course, in the weeks that remain until then it will be impossible to resolve the problem of nuclear fuel deliveries or even to conclude a provisional agreement. But what is necessary is some sort of a fresh step in that direction. Otherwise, we shall find ourselves facing a situation where Iran has an additional argument in negotiations with other developing countries to the effect that the nuclear fuel market does not always work effectively, and that consequently national nuclear programs need to be developed lest these countries find themselves in the same situation as Iran.

I should like to return to a question that has already been touched upon here today. I am referring to the possibility of introducing new sanctions against Iran prior to the start of the NPT Review Conference. In my view, this could be a destabilizing factor that would considerably alter the entire conference agenda. Were that to be the case, Iran would do everything possible to ensure that the conference ended after nothing more than a discussion of the agenda and of procedural issues.

In conclusion, I should like once again to stress that the situation with Iran is deadlocked. And what is important for us is that there should be no further developments in this crisis before the start of May of this year. The NPT Review Conference needs to be held and Iran should not be made the principal party in destabilizing it. After that, we can try systematically and consistently to resolve those issues that genuinely exist in connection with the Iranian nuclear program. There are enough of them. If the opposite happens, this will not solve the situation as regards Iran but will introduce additional destabilizing factors in the course of the forthcoming conference.