Iran: Is it Time for a New Consensus on Uranium Enrichment?

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2007 Volume 28 Issue 1

UN Security Council consensus on Iran is a major achievement, except that it may turn out to be the wrong consensus at the wrong time.

Iran’s failure to comply with the Council’s unanimous demand that it suspend all uranium enrichment, again confirmed in the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has become the focus of a rapidly escalating international confrontation, even though an end to Iranian enrichment activity is not anyone’s formal objective. The Security Council’s most recent resolution says clearly and simply that the aim is to “guarantee that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Both the IAEA and the Security Council introduced the call for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment as an interim confidence-building measure, not an end in itself. The challenge is to recognize when that call undermines the real objective: complete and unfettered inspections in Iran that enable the IAEA to provide the guarantee of peaceful purposes that the Security Council and all who support nuclear non-proliferation seek.

The Security Council does not dispute Iran’s claim that it has a right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to conduct uranium enrichment. At the same time, Iran has not challenged the fundamental principle of transparency or its legal obligation to be in full compliance with NPT-mandated IAEA safeguards. Iran is currently in violation of both the principle and the obligation, but Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, appears to recognize that avoiding IAEA requirements will not be tolerated indefinitely: “What should be important…is to have Iran’s activities within the framework of the IAEA and under the supervision of the inspectors of the Agency” ( 2007). In other words, Iran’s long-term obligation under the NPT is not to forgo enrichment, but to allow the IAEA the access it needs to confirm that any enrichment is for peaceful purposes.

Why then is Iran’s suspension of a legal activity—uranium enrichment for civilian purposes—made a precondition for remedying its illegal activity—flouting IAEA safeguards? Iran’s refusal to make the goodwill gesture of suspending enrichment until the achievement of satisfactory IAEA access is, at the very least, shortsighted, but it is in no one’s interests to elevate a gesture not made, even one mandated by the Security Council, into a global confrontation and tripwire to a military showdown.

Increasingly, elements of the nonproliferation community doubt the wisdom and question the motives behind the single-minded focus on a suspension of uranium enrichment. It is time to refocus on the real objective—that is, to ensure that Iran does not use its growing capacity in nuclear technology for weapons purposes. “What matters,” says Gareth Evans (2007) of the International Crisis Group (ICG), “is not whether Iran has full enrichment capability, but whether it has nuclear weapons.”

The ICG (2006) has called for a change in diplomatic strategy by which the international community would explicitly acknowledge that it is Iran’s prerogative under the NPT to enrich uranium to fuel civilian nuclear energy plants, provided it meets stringent inspection requirements. In what the ICG calls a “delayed limited enrichment plan,” the international community would call on Iran to confine itself to its current, limited, experimental level of enrichment and only gradually phase in industrial-level enrichment as the international community develops confidence that it is in compliance with a full and effective inspections regime.

Earlier the German Defence Minister, Franz Josef Jung, expressed a similar view, namely, that Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium if it remained for now at the experimental level and if it was under the reliable scrutiny of the IAEA: “One cannot forbid Iran from doing what other countries in the world are doing in accordance with international law. The key point is whether a step toward nuclear weapons is taken. This cannot happen” (Porter 2006).

A related approach, offered by Harvard nuclear expert Matthew Bunn (2006), would place the Iranian enrichment facility in a stand-by mode that would halt actual enrichment but would preserve the machinery in an operational mode to facilitate an efficient restart of operations.

The point is that there is room to explore options on the uranium enrichment question—options that would not compromise the core objective of bringing Iran into unambiguous, verified compliance with its obligations under the NPT and IAEA safeguards. There is also wide agreement that verified compliance would require, as both the IAEA and Security Council have rightly insisted, Iran’s adoption and ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol and the more intrusive inspections it facilitates.

It would, of course, be best if Iran neither pursued nor acquired any of the sensitive fuel cycle technologies that are potentially adaptable to weapons purposes. But restrictions on such technologies are unlikely to be successful if the strategy is to single out Iran. The IAEA has been exploring plans whereby enrichment and reprocessing for civilian purposes would be brought under international control to produce fuel for an IAEA fuel bank, from which the operators of civilian power plants anywhere in the world in need of such fuel would be supplied. Last fall, in fact, Iran offered to have an international consortium put in charge of its enrichment program.1

Until that happens, however, the Iran-specific restriction on uranium enrichment remains a confidence-building measure—a sign of cooperation rather than an essential element of compliance. Iran’s refusal to agree to this gesture should not be defined as a fundamental challenge to Security Council authority and thus grounds for military action. But on the universal principle of full disclosure and on Iran’s obligation to permit full and unfettered inspection of all its nuclear activity and facilities there can obviously be no compromise.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay (2007) expressed Canada’s deep disappointment “that Iran has refused to meet the international obligations required of it,” emphasizing that “Canada still believes that the package of incentives offered to Iran in June 2006” by the six states managing negotiations with Iran (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) “offers an excellent basis for a negotiated solution.” While the details of the 2006 package have not been released, published reports indicate that it was genuinely generous to Iran (Kerr 2006).

The proposed deal,2 which included offers of joint energy projects, economic cooperation, and technology transfers to Iran, required three basic and significant measures from Iran: full cooperation with the IAEA and its investigations on outstanding issues, resumed implementation of the Additional Protocol, and suspension of all enrichment-related activities (Kerr 2006). Arms Control Today further reports that Iran had indicated willingness to cooperate on the first two, but rejected the third, and, notably, that there were indications at the time that China and Russia, and possibly Germany, may have supported a compromise to allow Iran to maintain a minimal enrichment operation.

It took the Security Council a long time and a lot of compromises and arm twisting to reach consensus on the demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, but it is a consensus that now could be blocking a potential solution to the crisis. If suspension of enrichment were taken off the table and replaced by a requirement that enrichment be confined to research levels, the international community would be in a position to call Iran’s bluff—to see whether Iran, with the challenge to its right to enrichment technology removed, would indeed honour its obligation of full disclosure and unfettered IAEA access.

In the meantime, Iran is reportedly making progress in its effort to move from the current experimental level of enrichment to industrial-level activity (Sanger & Broad 2007). The latter does not automatically mean weapons-grade enrichment. If, in the future, expanded enrichment is carried out under full IAEA safeguards, it will be possible to confirm that such enrichment is confined to civilian purposes—if the IAEA has access and all outstanding questions and issues have been cleared up. At the moment, however, the focus on a suspension of all enrichment activity provides Iran a cover under which it both accelerates enrichment activity and drags its feet on cooperation with the IAEA and implementation of Additional Protocol inspection arrangements – and, as a consequence, frustrates the international community’s right to unambiguous confirmation that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.



  1. “Last autumn, Iran’s Ali Laijani told European Union negotiator Javier Solana that Iran could accept the Russian-E.U. proposal for an international consortium to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel for Iran—if the enrichment and reprocessing were done on Iranian soil” (Hoagland 2007, p. B07).
  2. “Western diplomatic sources” described the following incentives: “permission for Iran to buy spare parts for civilian aircraft made by US manufacturers, and the provision of light water nuclear reactors and enriched fuel. Other incentives are said to include the lifting of restrictions on the use of US technology in agriculture and support for Iranian membership of the World Trade Organisation” (BBC News 2006).

References 2007. Iran nuclear report due. 21 February.

BBC News. 2006. Iran ‘positive’ on nuclear offer. 6 June.

Bunn, Matthew. 2006. Placing Iran’s Enrichment Activities in Standby. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, June.

Evans, Gareth. 2007. It’s not too late to stop Iran. International Herald Tribune, 15 February.

Hoagland, Jim. 2007. Fighting Iran—with patience. The Washington Post, 25 February.

International Crisis Group. 2006. Iran: Is There a Way Out of the Nuclear Impasse? Middle East Report N° 51, 23 February.

Kerr, Paul. 2006. U.S., allies await Iran’s response to nuclear offer. Arms Control Today, July/August.

MacKay, Peter. 2007. Statement by Minister MacKay on Iran’s non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1737. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, News Release No. 29, 22 February.

Porter, Garth. 2006. German official urges compromise on Iran enrichment. Inter Press Service, 4 July.

Sanger, David E. & William J. Broad. 2007. Report finds Iran in breach of U.N. order. The New York Times, 22 February.

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