Multilateral enrichment facilities could resolve Iranian nuclear crisis
One possible solution to the nuclear dispute with Iran is to setup a multilateral enrichment facility within Iran that would be managed by members of the P5+1 countries, giving Iran the ability to enrich uranium while minimizing the risk that it would be diverted for military use.
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A regional enrichment facility is one commonly proposed option for providing Iran with the fuel guarantees it believes it needs, while reassuring its neighbours. Regional centres face many challenges; the foremost is a lack of incentives for others to participate. The international market appears to be a reliable supplier of enrichment services and fuel. Since the beginning of the nuclear age, no nuclear reactor has stopped operations because fuel was denied for political reasons. The advanced nuclear nations now have an overcapacity in enrichment and new reactors will come online only slowly; thus enrichment prices should stay low for a decade or two. Only in rare cases, for example Iran, will a nation have concerns about the political reliability of fuel supplies. Potential regional partners might ask why they should produce something locally at great expense when they can buy it cheaply on the international market.
The timing of the development of a regional enrichment facility is another challenge. The only power reactor in the region is Iran’s soon-to-be-completed reactor at Bushehr and that will be fuelled by Russia. Iran’s other light-water reactors are still on the drawing boards. Several other nations have expressed interest in building reactors. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a contract with the Republic of Korea for construction of four reactors, and fuel deals for those reactors have already been negotiated. Other nations have, at most, ambitions that may result in reactors in a decade or more. A regional enrichment centre may not be economically plausible before then. Even so, Iran could use the framework of regional enrichment capacity to bring its enrichment capacity under greater regional inspection and partial control or to eventually support enrichment located outside Iran.
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Iran is often treated as a unique case, but it is a symptom of a much wider problem. Although there may be some specific ways to limit the Iranian threat, a solution will likely require a fundamental shift in attitude towards the nuclear fuel cycle. Change has to be led by the established nuclear states. The lack of a universal attitude towards nuclear fuel technology undermines non- proliferation efforts. Uranium enrichment cannot be treated as just another industry, like steel or petrochemicals, when established nuclear states do it but is considered a nuclear weapons proliferation threat when the rest of the world engages in it. Nuclear fuel supply should be an international activity with international guarantees, whether regional or global. The nations with established commercial nuclear industries must provide balanced incentives to Iran—and other countries—and work more actively at promoting regional solutions. Perfectly reliable supplies of nuclear fuel will not stop Iran from developing its own capability if its real goal is a nuclear weapon, but reliable supplies will force Iran to show its hand, removing the ongoing ambiguity regarding its nuclear activities.
Countries in the Middle East have cited a range of reasons for their resurgent or new interest in developing nuclear power, including the need to diversify energy sources and to meet increasing electricity demands. There are concerns that the interest is driven at least partly by Iran’s nuclear advances and suspicions that it may have a military dimension. Although nuclear power advancement in the Middle East can be viewed a priori with concern from a proliferation perspective, it could offer an opportunity for a net nonproliferation gain if technological development progresses down the right path of transparency and collaboration. The equation is straightforward. If these budding programs in the Middle East develop as completely separate national programs, mistrust is bound to increase. If they develop more in parallel with each other—with collaboration on such elements as information exchanges, transparency of plans, safety and security issues, and, potentially, fuel cycle activities—there is a real chance that nuclear development can serve instead as a tool to increase trust and confidence, feeding into a wider security-building agenda in the region.
As more and more states in the Middle East are jumping on the nuclear renaissance bandwagon, there is an urgent need to build nuclear confidence in the region. Instead of each state having a go-it-alone policy developing its own nuclear fuel cycle, which is likely to increase mistrust and the risk of proliferation, nuclear transparency and collaboration should be the norm. If the intentions behind these new programs are open and clear from the start, the countries involved are more likely to avoid misperceptions. Furthermore, by collaborating more closely on nuclear energy issues, the states stand to gain in economic and technical terms. With increased nuclear confidence through transparency measures and collaborative projects, the region also can reap many benefits regarding security building. There are signs that nuclear cooperation is possible. Regional projects such as SESAME and Israel’s assistance with nuclear power-plant siting in Jordan are evidence. Education is one area in which Israel could contribute to regional nuclear development; safety and security culture is another.
The next step is to promote collaborative efforts on nuclear energy, through joint training programs, exchanges of information and experience, and even talks on joint fuel-cycle facilities. Nuclear confidence building is integrally linked to the wider security agenda in the Middle East, including the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
As a solution to the nuclear dispute, the US and its allies should propose turning Iran’s national enrichment efforts into a multinational program. Under this approach, the Iranian government would agree to allow two or more additional governments (for example, France and Germany) to participate in the management and operation of those activities within Iran.3 In exchange, Iran would be able to jointly own and operate an enrichment facility without facing international sanctions. Resolving the nuclear issue would, in turn, make it possible for Iran to enjoy a variety of other benefits such as membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), increased trade with Europe, access to badly needed equipment for its aviation and energy industries, and perhaps normalized relations with the United States.
Iran would be prohibited from producing either highly enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium. This is the most important principle in the proposal. If Iran cannot produce or acquire highly enriched uranium, it cannot build a nuclear weapon. If Iran’s enrichment program is turned into a multilateral project, it makes it extremely difficult for Iran to produce highly enriched uranium. Any attempt to do so, even secretly, would carry the risk of discovery by the international management team and the staff at the facility; the high probability of getting caught will likely deter Iran from trying to do so in the first place.
No work on nuclear fuel, including research and development, could be conducted in Iran outside the multilateral arrangement. In addition, no institution, personnel, or facility associated with the Iranian military would be allowed to participate in the production of nuclear fuel or other nuclear activities. Neither of the two kinds of materials used to make a weapon—highly enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium—would be produced, only uranium enriched to low levels that could be used in nuclear power plants.
Under a multilateral program, Iranian scientists and engineers would benefit from the knowledge and experience of the international managers and staff sent to work at the facility. This expertise could help Iran address the current technical problems its engineers have encountered in trying to get their existing centrifuges to work at full capacity. More importantly, Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers would be able to be part of the international scientific community: for example, they could travel, exchange ideas with colleagues, and attend professional conferences without sanction or suspicion. The Iranian government would thus get something out of this arrangement and see a path where it can win with nonproliferation and lose with nuclear weapons.
A multilateral solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse may also provide a blueprint for dealing with a more general global problem: the potential spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology to other nations that do not now have nuclear weapons. Both President Bush and the IAEA have called attention to this danger and have endorsed proposals aimed at preventing additional countries from engaging in nuclear fuel production. To achieve this goal, international officials have also advocated a variety of mechanisms, such as a guaranteed international supply of nuclear fuel, third-party enrichment services such as those now provided to Iran by Russia, and upgraded inspections to detect clandestine programs. Combined with such mechanisms, a multilateral approach along the lines we propose for Iran can dramatically reduce the incentive for governments to pursue their own enrichment programs.
These are not trivial issues. Still, the main objection to the multilateral approach has traditionally been that it increases the risk of proliferation. According to this argument, Iran’s capacities to build nuclear weapons could improve under a multilateral arrangement because of (a) the transfer of technical knowledge to Iranian managers and workers; (b) the potential diversion of nuclear materials or technology from the multilateral facility to a clandestine, parallel program; and (c) the possibility that Iran could cancel the program by renationalizing it and expelling the multilateral partners.
On the first issue, it seems fair to assume that Iranian technicians would, in fact, obtain technical knowledge that they did not previously possess by working with their international colleagues. What they would learn, whether the acquired knowledge would prove decisive, or whether they would have learned it on their own anyway is unclear.
On the second issue, diversion of material or technology to a clandestine program, it is worth remembering that even with routine safeguards, diversion is extremely difficult. In practice, the IAEA has been very good at accounting for nuclear material, and Iran would have to be willing to take a large risk of detection to engage in diversion. Given the enhanced transparency of a multilateral arrangement and the constant presence in Iran of foreign monitors that such a plan would require, the risk of detection would be even higher. Indeed, experience during the nuclear age strongly suggests that governments are less likely to attempt diversion or to defeat safeguards when there is an active verification effort within a country. (In general, proliferators prefer to wait until the inspectors have gone home.)
Kairat Umarov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, discusses his country's recent support for an international fuel bank and how he feels this could reinforce the nuclear deal with Iran.
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The author proposes that concerns that the Iranian nuclear deal could provoke other nations to pursue enrichment programs could be alleviated if a "multinational layer of supervision" were added to the current agreeement, allowing multiple countries to manage and reap the benefits from the associated facilities.
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