Multilateral enrichment facilities are not a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis
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Any option that involves Iran operating enrichment facilities carries the risk that these could be used to contribute to HEU production in the event of withdrawal from the NPT. The risk increases if Iran is able to build up a stockpile of LEU. By starting with LEU rather than natural uranium, Iran could reduce by a factor of four the time needed to produce HEU of weapons grade. Under the status quo, the risk of break-out increases with each day that Iran installs new centrifuges, improves cascade operation and stockpiles LEU. Fallback options for limiting such expansion may deserve consideration, although it remains doubtful that limits would be effective. Options that would provide Iran with additional technology that could be seized in a break-out scenario would exacerbate the danger. In a country that has expropriated foreign assets in the past and that still holds to revolutionary ideals, the possibility of seizure of multilateral enrichment equipment cannot be discounted.
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Fallback options would confer legitimacy on an enrichment programme that the Security Council had, after great effort, officially delegitimised, unanimously and with successive reinforcement in the form of four Chapter VII resolutions. Once conferred, this legitimacy would not be reversible, and even to make the offer would be to acknowledge the right to enrichment. Under a fallback deal, Security Council sanctions would fall away and international enterprises would resume business with Iran. The reimposition of financial pressure if Iran reneged on an agreement would be neither certain nor quick. The undermining of the logic and authority of the five Security Council resolutions to date that mandated full suspension is not an insignificant price to pay for an uncertain bet on a fallback scenario. Pierre Goldschmidt notes that without the Security Council requirement for full suspension under Chapter VII, it would not be illegal for Iran to produce weapons-grade HEU, even if there were no apparent civilian use for it. In the event of a fallback scenario, the Council would thus need at a minimum to specify the limits of the allowable enrichment capacity and the corresponding activity, but agreeing on such limits would be a time-consuming task.
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Working out the complex legal, financial and technical issues involved in setting up a new multinational enrichment arrangement in Iran would also present huge challenges. Not least of these is the practical problem of persuading foreign companies to enter into a venture with such obvious economic, security and political risks. In an industry in which personnel resources are already stretched to meet the growing demands of a nuclearenergy renaissance, it would not be easy to find experienced engineers prepared to work in an environment in which they would be expected to perform intelligence duties and work under the multiple personal security risks of self-destructive centrifuges, air strikes and hostage-taking. The market solution of providing sufficient remuneration to aract qualified personnel raises the additional question of who would cover the costs of what is likely to be an uneconomical venture. No Western company has any interest in the idea. Finally, there is the question of the political viability of engaging in such cooperation with a state that supplies explosives to militants to kill US and British forces in Iraq and has reportedly aided the Taliban to this purpose in Afghanistan, not to mention its support for violence against Israel and denial of that country’s right to exist. The nuclear threat is the most important issue regarding Iran, but it cannot be viewed in isolation.
This goal was given a boost in November 2007 when Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC), publicly announced an offer to launch a regional joint enrichment consortium to establish an enrichment facility under the supervision of the IAEA in a neutral country, such as Switzerland, for all users of enriched uranium in the Middle East. The GCC suggestion would offer a face-saving way for Iran to forgo enrichment as part of a voluntary regional arrangement. By doing so, Iran would at the same time meet its obligation to respect UN mandates and provide the best means of assuring the world that its nuclear program is not intended for weapons purposes. The GCC plan also would be a practical step toward a zone in the wider Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, Iran is more interested in the technology than the fuel, which is why it dismisses the idea of obtaining its reactor fuel from Russia's international enrichment center at Angarsk or through proposals such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative project for a fuel bank under IAEA auspices, for which the UAE has pledged $10 million.
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Societal controls have their limits, however. Iran could to a large extent evade such controls by giving cascade-operation training to newly-minted nuclear physics graduates unknown to the international managers. Opportunities for technical diversion could grow as Iranian staff developed greater technical proficiency. Proponents of multilateral consortia reply that Iran may learn more advanced enrichment techniques anyway, and that enrichment technologies alone are not sufficient to manufacture a nuclear weapon. These counter-arguments have technical merit, but they are not persuasive. Even if intrusive inspections and societal monitoring minimised the risk of parallel clandestine operations to which technical know-how could be diverted, no inspection regime can protect against the risk of personnel being re-employed in an NPT break-out scenario.