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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 9, 2005) The process apparently shaping the 'Iranian nuclear crisis' evidently has more ramifications than meet the eye. In fact the Iranian case could be considered a smoke screen for some far-reaching changes in the treaty arrangements regarding the proliferation of nuclear technology.

(639.5734) PENN-N - The issue of Iran's alleged efforts to build nuclear weapons has always been a very controversial matter and the way in which the nuclear weapons states (NWS) and their allies have approached it is in itself significant.

The negotiating stance taken by the EU3 of France, Germany and Britain (See WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 625.5673 "Iran - an exercise in double standards") undermines the IAEA's basic underlying premise that it is possible to control the misuse of nuclear technology for the construction of nuclear weapons. EU negotiators, unofficially backed by the US and a series of Israeli military threats, have made it clear to Iran that it will it not be allowed access to the full nuclear cycle; i.e. to develop the capacity for uranium enrichment. This position became clear during the bilateral negotiations between Iran and the EU3 when an offer by the Iranian government (1) to allow enrichment under extra safeguards was rejected. The counteroffer, which would have allowed the supply of enriched fuel from a source outside Iran, was regarded as unacceptable by the Tehran's negotiators. Talks finally broke down at the beginning of August when Iran announced the resumption of the pre-enrichment production stage; i.e. the conversion of uranium hexafluoride.

Iran's position hardened further when, in August, its newly elected government appointed a new chief nuclear negotiator to the IAEA. This was followed by a technical report to the IAEA Board on September 2 (2), which set the stage for the passing of a controversial resolution at the Board meeting on September 24 (3). A clause in this resolution refers to "Iran's many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its safeguards agreements", which was interpreted as making the referral of Iran's case to the UN Security Council possible. Only Venezuela opposed the resolution, which was passed in an unusual vote by the Board (such decisions are usually taken by consensus). Russia, China and members of the Non-Aligned Movement abstained. India surprisingly voted for the resolution.

The abstentions of Russia and China and the Indian vote had by far the most far-reaching political consequences. Russia and China have long been regarded as supporters of Iran, which implied that they would oppose any attempt to refer Iran's case to the UN Security Council. After all, such a referral logically sets the stage for a repeat of the American 'diplomacy' used in the run-up to the Iraqi war. That is to say, a veto by either Russia or China would clear the way for a unilateral US policy, assuming that such vetoes would in fact be wielded. Abstentions instead of no-votes at the Board as well as developments elsewhere would suggest that the Russian, and perhaps also the Chinese, position may have changed.

The Russian deal
By early November, a definitive referral to the Security Council by a decision of the Board meeting on November 24 was expected. However, two weeks before that date, Russia introduced a so-called compromise proposal that entailed Iranian investment in an enrichment facility in Russia, which would then provide fuel to be exported to Iran while still permitting uranium conversion to take place in the country (4).

In fact this was a variant of the EU3 proposal: it differed by allowing the conversion within Iran while directly involving Russia. This was a political ploy, apparently based on a 'behind the scenes' agreement made in the preceding weeks through the shuttle diplomacy of US foreign minister Condoleezza Rice. The plan was to extract the same concessions from Iran, but now through the good offices of Russia, which has for many years been involved with the construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor and therefore directly interested in Iran's nuclear program. The official Iranian reaction to the new proposal seemed negative (5), which was logical since the compromise could only have been regarded as capitulation by the Iranians who have insisted on full nuclear sovereignty on a number of recent occasions. However, other Iranian voices (6) have used carefully ambivalent language about the proposal.

These manoeuvres took place as new information on the Iranian nuclear programme, from US-sourced documents purportedly providing further proof of Iranian bomb-making plans, was published on November 12. However, a US atomic expert issued a critical response to the report through Reuters two days later.

A new IAEA report on Iran presented by Dr. ElBaradei on November 18 failed to ease doubts about the nuclear programme. But on November 20, just days before the conference, EU diplomats let it be known that there would be no referral and the next day offered to resume the talks with Iran, which had stopped in August. This guarded reaction was sufficient to stop the Iran issue being put on the agenda of the IAEA Board meeting later that month. By November 27, EU foreign ministers had agreed to renew the talks with Iran and now all appears to depend on the outcome of negotiations to be resumed in the course of December. The next formal point of possible crisis is the March Board meeting.

Indian manoeuvres
As previously noted, it was the Indian vote at the September Board meeting that caused the greatest surprise, and even indignation, amongst the supporters of the Iranian case. Despite Indian disavowals after the vote (7) it seemed clear that there had been a shift in Indian policy, which had previously been illustrated during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington on July 18. On that occasion the US and Indian government made a joint statement, which provided for the lifting of certain restrictions on the trading of American nuclear technology with India.

India is an unofficial nuclear weapons state and not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US, on the other hand, is a member and claims to supports the NPT. Furthermore, it has actively pursued a number of measures like the Proliferation Security Initiative (8) and Security Council resolution 1540 (9) because it sees this as a way of operationalising the NPT, primarily as a treaty against proliferation. Furthermore the US is a leading member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which at its June plenary meeting in Oslo "reiterated firm support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty" and "Called on all states to exercise extreme vigilance and make best efforts to ensure that none of their exports of goods and technologies contribute to nuclear weapons programmes". (10)

According to Nuclear News (11), the US-India agreement contains no Indian commitments to restrain fissile material production, let alone stop it. The commitments to drop restrictions on the export of nuclear technology made by the Bush government to India will still have to pass through the US Congress. At a hearing before the House International Relations Committee on November 16, the obvious contradiction was pointed out. How could the US enter into an agreement in which a part of the Indian nuclear infrastructure was declared to be non-civilian; that is, not subject to IAEA safeguards? This effectively means that technology delivered to the civilian part of the programme could simply be passed on to the military or bomb making part of the infrastructure and that existing fissile material production for military purposes could also continue.

This Bush administration deal with India clearly contradicts the demands placed on Iran. That some states are allowed nuclear weapons and others are not. Such selective application of non-proliferation policy obviously wrecks the idea that a treaty should be universal and not selectively applied.

Such contradictions undoubtedly informed the IAEA director ElBaradei's call for international control of key parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, specifically through the setting up of an international nuclear fuel bank, which would result in some countries with a nuclear industry foregoing some rights of access to nuclear technology (12). Unfortunately that begs the question of whether it is acceptable to only apply such controls to new nuclear states and not to the existing ones.

The other noteworthy positions are those of Russia and China. Russia appears to be playing a key role in the negotiations between the EU3 and Iran and if it persists in maintaining its proposal (for Iranian nuclear fuel to be enriched in Russia), then that strongly suggests its agreement with the US-EU3 position that restrictions must be placed on the Iranian infrastructure. Although there was a partial Iranian rejection Russia's proposal, the Iranian Bushehr reactor is dependent on the Russians for its operation so Moscow does have a certain amount of influence. In August, an Iranian spokesman announced that, after many years of delays, Bushehr would start operating in late 2006 (13). The situation obviously provides opportunities for Russia to apply political pressure on Iran, perhaps with an eye on the 'compromise' offer. The situation is similar to that between China and North Korea where the dependence of North Korea on China for vital oil deliveries provides China with some leverage.

The non-proliferation regime.
From the very start of the nuclear age it was quite clear that there would be a proliferation problem. Furthermore, that the proliferation of nuclear technology was closely tied to that of nuclear weapons. As the first has been actively encouraged, it has worked to counter attempts, like the NPT, to limit the second. This is not news but the active acknowledgement of the problem by the US government and the director of the IAEA is a relatively new phenomena. In the past the nuclear weapons states and their allies have dealt this with surreptitiously. That is why it was possible for Israel, India and Pakistan to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. Their programmes reflect the foreign policy objectives of the states that gave them the required technology. As a study by the Congressional Research Service concluded in the case of Pakistan, "U.S. nuclear non-proliferation objectives towards Pakistan (and India) have repeatedly been subordinated to other U.S. goals. During the 1980s, Pakistan successfully exploited its importance as a conduit for aid to the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen to deter the imposition of economic and military sanctions that were prescribed by U.S. nuclear non-proliferation laws." (14)

That explains the leeway given to the Pakistani government to develop its Bomb through the work of the Khan network (See also WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 602.5573 "Proliferation: focus on enrichment issues" and 603.5575 "Khan: the Dutch connection"). Today it is the reason why the US is moving towards a policy of acknowledging India as an honorary nuclear weapons state, possibly with Russian consent. There also seems to be a consensus amongst the NWS that Iran should not be allowed any nuclear infrastructure that could give it the basis for nuclear bomb construction.

Such political analysis naturally raises one last vital question; what is the Chinese position? Its abstention at the September vote seems to imply that Beijing has also decided to block the Iranian nuclear programme. According to one report, the US is indeed encouraging other nuclear weapons states to support a declaration claiming that Iran has the intent to build nuclear weapons (15).

For the anti-nuclear NGO community such a development throws up a quandary. The blocking of any nuclear programme is desirable but if this is done as part of a grander geo-political design, subordinated to the foreign policy aims of the nuclear weapons states, then such a development also means that the foundation of multilateral treaties, i.e. the concept of shared collective security, is being systematically destroyed. The question is not only judicial but is also a practical one: every country that has nuclear aspirations will redouble its efforts to attain them before some shift in the foreign policy of the nuclear weapons states blocks their efforts.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the US government continues to keep all options open by not being directly involved with the EU3 negotiations. US Secretary of State Rice has carefully denied reports of being involved in the EU-Russia deal (16) further reflecting the unilateralist approach of the US government who's agenda is broader than stopping Iran's nuclear weapons programme. By not giving any non-aggression guarantees, the US keeps open the option of a military attack on Iran, perhaps in cooperation with Israel. In the most extreme attack scenarios leaked from Washington (the draft of the 'Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations' (17)), such an attack plan would, in certain circumstances, also involve the use of nuclear weapons. Some argue that this is made possible by the IAEA's September resolution declaring that Iran was not to be in compliance with the NPT. Whatever the truth of such allegations, Israeli threats have continued, perhaps in response to those recently made against it by the Iranian president. At the end of November the head of Israeli military intelligence declared that Israel must be prepared to use non-diplomatic means to halt Iran's "nuclear weapons programme" (18)


  1. Written in March 2005 - see Letter Iran to Director general of the IAEA: Verbal Note No.350-1-17/928- Vienna- 1 August 2005
  4. Financial Times, November 10, 2005
  5. Reuters, November 11, 2005, quoting Ali Larijani, the Iranian head of delegation at the IAEA
  6. Iranmania, November 15, 2005, quoting Aladdin Borujerdi, parliamentary committee chairman
  9. Which "decided that all States shall refrain from supporting by any means non-State actors that attempt to acquire, use or transfer nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems."
  11. Nuclear News, November 24, 2005
  12. BBC News, November 8, 2005
  13. BBC News, August 22, 2004
  14. Pakistan's Nuclear Proliferation Activities and the Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission: U.S. Policy Constraints and Options January 25, 2005; CRS Report for Congress
  15. IHT, December 5, 2005
  16. BBC World Service, November 10, 2005
  17. For documents and analysis of doctrine:
  18. Jerusalem Post, November 30, 2005



Contact: Karel Koster, Project on European Nuclear Non-Proliferation (PENN/N), Obrechtstraat 43, 3572 EC Utrecht, the Netherlands.
Tel: +31 30 271 4376

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