US backs down on Iran’s nuclear power programme
January 2006, President Bush conceded that Iran could have a nuclear
power programme and specifically endorsed the Russian compromise on uranium
enrichment for fuelling the programme, namely, that the enrichment process be
carried out in Russia, taking as input uranium
hexafluoride produced by Iran at Isfahan from domestically mined
Asked at a White House press
conference, “what parameters might the US be willing
to accept Iran having a
nuclear power program”, Bush replied:
“I have made
it clear that I believe that the Iranians should have a civilian nuclear
program – power program under these conditions: that the material used to power
the plant would be manufactured in Russia, delivered under IEEE - IAEA
inspections - inspectors to Iran to be used in that plant, the waste of which
will be picked up by the Russians and returned to Russia.
that is a good plan. The Russians came up with the idea, and I support it. And
the reason why I think it makes sense is because I do believe people ought to
be able to be allowed to have civilian nuclear power.”
This confirms that the US has changed policy on
this issue (as I wrote in The US shifts ground on Iran ). Up until recently, the US mocked Iran’s plans
for nuclear power generation as simply a cover for the development of nuclear
weapons – Iran couldn’t possibly want a nuclear power programme, the US said,
when it was floating “on a sea of oil and gas”.
On this basis it bitterly opposed Russia’s installation of
reactors at Bushehr, and the Russian proposal to
provide enriched uranium fuel for these reactors – even though this flew in the
face of Iran’s right, under the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to nuclear power.
The US has clearly backed down and conceded that Iran can have civil nuclear power as long as uranium enrichment,
and spent fuel reprocessing, is carried out in Russia.
A New York Times article on 27
January 2006 entitled Bush and China
Endorse Russia’s Nuclear Plan for Iran  spells out the
fact that a substantial concession has been made:
“European and American
officials familiar with the details of the offer that Russia made to Iran say that Iran would continue to be
allowed to operate its nuclear plant at Isfahan, which converts raw
uranium into a form [uranium hexafluoride gas] that is ready to be enriched.
That is a step that both Europe and the United States said last year that they
could not allow — and that was explicitly barred under the agreement between Iran and Europe in late 2004, because Iran could divert the uranium
to secret enrichment facilities. Iran began operating the Isfahan plant again in August.”
The EU proposals (in August 2005) forbad
Iran from all uranium fuel
cycle activities. The Russian proposals
allow Iran to mine, mill and
convert its own uranium, producing uranium hexafluoride gas, which would be exported
to Russia for enrichment. Fabricated fuel rods would then be imported
for use in Iran’s nuclear reactors and,
finally, spent fuel rods would be exported to Russia for reprocessing
The US now supports this
scheme, even though it carries with it a risk that Iran, having perfected the
production of uranium hexafluoride from their own ore, will divert some for
enrichment to weapons grade uranium, instead of exporting it all to Russia for enrichment there. It is a measure of the relative weakness that
the US finds itself internationally
on this issue that it is prepared to tolerate such a risk.
The US has clearly decided that
it could not get sufficient international support for its earlier position that
Iran should be barred from
having a nuclear power programme, or even for the EU proposals that all fuel
for such a programme would have to be imported.
So, it has settled on the Russia proposals, in the hope
that there will be a broad international consensus for them.
The US has backed down, and the
EU has followed. It has now been
conceded that Iran cannot be prevented from
processing its domestically mined uranium to produce uranium hexafluoride.
Will Iran be referred to the
Security Council by the IAEA Board?
Maybe, if it rejects out of hand the Russian proposals, which, at the
time of writing, it hasn’t done.
The key question as always is: what
will Russia and China do? The New York Times article says in its title
that China “endorses” the Russian
proposals. But the text is less definite:
“During a visit to
Beijing by Ali Larijani, Iran’s top nuclear
negotiator, Kong Quan, China’s Foreign Ministry
spokesman, praised Moscow’s offer to enrich Iran's uranium in Russia and made
clear that China will not support sanctions. ‘We think the Russian proposal is
a good attempt to break this stalemate’, Mr. Kong said, adding, ‘We oppose
impulsively using sanctions or threats of sanctions to solve problems’.”
Will China vote for referral to the
Security Council, even if Iran rejects the Russian proposals
out of hand? Probably,
not. And that goes for Russia too.
Of course, a referral by the IAEA
Board can be carried against the votes of Russia and China, but to do so isn’t a
very useful exercise, since as veto-holding permanent members Russia and China are in a position to
stymie any action by the Security Council.
Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw,
talked to Jim Naughtie on the Today programme on Radio 4 on 28 January 2006.
It was put to him that US Senator
John McCain had said at Davos that it was important
to retain “the leverage of the military option against Iran”. Straw insisted that “our position is
different, and I’ve repeated it often enough”, saying:
a military option – there’s certainly isn’t one on the table, let’s be clear
It is certainly true that Straw has
said this repeatedly. But, as Jim Naughtie put to him in his usual half-hearted manner, the
Prime Minister has repeatedly endorsed the US position on
military action. And we all know who’s
in charge of UK foreign
policy, and it’s not the Foreign Secretary.
For example, when asked at a press
conference on 12 May 2005 to comment
on a statement by President Bush that “all options are on the table” with
regard to Iran, the Prime
Minister replied :
“On Iran, what
President Bush is saying is perfectly sensible, you can’t say you are taking
options off the table”.
The question of military action
against Iran by the US is theoretical
at the moment, given its entanglement in Iraq, and Britain is hardly
going to go it alone, even under Blair’s leadership. But it is ludicrous that the Prime Minister
can be at variance with the Foreign Secretary on a serious foreign policy
matter, without being effectively challenged.
30 January 2006
& Trade Union Review