US backs down on Iran’s nuclear power programme


On 26 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 ore.


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.


“I think 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 [1]).  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 [2] 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.


The military option

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:


“There isn’t a military option – there’s certainly isn’t one on the table, let’s be clear about that.”


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 [3]:


“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.









David Morrison

30 January 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review