PAUL BARRATT. What are we to make of Iran’s nuclear program?

Jul 3, 2019

Iran’s nuclear program, never out of the news for long, is on the front pages of the world with President Trump’s insistence that his belligerence towards Iran is driven by a desire to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. The facts are that there is no reason to believe that Iran has made any moves even to acquire a nuclear weapons option since 2003,  that Iran has good reasons to maximise the independence of its nuclear electricity program, and that until the United States ripped them up, there were robust arrangements in place to ensure that Iran didn’t acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

 Regarding the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, a 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate stated as the first of its “Key Judgements”:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

The incoming Obama Administration was briefed in similar vein by US intelligence agencies in 2009.

This leaves us with many questions to be addressed. Does Iran have a “legitimate” reason for a nuclear electricity program, and if it does, why is it so insistent on developing its own enrichment capability and facilities?  Is Iran developing a bomb, and if so, how worried should we be, and should we try to do something about it?

Many have for a long time drawn dark conclusions from Iranian insistence on having the full suite of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities in-country.  This insistence is in fact of little evidentiary value concerning the peacefulness or otherwise of Iran’s nuclear intentions, because Iran’s experience in this field would provide adequate justification for full independence for a purely civil program – which independence is the treaty right of all members of the NPT.

The history of the Iranian nuclear program dates back to the days of the Shah.  In 1978 I was involved in negotiating a nuclear safeguards agreement to cover the intended supply of Australian uranium, visited Tehran, and was given a site tour of the power station which had been under construction at Bushehr since 1975, by the German company Kraftwerk Union AG – the same plant that was finally completed by the Russians and began feeding power into the Iranian grid in September 2011 (not much sense of urgency there!).  The Shah saw a nuclear power program as an alternative to burning the nation’s valuable petroleum resources, a sign that Iran was at the first rank of technological capability and hence a source of international prestige, and in all probability, the source of a nuclear weapons option – all views that in time came to be adopted by his Islamic Revolutionary successors.

In light of its historical experiences Iran’s attitude to any proposal for dealing with its emerging nuclear technological capability will be governed by three headline considerations:

(1)  Iran will not agree to any proposal which accords to it a status that is inferior to that of other nations. As is the case with China, Iran regards itself as the heir to one of the world’s great civilisations, and is a country which was very much put upon by the West at a time when it was militarily weak. Over the last century or so it has known foreign military occupation (Britain and Russia), resource theft (the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now known as BP), intervention in its internal affairs (the 1953 overthrow by the CIA of the Mossadeq government), military invasion (Iraq, assisted in a variety of ways by the United States), and of course economic and financial sanctions (ongoing). Accordingly, it will not settle for any arrangement which it regards as humiliating, even if there are costs in rejecting what might look like an attractive deal.

(2)  Iran lives under the constant threat of attack by Israel and will not do anything to limit the development of its military response options. I believe for a variety of reasons that Iran has not yet made a decision to move to a military nuclear capability, and is unlikely to do so if it feels it can avoid it, but the ambiguity about the extent of its nuclear capability is part of its deterrence strategy.

(3)  Iran has absolutely no reason to trust the West on this matter. In 1974, during the Shah’s time, Iran lent $US 1 billion to the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to build its Eurodif uranium enrichment facility, and acquired a 10 per cent indirect interest in Eurodif through the Franco-Iranian company Sofidif – a stake that still exists. Iran paid another $180 million for future enrichment services to fuel its nuclear power plants.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Khomeini regime cancelled the Shah’s nuclear program and sought refund of the loan. There followed a decade of bitter litigation, as a result of which Iran was reimbursed a total of $1.6 billion for its 1974 loan plus interest. It remains an indirect shareholder in Sofidif, but under the 1991 agreement which settled the litigation it has no access to technology and no right to take enriched uranium. It has the shareholder’s right to dividends, but financial sanctions against Iran have always meant that it could not even receive these dividends.

Iran also has a 15% stake in the Rössing uranium mine in Namibia, one of the world’s largest uranium mines, but it does not have contracts for the purchase of uranium. It is ironic that a company partly owned by Iran, and which sells uranium to the United States, cannot sell uranium to Iran.

A country which has for forty years had a stake in one of the world’s largest uranium mines and in a uranium enrichment plant, but has seen the benefit of those stakes effectively frozen all that time, has little reason to believe that it can rely on antagonistic external powers for its civil nuclear power needs.

Regarding measures to ensure Iran does not revert to acquiring a nuclear weapons option, since 2015 Iran has fully observed the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency under what the agency describes as the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world, and has not proceeded towards development of nuclear weapons. This assessment is shared by the US Intelligence Community. On 29 January, in their annual report to Congress on global threats, the US intelligence chiefs told Congress the Iran nuclear deal was working.

Historically, propaganda about the threat of an Iranian bomb has had two main elements:

  • Claims that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is just around the corner, perhaps only months away
  • The assertion that Iran is run by mad mullahs, irrational and unpredictable people who could do anything, and who therefore could not be entrusted with nuclear weapons.

Regarding the first element, in 1992 Benyamin Netanyahu told the Knesset that Iran was 3-5 years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, and on the other side of the political fence, Shimon Peres told French TV that Iran would have nuclear warheads by 1999.  On 8 November 2011 the Christian Science Monitor published a timeline of the “breathless predictions that the Islamic Republic will soon be at the brink of nuclear capability” going back to 1979.  The fact that Iran has been “on the brink” of a nuclear capability for four decades speaks to the credibility of that argument, and the fact that it has been verified to be fully compliant with its obligations under the JCPOA should put it to rest.

As for the notion that Iran is run by “mad mullahs”, the fact is that the Iranian leadership has been quite rational and cautious in the conduct of its foreign and military policies, and can be expected to continue to be so.

Whether anything should be done about Iran’s nuclear activities, in the absence of an operating treaty to limit them, that is partly a function of how serious the threat is, and partly a function of what the options are.  There are only two options for direct action: sanctions and air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities.

While restrictions on sale of relevant equipment and technologies make some sense, the “crippling sanctions” that the US applies with such relish to those it doesn’t like are a seriously problematic idea in the case of Iran, especially in the current circumstances. Among other considerations:

  • It is highly unlikely that the United States will get sufficient support for such sanctions to gain agreement to their imposition -it will have to bully the corporates of its allies in order to implement them, and will have to deal with the opposition of Russia and China.
  • Even if sanctions are agreed, they will be very difficult to enforce – Iran has land borders with too many countries, plus coastlines on the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is altogether too porous.
  • Enforcing sanctions on trade in goods would almost certainly require patrolling of Iran’s offshore waters, with a high risk of confrontation and military escalation.
  • Iran demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq war an immense capacity to endure suffering. It is unlikely to buckle under any sort of sanctions regime that the West would be prepared to establish.
  • Also, this is a society that is proud of its long history and possessed of great self-respect – the sort of self-respect that led Britain to resolve to fight on in the dark days after Dunkirk; in its own mind there was no alternative, no real question to be addressed. Iran will not buckle under external economic pressure.
  • As explained in my 2009 blog piece Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has the option of retaliating by causing difficulties in the Strait of Hormuz. Its capacity to do so can only have increased in the decade since I wrote that piece. The United States would have to respond, and the ensuing confrontation would pose a high risk of spiralling out of control.

Aside from all of the above, there is the morality of imposing “crippling sanctions” against anyone. As the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime demonstrated, general economic sanctions (as distinct from export controls on particular items of military significance) hit hardest the most vulnerable in society – infants, young children, the ill and the elderly. They do so by reducing access to electricity, clean water, safe food, emergency transport, spare parts for imported equipment upon which life or safety depend. Iran’s very poor air safety record is in part a product of the unavailability of aircraft spares under the existing sanctions. Whatever sanctions are introduced, any available resources will be applied to what the regime considers to be their highest and best use – the uses of the regime itself and of the Iranian military. For everyone else, life will be just that much tougher. In a country of 80 million, measures which have a significant impact on whether any given person will live or die in the next twelve months amounts will result in tens or possible hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. Sanctions are not a peaceful or low-harm way of going to war.

As for the pre-emptive strike option, that is even more probelmatic.  Iran has nuclear facilities scattered across a country the size of Queensland, some of them deep underground and/or defended by Russian and indigenous surface to air missiles.  Mounting the necessary air raids would be a stretch, and afterwards the US could never be sure whether the known facilities had been destroyed or whether there were alternative unknown facilities that had not even been attacked.  And as was the case with Iraq, an attack of this kind would be more likely to trigger than to eliminate an Iranian desire to acquire a nuclear capability.

By far the wisest course would be for the other parties to the JCPOA to persuade the US to re-join the arrangement which was established in 2015. It is our best bet by far.

Paul Barratt AO is President of Australians for War Powers Reform. He is a former Secretary, Department of Defence, and a former Deputy Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is an Adjunct Professor in the School of the Humanities at the University of New England.


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