Iran's Nuclear Issue
Iran's Nuclear Issue
Imagine a pious Muslim faced with a ban on fabricating a certain kind of weapon. He is committed to obeying unquestioningly the fatwas of his religious leader and yet discovers that producing such a weapon, or threatening to do so, is a strong lever for gaining benefits from a powerful group living in the neighborhood. Replace "a pious Muslim" with "
Enriched by millions of daily encounters in bazaars, Iranians are adept at bargaining and confident in the knowledge, acquired over centuries, that skillful bargaining and brinkmanship go hand in hand. This is what just happened in
It was a deal that was meant to prepare the way for further negotiations. Iran has agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing programs until a "grand bargain" is reached in which the EU guarantees nuclear, political, and trade concessions in return for
The EU threesome has stayed firmly on the Iranian diplomatic path, despite American pressures, in order to protect the interests of its companies which already have lucrative contracts in
Countering American Hegemony
With the collapse of the
That was one year before the arrival of George W. Bush in the White House, his unveiling of a thoroughly unilateralist foreign policy based on "preventive" force, the ominous inclusion of Iran in his "Axis of Evil," and, of course, his illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. That, in turn, led French President Jacques Chirac to articulate a competing vision of a multi-polar world in which the
But then, Iranian conservatives and others are equally aware that, singularly, on the issue of
To Each Its Own Interests
At the same time, Iranian leaders want to extract maximum possible benefits for their country in their dealings with the European Union. The most effective way to do this, unsurprisingly, was to acquire as many bargaining chips as possible. And so they resumed the manufacture of centrifuges for enriching uranium in July -- but only after the EU troika had reneged on its part of a deal it had signed with
So on October 31, amid chants of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") and "Death to America," all 247 members present in the Iranian parliament unanimously called on the government to restart the country's uranium enrichment program, using its already manufactured centrifuges, and to exercise its right to complete the nuclear fuel cycle enshrined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which Iran is a signatory.
A nuclear fuel cycle consists of mining uranium ore (in which only seven out of every 1,000 uranium atoms are the lighter fissile isotopes U235, the rest being the heavier U238), processing it into uranium oxide (yellow cake), transforming it into uranium tetraflouride (UF4) gas, and then uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas, followed by enriching UF6 to varying degrees of U235 purity: 3.5-4% pure for use in nuclear power reactors, 10-20% pure for use in research reactors, and 90%-plus pure and so usable in nuclear weapons.
In a nuclear power plant, the fuel consists of sealed rods containing hundreds of pellets of 3.5-4% pure uranium. When hit by high energy neutrons, these pellets undergo a controlled chain reaction, emitting intense heat which transforms the surrounding light (ordinary) water into steam. That then runs the plant's electricity generating turbines. Once these fuel rods have yielded their energy, they are called "spent rods." These can be reprocessed with the aim of extracting from them plutonium (Pu239 or Pu241), which could be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons. (Although as yet there are no commercial electric plants using plutonium fuel, Pu239 and Pu241 do contribute towards generating heat for uranium-fuelled plants.) Nuclear fuel thus produces both electric power and more nuclear fuel, and is therefore, in principle, a renewable source of energy.
Therein is the rejoinder to those in the
Meanwhile, it is Iran's hydrocarbon resources -- an estimated nearly 10% of global petroleum reserves and the second largest gas deposits in the world -- that are at the root of the pressures that British and French oil companies are exerting (discreetly) on their respective governments to cut a diplomatic deal with Tehran on the nuclear issue, and thus torpedo the American plan to take the issue to the UN Security Council with the possibility of economic sanctions or, in the future, worse.
The list of the European oil companies with ongoing oil contracts with Iran -- Royal Dutch-Shell, Elf, Total SA, Agip of Italy, as well as BG (British Gas), Enterprise, Lasmo, Monuument, and so on -â€“ is so extensive that no major European Union member can afford to ignore such interests.
The Europeans are not the only ones. Last month the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Li Xhaoxing signed an oil-and-gas deal with
Bargaining over the Shape of the World
Whatever agreement emerges out of the "grand bargain" between
A fortnight later, what the EU troika actually got from
The Iran-EU deal came on the heels of a direct intervention by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. In his Friday prayer sermon on November 5, he declared that "developing, producing or stockpiling nuclear weapons" is forbidden under Islam and "our believing nation," and added: "They accuse us of pursuing nuclear weapons program. I am telling them as I have said before that we are not even thinking about nuclear weapons."
What apparently drove Khamanei to this public statement was his determination to frustrate the Bush administration's plan to isolate
Since that moment both
Tehran's wish list includes the reaffirmation of its right to a nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes; access to imported nuclear fuel at market prices for its reactors; support for Iran's acquisition of a light water research reactor; help with regional security concerns, including combating drug trafficking; the resumption of talks on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement; support for Iran's application for World Trade Organization membership; and the keeping of the Iraq-based Mujahedin Khalq Organization on the EU's list of terrorist organizations.
Much tough talking lies ahead between the EU and the
Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After as well as The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide. His forthcoming book is The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies (Nation Books). He is based in
A version of this piece will appear in print in issue #740 of Middle East International
Copyright C2004 Dilip Hiro
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]