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A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff

Still, the question remains, what should the US propose? Iranian enrichment on Russian soil clearly seems unworkable. Even a disinterested observer would have to concede that the Russians cannot be trusted, as their willingness to cut off natural gas exports for political purposes has vividly demonstrated. Regime change and military strikes are unrealistic, dangerous, and, in any case, unlikely. So what should be done?


Turning Iran’s Enrichment Activities into a Multilateral Program

As a solution to the nuclear dispute, the US and its allies should propose turning Iran’s national enrichment efforts into a multinational program. Under this approach, the Iranian government would agree to allow two or more additional governments (for example, France and Germany) to participate in the management and operation of those activities within Iran.3 In exchange, Iran would be able to jointly own and operate an enrichment facility without facing international sanctions. Resolving the nuclear issue would, in turn, make it possible for Iran to enjoy a variety of other benefits such as membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), increased trade with Europe, access to badly needed equipment for its aviation and energy industries, and perhaps normalized relations with the United States.

A number of Iranian officials—including President Ahmadinejad himself—have already publicly endorsed a multilateral solution. Of course, Iran’s concept of multilateral enrichment is likely to be different from an American or European version, but those differences could, we believe, be resolved in negotiations.

Proposals to bring nuclear programs under multilateral supervision are neither new nor few in number. Several models of multinational uranium enrichment have been successfully used in Europe. Applied to the Iranian case, a multilateral approach would allow Iran to continue to own its existing nuclear facilities and centrifuges; but the management and operation of those facilities would be shared with the other partner governments, and any new facilities and technology would be owned and managed jointly by the consortium. All the multinational partners would contribute financially to the establishment and operation of the program and would also share in any revenues coming from the sale of the fuel. Such an arrangement could take many different forms, but any version of it would likely be subject to the following conditions:

  • Iran would be prohibited from producing either highly enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium. This is the most important principle in the proposal. If Iran cannot produce or acquire highly enriched uranium, it cannot build a nuclear weapon. If Iran’s enrichment program is turned into a multilateral project, it makes it extremely difficult for Iran to produce highly enriched uranium. Any attempt to do so, even secretly, would carry the risk of discovery by the international management team and the staff at the facility; the high probability of getting caught will likely deter Iran from trying to do so in the first place.
  • No work on nuclear fuel, including research and development, could be conducted in Iran outside the multilateral arrangement. In addition, no institution, personnel, or facility associated with the Iranian military would be allowed to participate in the production of nuclear fuel or other nuclear activities. Neither of the two kinds of materials used to make a weapon—highly enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium—would be produced, only uranium enriched to low levels that could be used in nuclear power plants.
  • Iran would fully implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires member nations to make their nuclear facilities subject to snap inspections, environmental sampling, and more comprehensive reporting requirements. Iran has already offered to go beyond the current safeguards of nuclear processes it adheres to, and it should be held to that offer. Inherent in any multilateral arrangement for Iran’s nuclear program is a requirement for greater transparency, since Iran’s foreign partners will need full access to records and personnel to carry out their management responsibilities.
  • Iran would commit itself to a program only of light water reactors (LWRs), which require uranium fuel enriched only to low levels and which, compared with other types of reactors, produce relatively small amounts of plutonium in the nuclear waste generated. This is a reasonable demand since the LWR is the de facto international standard.

Of course, there are many other issues that would need to be agreed to by the parties, for example, restrictions on the sale or transfer of technology and material used or produced in Iran to other countries.4 Still, the proposal cannot be one-sided. Iran needs to get something out of such a deal. A proposal that is all restrictions and no benefits is unlikely to be appealing or sustainable. Iran would be giving up some degree of control over part of its program and should rightly expect something in return. Certainly the Iranian government will have to be able to show that a multilateral nuclear program is advantageous for Iran.

US negotiators should design a package that would create and encourage constituencies for this consortium approach—such as the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s civilian nuclear program—which have a clear self-interest in the success of a multilateral approach. As it stands, US policy is all about limiting or eliminating the functions of Iran’s nuclear bureaucracy, so an Iranian nuclear agency can be expected to fight tooth-and-nail to resist the US and protect itself.

Under a multilateral program, Iranian scientists and engineers would benefit from the knowledge and experience of the international managers and staff sent to work at the facility. This expertise could help Iran address the current technical problems its engineers have encountered in trying to get their existing centrifuges to work at full capacity. More importantly, Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers would be able to be part of the international scientific community: for example, they could travel, exchange ideas with colleagues, and attend professional conferences without sanction or suspicion. The Iranian government would thus get something out of this arrangement and see a path where it can win with nonproliferation and lose with nuclear weapons.

In order to assure Iran that the multilateral nuclear facility has the full support of the international community, construction and operation of the facility should be authorized by a resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council. The resolution should also include a provision that any future move by Iran to nationalize the facility or withdraw from the NPT would automatically trigger punitive steps against Iran.


Weighing Costs and Benefits: Choosing the Second-Best Alternative Instead of the Worst

The best possible outcome for the US in the Iranian nuclear dispute would be no enrichment or reprocessing by Iran of any kind. The worst possible outcome is a purely national program on Iranian soil, one aimed at producing nuclear weapons, whether unsafeguarded (following, say, an Iranian withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) or insufficiently safeguarded (as has been the case during this most recent period under minimum safeguards arrangements). Unfortunately, the worst outcome looks more likely than the best. Iran already owns and operates centrifuges on its territory and has made clear that it will continue to expand its nuclear activities—a position that is unlikely to change in the intermediate term.

So far, the US has said that absolutely no uranium enrichment should take place in Iran, while Iran insists that it be able to enrich uranium on Iranian soil—and has shown that it can. Multilateralization offers a solution by proposing enrichment under joint control using Iranian centrifuges on Iranian soil. The benefits to the partners are that the program reduces the chances of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the US and its European allies no longer have to pay the economic costs of imposing sanctions on Iran.

Multilateral management and operation of Iranian facilities combined with upgraded international safeguards and inspections will provide an unprecedented level of transparency about Iran’s production of nuclear fuel. It would also allow the US and its European allies to take the initiative, rather than having to respond to events after the fact. In addition, it provides both sides with a “face-saving” mechanism for resolving an increasingly rigid standoff. The US is able to achieve its objective of reducing the risk of proliferation and avoid the prospect of Iran successfully defying US-led sanctions and building a bomb—which is the overriding purpose of the proposal and of US policy. For its part, Iran avoids becoming an international pariah and does not have to wave a flag of surrender to do so. It also gets economic benefits like WTO membership that would be possible only if the nuclear dispute is resolved.

A multilateral solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse may also provide a blueprint for dealing with a more general global problem: the potential spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology to other nations that do not now have nuclear weapons. Both President Bush and the IAEA have called attention to this danger and have endorsed proposals aimed at preventing additional countries from engaging in nuclear fuel production. To achieve this goal, international officials have also advocated a variety of mechanisms, such as a guaranteed international supply of nuclear fuel, third-party enrichment services such as those now provided to Iran by Russia, and upgraded inspections to detect clandestine programs. Combined with such mechanisms, a multilateral approach along the lines we propose for Iran can dramatically reduce the incentive for governments to pursue their own enrichment programs.

Potential Risks

For all its potential benefits, an attempt to bring Iran’s nuclear program under multilateral control also carries risks. It raises a large and complex set of financial, legal, and technical issues. How can a multilateral scheme be reconciled with existing UN sanctions resolutions and national sanctions laws? How would the multinational “owners” and their management team decide policy and resolve internal disagreements?

These are not trivial issues. Still, the main objection to the multilateral approach has traditionally been that it increases the risk of proliferation. According to this argument, Iran’s capacities to build nuclear weapons could improve under a multilateral arrangement because of (a) the transfer of technical knowledge to Iranian managers and workers; (b) the potential diversion of nuclear materials or technology from the multilateral facility to a clandestine, parallel program; and (c) the possibility that Iran could cancel the program by renationalizing it and expelling the multilateral partners.

On the first issue, it seems fair to assume that Iranian technicians would, in fact, obtain technical knowledge that they did not previously possess by working with their international colleagues. What they would learn, whether the acquired knowledge would prove decisive, or whether they would have learned it on their own anyway is unclear.

On the second issue, diversion of material or technology to a clandestine program, it is worth remembering that even with routine safeguards, diversion is extremely difficult. In practice, the IAEA has been very good at accounting for nuclear material, and Iran would have to be willing to take a large risk of detection to engage in diversion. Given the enhanced transparency of a multilateral arrangement and the constant presence in Iran of foreign monitors that such a plan would require, the risk of detection would be even higher. Indeed, experience during the nuclear age strongly suggests that governments are less likely to attempt diversion or to defeat safeguards when there is an active verification effort within a country. (In general, proliferators prefer to wait until the inspectors have gone home.)

The third concern, cancellation of a multilateral program, is possible but would doubtless prove extremely costly to Iran. Iran could not jettison the program without risking a possible military response and other punishments from the US and its international partners.

Clearly, a multilateral approach provides better protection against proliferation than the status quo, i.e., a purely national program subject to traditional safeguards and the occasional voluntary suspension of enrichment activity. Iranians may gain from an indirect transfer of technical know-how, but the risks of diversion of nuclear material and technology and of cancellation or renationalization of the program are small.


Iran today is arguably the most powerful and important nation in the Persian Gulf region. Iran and the United States also have the most hostile relationship of any two powerful nations in the world today.

Surprisingly, for all their differences—over Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iran’s nuclear program—the two nations have insufficiently appreciated common interests that argue for a modus vivendi, some way to work on common concerns even as they disagree on other issues.

For example, no two countries in the region have more common interest in the futures of Afghanistan and Iraq. Notwithstanding their competition for influence in Iraq, the US and Iran are the strongest regional supporters of the current government in Baghdad; they both stress the importance of Iraq’s territorial integrity and the need to maintain a central government. The US and Iran also have a common interest in supporting Afghanistan, reducing opium trafficking, and defeating Sunni extremist movements like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Moreover, Pakistan seems to have descended into a long period of turmoil and domestic strife, with threatening implications for both Tehran and Washington.

The US should put its concerns forward in negotiations with Iran—not necessarily to make a grand bargain, but as a way to begin seeking common ground. We should not seek a comprehensive agreement on all the issues that divide us, but instead agree to work toward enlarging areas of common interest and diminishing and containing the differences. The US will have to deal with Iran’s fears of regime change, just as Iran must deal with the consequences of the outrageous and inflammatory remarks by its president. Differences over Hamas, Hezbollah, and other regional issues, including threats against Israel, will have to be addressed over the long term, but these matters should be dealt with directly by the US, Iran, and the other parties. Outsourcing US diplomacy to others has not worked and is even less likely to work in the future.

Without direct US engagement on the nuclear issue, the broader objective of seeking common ground on other problems in the region will not be possible. Like any proposal, a multilateral approach is not without risks, but the concept provides a politically advantageous basis for moving away from a purely national—and potentially dangerous—Iranian nuclear program. So far no other alternative offers that possibility.

This is a historic moment for US leadership. It should take the initiative and encourage Iran, a powerful nation of proud people and ancient culture, to become integrated into the world community. The US is the only nation that can take on this task directly and achieve the breakthroughs that will be necessary. The process is likely to be painful and difficult, but the reward may be a more stable and peaceful Middle East.

—February 20, 2008


Iran & the Bomb: An Exchange April 17, 2008

A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff’: An Exchange April 3, 2008

  1. 3

    In theory, any country could be a multinational partner, but it makes sense that the participating countries should be drawn from those that have been directly involved in the Iranian nuclear controversy: the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany. In addition, these countries have their own enrichment programs, and possess the expertise required for a multi-lateral enterprise. Of this group, some seem more promising than others. Despite statements by some Iranians to the contrary, Iran would probably not welcome the United States as one of the multilateral partners, although the US, as we suggest, should encourage the multilateral project. Russia might be reluctant to support the idea, preferring instead its proposal to provide enrichment for Iran on Russian soil. Still, it is unlikely that Russia would try to obstruct the multilateral project, since it would prepare the way for the Russian government to engage in nuclear and other commerce with Iran.

  2. 4

    Among other provisions, the arrangement should require that:

    • The Iranian enrichment program be multilateralized at its current level of development, i.e., as a functioning P-1 centrifuge program at a level of between three thousand and four thousand centrifuges. The construction of additional centrifuges or the introduction of new centrifuge technology, e.g., the P-2, would have to await the completion of the multilateralization process and a subsequent decision of the multilateral partnership.
    • The agreement would complement Iranå?s NPT obligations but would be independent of those obligations. Thus, Iran could in theory withdraw from the NPT as is its right under Article X, but withdrawal would not alter its continued obligations under the multilateral project.
    • There would be no withdrawal clause. These commitments would extend in perpetuity. Cancellation of the agreement would be understood as a signal that Iran is abandoning its peaceful use obligations and thus would be subject to the severest consequences, up to and most likely including military action.
    • No stockpiling of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be permitted beyond what is reasonable given the number of existing or soon-to-be-completed reactors. This can be justified both on economic grounds (domestically and because of the potential impact of stockpiling on the international LEU market) and for concerns about stockpiles of nuclear materials.
    • The IAEA would be a participant in the arrangement with regard to safeguards, but would not have an ownership or management role. This could change, subject to decisions of the multilateral partnership, depending on the evolution of the Iranian program.
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