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Fathoming Iran's nuclear intentions

Iran is already a civilian nuclear power; international safeguards should be enough to prevent it from getting the bomb.
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. 
Iranian students hold up their hands as a sign of unity as they form a human chain around the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) to show their support for Iran's nuclear program in Isfahan, 450 km (280 miles) south of Tehran November 15, 2011. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY EDUCATION) - RTR2U1ID

At the end of last week, Nov. 14-15, high-level Israeli politicians and top-notch commentators were busy frightening the public over an Iranian bomb, loudly defaming the United States and publicly conducting a love affair with France. At the exact same time, a group of nuclear experts from Israel and the West gathered in a Tel Aviv hotel. This small forum was the joint initiative of four organizations: BASIC (British American Security Information Council), Green Cross, IKV Pax Christi (a Dutch organization for research and policy promotion of peace and security) and the Israeli Disarmament Movement.

About a dozen people participated in this forum, including a high-level government official, a former highly placed member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and an Al-Monitor commentator. For two days, they discussed an issue that the decision-makers in Jerusalem and the key Israeli media outlets dared not touch with a 10-foot pole: the initiative to disarm the Middle East of nuclear weapons. It should be noted that the very word "disarm" touches a raw nerve in Israel’s security agencies with regard to nuclear issues. As we know, Israel employs a long-standing policy of "nuclear ambiguity," a policy that requires me and my colleagues to add the expression "according to foreign sources" whenever we address the possibility of Israel being equipped with nuclear weapons.

At the end of the discussions, I asked a number of the participants to present their positions on the nuclear issue, as we neared the round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 forum that would open Wednesday, Nov. 20, in Geneva. I spoke to Ward Wilson, a senior fellow and director of BASIC’s rethinking nuclear weapons project and author of the book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons, and asked him what he would do in response to the Iranian threat if he were Israel’s prime minister. 

"I would start the process of changing people's minds,'' explained the researcher. ''Make them understand that nuclear weapons are a constant risk that will eventually overtake the very country that owns them. Time continues to march on. Israel cannot maintain its hegemony forever."

During the meeting, it was argued that, psychologically, the assumption according to which Israel might have nuclear weapons could help Israelis feel safer.

"According to this logic, the Iranians would also feel safer if they possessed nuclear weapons, and would be more willing to achieve peace. Nuclear weapons have gotten into our heads. We have come to believe that they are powerful in ways that border on magic while actually they are too big and too clumsy for almost any practical purpose. As a practical matter, small states have an interest in abolishing nuclear weapons, because they are the ones more at risk in a nuclear war. Russia, China and the United States can absorb 40 nuclear warheads on their territory and still survive. A small state like Israel cannot survive a large number of warheads."

Would Iran be willing to give up its nuclear ambitions, if Israel does the same? 

"Iran wants nuclear weapons for their symbolic value. It wants what India and Pakistan already achieved. Iran wants the world to know that it has the capability. I was in a meeting recently with several Iranian diplomats and one of them told me, "For all intents and purposes, we have the bomb already. We have demonstrated that we are sufficiently sophisticated technologically. Perhaps they just want to be able to claim that they are capable of producing the bomb."

In contrast with Israel and other Western sources that view Iran as closer to the North Korean radical model, Wilson emphasizes that Iran signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Paul Ingram is the executive director of the British-American Information Council. For six years (until last year) he hosted a weekly, prime-time talk show on IRINN (Iranian domestic TV News in Farsi), addressing issues relevant to global security. Ingram also teaches systems approaches in the flagship Top Management Program at the UK government’s National School of Government.

"The Iranians are a proud nation with thousands of years of history," said Ingram. "Since they feel that they have been excluded and marginalized, they had to rely solely on their own resources,'' he explained. ''The Iranians believe that they will be treated more seriously by the international community if they have nuclear weapon. So, like a child, if you are told that you cannot have it, it becomes more attractive. The prestige and the commotion surrounding the nuclear serve their ambition to export the Iranian Revolution.''

According to Ingram, who has visited Iran several times, the Iranians believe that nuclear capability is a symbol of modernity. "To prove its legitimacy, the regime wants to be viewed as a government that brings Iran into the 21st century.'' 

Unfortunately, as far as the Iranians are concerned, they see no contradiction between their claim to modernity and blocking Internet servers, the denial of basic human rights and flagrant discrimination against women and minorities in their country.

Another participant was Shmuel Meir, former officer in the Israel Defense Force’s Intelligence and Planning Section, former researcher in the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and blogger for Haaretz ("Strategic Blog"). Meir did not hide his opinion regarding the hysteria surrounding the Iranian nuclear enterprise. 

"It is a shame that the background noise and 'public-diplomacy messages' surrounding our public discourse prevent us from seeing what is really happening with what is called 'the Iranian threat,'" said Meir. He feels that expressions such as "It's the year 1938" serve to eclipse solid facts provided by the content of IAEA reports and American intelligence evaluations, as well as American satellite coverage. "According to all these sources, Iran had already decided last summer to freeze its nuclear program. Today’s Iran is the most supervised country in the world, including the permanent presence of IAEA inspectors on its land, weekly visits to centrifuge sites and video shots sent directly to IAEA headquarters in Vienna."

Meir said IAEA reports indicate that Iran began a slowdown at the beginning of 2012 to reduce the available supply of uranium enriched to 20% in the Fordo Enrichment Facility — the quick and dangerous route to military enrichment. Meir said that while the last report from November 2013 shows the centrifuges do continue to turn, only 10 kilograms [22 pounds] of 20% enriched uranium were added to the available enrichment supply over the last three months. Similarly, no increase has been reported in the number of new, rapid, second-generation centrifuges in the Natanz facility; these were meant to enrich uranium to the low level of 3.5%. Most important of all, Meir emphasized, was that these up-to-date centrifuges have not yet been connected or operated. "We can clearly see from this report that Rouhani’s Iran adopted a diplomatic decision to halt its nuclear program," Meir said.

What do you say about the heavy water reactor at Arak, which is presented to us as an alternative route for developing a plutonium bomb in another year?

"The construction of the reactor in Arak has continued with stops and starts for 10 years already, and it is not clear if it will be completed in the course of 2014. This reactor poses a possible threat if the spent fuel rods are removed from the reactor, and plutonium is extracted from these rods for a bomb. But Iran does not have a [reprocessing] facility to extract the plutonium and it notified the IAEA that it has no intentions of building such a facility. In addition, if and when the Arak reactor is ever completed, it will also be subject to close IAEA supervision; the main function of this supervision is to prevent diversion of materials to military [nuclear] purposes. And I personally also hold that the reactor may even be turned into a light-water reactor, to dispel all fears."

What is your opinion about the military-assault scenarios against Iran, should the country reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands to dismantle the centrifuge sites, remove all enriched uranium and close the Arak reactor?

"The multiplicity of military and nuclear targets at the distance of more than a thousand kilometers [621 miles] from the Israeli border, as well as the need for radio wave return signals over a number of days, turn these scenarios into unlikely and unreasonable ones. Launching an attack now would open the door to giving Iran legitimacy to withdraw from the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). From here, the distance is short to their speedy development of nuclear weapons.

"I believe that we already possess the parameters for solving the Iranian nuclear crisis. After we remove the clouds of ambiguity, distrust and suspicion we will get an Iran with the status of non-military nuclear capabilities. In other words, they will be able to employ low-grade uranium enrichment for civilian needs. This is not prohibited by the NPT convention, and already applies to Argentina, Japan and Germany. It would also take place with maximum transparency and meticulous execution of IAEA control agreements, including the Additional Protocol agreement for surprise, intrusive inspections. After the agreement, Iran will not have nuclear weapons. The public demands of the prime minister are untenable. Even France would not be able to help him."

One way or the other, Iran has almost certainly succeeded in extricating itself from global suspicions of nuclearization for military use. It has established itself in the global consciousness as a powerful country, courted by the leadership of the international community. 

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