A new approach to Iran's nukes

A loyalty test can reassure Iran and the world.

The United States has reached an impasse in trying to stop Iran from proceeding with its nuclear program. Iran has repeatedly ignored UN Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend its uranium enrichment activities that could either fuel peaceful nuclear reactors or military nuclear bombs.

In recent weeks, Iran's talks with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been pretenses that have allowed Iran to move ahead with uranium enrichment with no additional controls on its overall nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has tried to ratchet up pressure on Iran with sanctions. And more recently, during the week of the Democratic presidential convention, Sen. Barack Obama reiterated that he is committed to "tightening the screws diplomatically on Iran" if elected.

Even if Iran at times toys with accepting a temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment program, it does not appear to intend to stop this potentially dangerous activity – regardless of sanctions.

Clearly, a new approach is needed to put in place stricter controls on Iran's nuclear program and to respect Iran's right to peaceful nuclear activities.

Tough talk and Iranian defiance have left the world worrying about possible itchy trigger fingers in Israel. The Israeli military could try a replay of the 1981 operation that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. But this time the odds are stacked against destroying an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that is scattered among more than 20 facilities and has employed thousands of technicians.

The solution? A loyalty test can reassure both sides. Nuclear negotiators need to understand that Iranian leaders want to maintain loyalty to the promise they made to the Iranian public to uphold Iran's right to uranium enrichment. Equally important, Iranian leaders must understand that they need to prove their loyalty to the international legal system in order to preserve the peaceful nature of nuclear programs.

A potential trust-building deal would bind the US and other nuclear energy states to Iran as clients under the condition that Iran accepts more rigorous safeguards on its nuclear program.

The clients would agree to buy Iranian enriched uranium and spent fuel containing plutonium for a competitive price. This would ensure that Iran would not amass a large stockpile of enriched uranium and plutonium but would continually ship this nuclear fuel material to clients.

Iranian leaders would show that their intentions are truly peaceful if they accepted this deal. And by accepting it Iran would gain international recognition for its enrichment program and could crow that they have the world's superpower as a client. It would be a win-win situation.

Currently, missing elements cast doubt on Tehran's assertion that its enrichment program is peaceful in nature. To make nuclear fuel, an enrichment facility is not enough.

A country needs adequate supplies of natural uranium to begin the process. Also, it needs a fuel fabrication facility to turn the enriched uranium into fuel that can be placed inside the core of a nuclear reactor. Iran has neither of these major components. But the limited supplies of indigenous natural uranium and the pilot scale enrichment plant now in operation are enough to allow Iran to eventually make dozens of nuclear bombs.

Therefore, Iran cannot run a peaceful nuclear program alone. In order to build commercial nuclear reactors, Iran must rely on the major reactor producers, including France, Russia, and the US – some of the same countries working to prevent Iran from making nuclear bombs. It must also rely on international suppliers of natural uranium and international fuel fabrication facilities. The overall deal would consequently bind the major powers and Iran together in a mutual client-producer relationship.

This international team-building approach would shine a spotlight on Iran's nuclear activities and at the same time give Iran an opportunity to make good on its public pronouncements of peaceful intent. Iranian leaders have often talked about "objective guarantees" that their nuclear program will remain peaceful, but they have yet to implement such.

Real objective guarantees would include continuous international monitoring of all nuclear facilities by employing secure means of data collection and numerous on-site inspectors. To motivate Iran to accept these measures, the major powers need to convey that the client-producer relationship is a two-way street.

A meaningful commercial relationship is about more than money. It would be a big step toward bringing Iran into the international community, a place in which all countries could work together for cooperative security.

Charles D. Ferguson, the Philip D. Reed senior fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, is working on a book about government decision- making and nuclear energy.

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