1. Iran's Nuclear Program: Talk of International Consortium
Christian Science Monitor
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Interest is growing in a possible US-Iran nuclear compromise that could enable sensitive atomic work on Iranian soil, lower the risks of proliferation, and ease Iran's isolation.
Despite a series of UN sanctions designed to halt Iran's ability to enrich uranium, Iran has continued to make progress. And a growing number of Western and Iranian officials and analysts, arguing that turning back the clock is impossible, are pushing for a new framework to ensure that Iran's nuclear work is aimed at peaceful, not military, applications.
On the agenda is a proposal to turn Iran's uranium-enrichment program into a multilateral consortium on Iranian soil, bringing Western eyes and expertise directly into the project in a bid to minimize potential weapons danger. In exchange, the West would end Iran's pariah status.
"Now we are in the point of realizing our right to enrich uranium in our land in Iran, by our own people," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Monitor during a conference on nuclear issues in Tehran. "If any proposal is there for joining to this activity, we can consider that."
US policy has focused on convincing or forcing Iran to give up uranium enrichment ï¿½ a process that Iran says it wants to create nuclear fuel for power plants, but which can be used for nuclear weapons if taken to higher levels. But sanctions have not curbed Iran's program, spurring Iran instead to refuse to step back "one iota" from peaceful nuclear technology.
The proposal for a multilateral effort was first made by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 2-ï¿½ years ago while speaking at the UN. But Iran's technical prowess has grown since then from toying with a handful of centrifuges, which are crucial to the process, to a working chain of 3,000, with fresh progress on a more advanced unit, something that may make Iran less interested in cooperation.
"We told them [in 2005] if your problem is confidence-building ï¿½ come and directly cooperate in our nuclear activities, [but the West] didn't welcome it," Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator said at the conference. The cabinet had ratified operational guidelines for "any country" to take part, he said. "Our nation however did not wait for anybody, you saw that they didn't come and we started [our work]."
Analysts say a confluence of recent events may be improving the chances of compromise. The US strategy of isolating Iran does not appear to be hurting Iran's nuclear efforts. And Iran might see that more scrutiny is a price worth paying to reassure the West that it does not want a bomb.
"The zero-enrichment option is almost certainly gone, so we need to figure out what the next best thing is," says Michael Levi, a nuclear physicist and nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's far from clear we could get any deal under the current circumstances."
Three decades of hostility between the US and Iran have tangled politics and deep mistrust with technical issues about Iran's rights and obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A US-European package of incentives requires total suspension of enrichment as a pre-condition to even begin negotiation ï¿½ a stance many argue is untenable.
"Right now, Iran is holding the cards," says Mr. Levi, author of the recently published On Nuclear Terrorism. "The odds of us getting zero enrichment without a military strike are lowï¿½. If we can't muster much additional pressure, I don't see any solution that does not involve limited enrichment. And if we are going to accept [that], we want to put as many constraints on it as we can."
Experts say that to be effective, any joint program would depend on ï¿½ among other restrictions ï¿½ Iran accepting the additional protocol of the NPT, which enables intrusive, short-notice inspections.
Iran was praised in the February report by the UN's nuclear watchdog agency for taking such open steps to resolve several outstanding issues, but says it will not accept the protocol wholesale until its case is removed from the Security Council agenda.
"Now Iran knows the technique and technologies. Iran has the base, and when a country has a base you can't change everything ï¿½ you must deal with it," says Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to Paris.
"Now the leadership of Iran is ready to make a decision ï¿½ a comprehensive decision," he says, adding that Iran demonstrated seriousness by resolving six longstanding issues identified with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year. Another window may have opened since the recent US National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran had halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"Why aren't the Americans ready to deal with Iran? Why every time is their policy to demolish Iran, to embargo and sanction Iran?" asks Kharazi. "This policy is dead. Now is the time of negotiation, of dealing and dialogue."
That is the conclusion of a proposal published in late February in The New York Review of Books, in which three US diplomats and policymakers ï¿½ among them, former undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering ï¿½ argue that multilateral enrichment on Iranian soil "provides better protection against proliferation than the status quo" because the "enhanced transparency ï¿½ and the constant presence in Iran of foreign monitors" would make secret diversion more difficult.
Washington's insistence on zero enrichment on Iranian soil "grows less credible with every newly constructed Iranian centrifuge," the authors write. A face- saving mechanism for both sides could be joint enrichment, they say, because the US could reduce proliferation risk and "avoid the prospect of Iran successfully defying US-led sanctions and building a bomb." Iran "avoids becoming an international pariah and does not have to wave the flag of surrender to do so."
The article's call for direct talks and exploring a compromise was supported by letters from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, who said the US "cannot afford any longer to refuse to consider the strategic choice of direct talks with Iran."
But David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, says it is too soon to "give up and find a face-saving way" when further isolation might work.
"Right now it's a question of who is going to win," says Mr. Albright, who closely tracks Iran's program. "Is the West and its allies in the Security Council going to be able to ratchet up enough pressure? Or is Iran going to be able to undercut them and create a new grouping that it deals with?"
One cause of concern, he says, is Iran's handling of what the IAEA calls the "alleged studies" ï¿½ intelligence provided to the agency by the US, much of it from a stolen laptop that held missile and explosive test designs. Iran has dismissed the data as fabricated and will not address them.
"Iran never gives the West ï¿½ never gives anybody ï¿½the opportunity to believe that nothing is going on, that they have turned the corner," says Albright. Reaction to the studies is "increasing suspicion that in a couple of years, they will decide to build a nuclear weapon, once they are comfortable operating several thousand centrifuges."
Carah Ong, the Iran analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, speaking in Tehran, says that continued efforts to isolate Iran are "pointless" because they cement Iran's stance. "We're at a point where the positions [of the US and Iran] are so hardened that it's going to be difficult to break that impasse," she says. "The more openness you have, the more difficult it becomes for nefarious activities to occur."
Iran's nuclear program has become part of the identity of the Islamic regime, analysts here say. Indeed, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, suggested last month that the nuclear program has divine protection: "The Iranian people openly announce that they will defend their rights [to nuclear technology]. God will reprimand them if they do not do so."
Few issues are more sensitive in Iran, with newspaper editors ordered by the National Security Council not to report any negative news about the program, such as the impact of sanctions.
"The Iranian mind-set is always to project excessive toughness, because they are dealing with a superpower," says a political scientist in Tehran who asked not to be named. "They may say: 'Let's sit down and talk about global management of Iran's enrichment program,' and then go for a year-long delaying tactic."
But others argue that Iran is ready to talk. "Any amicable settlement that would show Iran as victorious would be accepted," says an Iranian political analyst who also asked not to be named. "They have nothing to lose at this point [by accepting a consortium]. It's not impossible to bring Iran to its knees, but it's almost too late."
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Sunday his country is ready to start nuclear talks with the European Union under the right conditions.
Mottaki said as long as negotiations concerning Iran's nuclear program have a chance of being productive, Iran is ready to open communications with EU officials such as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, RIA Novosti reported.
"We have always supported comprehensive negotiations that are purposeful, meaningful and produce results," the foreign minister said.
Mottaki's comments appear to contradict an earlier message from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said Iran would only negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The foreign minister's comments also come after a third round of sanctions were placed against Iran by the United Nations Security Council.
The sanctions, which range from travel bans to freezing of bank accounts, were the most recent attempt by the international community during the last six years to force Iran to comply with IAEA regulations, the Russian news agency reported.
1. US Wants 'Clear Signal' from NKorea Over Nuclear Declaration
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North Korea must send a "clear signal" to fully declare its nuclear programmes in order to get itself removed from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, the US ambassador here said Monday.
Ambassador Alexander Vershbow's demand to South Korea came as the six-party nuclear disarmament talks on North Korea were stuck in a stalemate over Pyongyang's complaint over the list.
North Korea last year signed a landmark deal to abandon all its nuclear weapons in exchange for badly needed energy and economic aid and major security and diplomatic benefits.
But the disarmament process has been in a stalemate since North Korea missed an end-2007 deadline to declare all its nuclear programmes.
Pyongyang has said it submitted a full list in November, but Washington insists it is still awaiting a complete declaration, including a full account of a suspected covert uranium enrichment programme.
Last week, North Korea's ruling communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun blamed Washington for the deadlock, saying the US has yet to start removing the North from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"We aren't able to do that until we see a clear signal from the North Koreans that they are going to do their part with regards to the declaration," Vershbow told a news conference.
"They have not yet shown us even the elements of what will constitute a complete and concrete declaration," the US ambassador to South Korea said.
He said Washington wants to push forward the disarmament process talks, which group the United States, both Koreas, China, Japan and Russia.
But he said North Korea was still "in a wait-and-see mode" in making progress in the six-party talks, after South Korea's new conservative government took over last month.
"It is clear that North Korea has to adjust, in fact, to much closer alignment between Washington and Seoul, as we move forward to the six-party talks," Vershbow said.
Last week, US State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said he hoped to seek a complete North Korean declaration in "the not too distant future" as US top negotiator Christopher Hill hoped six-party talks could resume this month.
1. India-IAEA Pact Close but U.S. Nuclear Deal Clouded
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India is close to finalizing the text for an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, but may fail to save a nuclear deal between New Delhi and Washington that remains clouded in political uncertainty.
The nod of the IAEA is among several mandatory clearances required for the contentious India-U.S. nuclear pact that will give India access to American nuclear fuel and technology.
Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee said talks had concluded with the IAEA and an agreement could be reached.
A source familiar with the India-IAEA talks in Vienna said a final text was close, but India still needed to confirm that there is an agreement on the text.
"Until then there is in fact no agreement," the source said on Sunday.
India's confirmation has been held up because the communist allies of the government oppose the nuclear deal, threatening to bring down the coalition government if it went ahead.
Mukherjee has so far stayed away from a showdown with the communists, saying the government would not move on the deal without the support of the leftists.
Caught up in India's domestic politics, time is running out for the deal. Still to come are clearances from the IAEA board of governors and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Then, the deal goes to the U.S. Congress for final approval.
The U.S. has said the pact may fall through if it doesn't reach the U.S. Congress by July as a short legislative calendar before the November 4 U.S. election could complicate its passage.
Mukherjee said his government had told Washington it cannot work to a deadline.
"There is a timeframe because they have an election process, Mukherjee told New Delhi Television in an interview aired on Sunday. "But so far as India is concerned we have mentioned to them that it is not possible for us to work within a specific timeframe."
1. Military Commander Calls for Modernized Nuclear Arsenal
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The U.S. needs a new, modern arsenal of nuclear weapons to use as a deterrent to attacks from other nations for the remainder of the 21st century, the top military commander for strategic warfare said Tuesday.
Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of the military's Strategic Command, said if the Pentagon develops an improved, more reliable nuclear weapon, the U.S. will be able to reduce the number of warheads it keeps on hand.
"So long as there are other countries in the world that possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States of America and our way of life, we will have to deter those types of countries," Chilton told reporters at a breakfast meeting. "So I am not in favor of unilateral disarmament."
Comparing today's threat to the Cold War, when the U.S. was at loggerheads with the Soviets, Chilton said the principle deterrent was the "massive nuclear threat of destroying each other's countries."
Now, he said, the threat is different, thus the deterrent must also be more nuanced ï¿½ ranging from nuclear warheads to conventional weapons and cyber-capabilities. And he said the existing warheads in the U.S. inventory today are "too big, bigger than they need to be."
Critics, however, worry that any such moves by the United States could trigger another international arms race, and a rush by other countries ï¿½ such as Russia and China ï¿½ to develop more effective, more usable nuclear weapons.
"This is something we should be very careful about ï¿½ the signal we send to other nuclear powers in the world," said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists. "We don't want Russia and China to make more usable and tailored weapons capabilities."
Kristensen said members of Congress have already expressed concerns that developing weapons with lower yields would make them more usable.
"It's a good thing that we have weapons that are not very usable," he said. "The worst situation would be where they are more likely to be used."
Chilton noted that the United States has significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons it now has in its active arsenal. By 2012, he said, the number would be reduced to about one-quarter of the total during the Cold War.
The 2002 Moscow treaty requires that the U.S. reduce its operationally deployed warheads to 1,700-2,220 by December 2012. In an exchange of data early last year, the Russians claimed to have 4,162 strategic warheads and the United States 5,866 in its arsenal.
Chilton said the military can use as a deterrent either a large stockpile or a more modern, responsive weapon in smaller numbers. And he advocated the latter, saying that would be a smarter way to reduce the nuclear inventory.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the warheads are powerful and terrible weapons.
"I'm a father too, with children, and I would love to have them grow up in a nuclear-free world," Chilton said. "But ... I also want them to grow up free. And as long as we have other nations out there with nuclear capabilities ... then we need to have a nuclear deterrent force that can do the mission of preserving our freedoms."
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