Yesterday in The National Interest, Frank von Hippel, co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, floats the possibility of opening Iran's domestic uranium enrichment program to international investment. Doing so, Von Hippel contends, would automatically "add a multinational layer of supervision to the program," as countries that "buy shares in its enrichment program" would do so "in exchange for having full access to all the associated facilities and a say in how they are managed."
For those who still insist on pretending that Iran's legal, safeguarded nuclear energy program is "a threat to regional stability" that will be summarily unleashed from the tethers of agreed-to restrictions after the imminent multilateral deal allegedly sunsets a decade from now, Von Hippel's suggestion should inspire confidence. With foreign investment and multinational involvement in the entire nuclear fuel cycle, coupled with the IAEA's strict monitoring and inspection regime which has already long been in place, the potential for Iran's program to ever be secretly militarized is virtually nil.
Furthermore, according to Von Hippel, offering such foreign stake in this Iranian industry "would mitigate the pressure on Saudi Arabia and other regional rivals of Iran to assert their own rights to 'peaceful' enrichment programs. Indeed, the door should be open for them to buy a share in the multinational program as well."
The article's headline calls Von Hippel's proposal to open up Iran's enrichment program to multinational partnerships, "A Really Good Idea."
And it is.
Except, while certainly a good idea, this isn't actually a new idea. In fact, this very offer was made over a dozen years ago - by Iran.
It is true that Von Hippel, whose National Interest post is a pared down version of a longer, more detailed (and less alarmist) article he co-authored in the June 19 issue of Science magazine, does make passing reference to the fact that "[s]enior Iranian officials have expressed openness to discussing multi-nationalization." But this is a gross understatement considering Iran's leadership and consistency on this issue.
Since its early stages, in fact, Iran has offered specifically to restrict its enrichment program and to open it up to international cooperation, thereby making it literally impossible for the diversion of fissile material to weaponization efforts to take place unnoticed. As I have noted before, Iran was already making such gestures nearly a quarter century ago, only to be rebuffed, denied, ignored and dismissed by the United States.
On November 6, 1991, Reza Amrollahi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said on national radio, "With the exception of the United States, Israel and the racist South African regime, we will have nuclear cooperation with any country within the framework of the regulations of the International Atomic Energy Agency."
In October 1992, for instance, in response to American concern over indications that Iran was pursuing a domestic enrichment program, Iran not only "repeatedly denied any non-peaceful intentions, stating that it accepts full-scope IAEA safeguards," but also "indicated it is prepared to accept enhanced safeguards measures on both nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia and China, as well as having no objections to the return of the spent fuel to the country of origin as a similar agreement had been concluded with Germany during the 1970s."
On July 1, 2003 - exactly 12 years ago today - Reuters reported that none other than Hassan Rouhani, then Secretary-General of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Iran was "ready to accept the participation of other big industrialized countries in its [uranium] enrichment projects," specifically as a means to resolve any questions over whether its nuclear program was peaceful and civilian in nature.
Following its voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment and implementation of the Additional Protocol as confidence-building measures during negotiations with the EU-3, Iran again raised the prospect of multinational collaboration.
In a September 9, 2004 interview with the Financial Times, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's representative to the IAEA, explained, "We are ready to give any kind of meaningful guarantees and assurances that Iran will never divert its fuel-cycle technology to non-peaceful use," adding, "We have even once indicated – not officially – that we are ready to enter into a joint venture in the enrichment of uranium. [We have said to the Europeans] 'Bring your expertise to Natanz, join us, and sell to us, and to others.'"
On March 23, 2005, the Iranians officially presented a four-phase plan to their European negotiating partners intended to end the nuclear impasse once and for all. It called for Iran to resume uranium enrichment, with EU cooperation, and for the Majlis (Iranian parliament) to begin the process of approving legislation that would permanently ban the "production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons."
Iran's offer came on the heels of the IAEA's own expert endorsement of multinational investment in enrichment programs.
This was not merely the stance of the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, either. In his first address before the United Nations General Assembly in September 2005, newly-inaugurated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that, as a "confidence building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran. This represents the most far reaching step, outside all requirements of the NPT, being proposed by Iran as a further confidence building measure."
In early November 2005 it was widely reported that "the Iranian government is allowing the country's atomic energy agency to seek local or foreign investors for its currently suspended uranium enrichment activities." Such investment, directed toward the Natanz facility then under construction in central Iran, would be sought "from the public or private sectors."
Days later, Iranian state-run television stated that Iran would offer the international community "a 35% share in its uranium enrichment programme as a guarantee" that its nuclear program "won't be diverted toward weapons." This investment would allow "foreign countries and companies a role in Iran's uranium enrichment programme," providing the opportunity for such entities and organizations to "practically contribute in and monitor the uranium enrichment in Natanz." Gholamreza Aghazade, an Iranian vice president and head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, told the press that this offer was "maximum concession" Tehran could offer for transparency. "The 35% share is not only investment," he said. "They will have a presence in the process (of uranium enrichment) and production (of nuclear fuel)."
"It's the best kind of international supervision totally negating any possibility of diversion (toward weapons)," Aghazade explained.
Later that month, on November 18, 2005, in yet another publicly presented proposal, the Iranian government repeated the offer set forth earlier that year, reiterating its willingness to officially ban nuclear weapons development through legislation, cap its level and scope of enrichment, immediately convert its enriched uranium to fuel rods "to preclude even the technical possibility of further enrichment" towards weapons-grade and "to provide unprecedented added guarantees" to the IAEA that its program would remain peaceful. The proposal, issued by Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations, reiterated Iran's "[a]cceptance of partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran which engages other countries directly and removes any concerns."
Iran's offers were routinely rejected by the United States government, which maintained the absurd position that Iran capitulate to its demand of zero enrichment on Iranian soil. "We cannot have a single centrifuge spinning in Iran," declared George W. Bush's undersecretary of state for arms control Robert Joseph in early 2006.
In an April 5, 2006 oped in the New York Times, Iran's then UN ambassador Javad Zarif laid out a number of proposals for resolving the nuclear standoff. In addition to affirming Iran's continued commitment to the NPT, acceptance of limitations on enrichment, and its stance against "the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons," Zarif stated Iran's willingness to "[a]ccept foreign partners, both public and private, in our uranium enrichment program." He continued:
Iran has recently suggested the establishment of regional consortiums on fuel-cycle development that would be jointly owned and operated by countries possessing the technology and placed under atomic agency safeguards.In an article for the Los Angeles Times at the end of that same year, Zarif reminded readers of these overtures, none of which were ever responded to by the United States.
Multinational investment in Iran's enrichment program was endorsed by nuclear experts and MIT researchers Geoff Forden and John Thomson in various articles and reports in 2006 and 2007, as well as by former American diplomats Thomas R. Pickering and William Luers and nuclear expert Jim Walsh in an essay for the New York Review of Books in early 2008. Wholly in line with what Iranian officials had been saying for years, Pickering, Luers and Walsh wrote that a "jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments... provides a realistic, workable solution to the US–Iranian nuclear standoff." Such a program, they wrote, "will reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion not only of our disagreements but of our common interests as well."
"Given the enhanced transparency of a multilateral arrangement and the constant presence in Iran of foreign monitors that such a plan would require," the authors added, any "diversion of material or technology to a clandestine program" would be easily detected. Senators Chuck Hagel and Dianne Feinstein both responded positively to the proposal. The Bush administration dismissed it out of hand.
Iranian officials again endorsed the concept of opening its nuclear program to international investment and collaboration during a March 2008 conference in Tehran.
In a comprehensive package proposed to the United Nations on May 13, 2008, Iran's foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki wrote that Iran was still ready to consider, among a great many other things, "Establishing enrichment and nuclear fuel production consortiums in different parts of the world - including in Iran."
Reporting on the proposal shortly thereafter, The Guardian's Julian Borger noted that while the consortium idea was gaining traction in American "foreign policy circles," it was still "resisted by the US, French and British governments." An unnamed "British official" told Borger, "We would be ready to discuss it, as soon as Iran does what it knows it has to," that is, suspend its enrichment program, an obvious and long-known nonstarter for post-2005 negotiations.
By resurrecting the notion of multinational investment in Iran's enrichment program, Von Hippel does the conversation over nuclear negotiations a great service. Despite past difficulties regarding Iran's stake in the Eurodif consortium and a history of American deception and deliberate denialism in breach of its NPT obligations, the prospect of international acceptance and cooperation in Iran's nuclear industry is still an excellent way out of this manufactured crisis.
But leaving out the fact that Iran itself has long been the leading champion of such a proposal unfortunately doesn't give credit where credit is due.