Friday, July 17, 2015

Vox's "Plutonium Plant": Explainer Site Still Doesn't Understand Arak

Is this what a plutonium plant looks like? (Image: Creative Curiosity)

On the heels of the recently announced historic multilateral agreement over Iran's nuclear program, self-described explanatory journalism outlet Vox.com has posted a number of infographics to explain certain parameters of the deal. The images were produced by Vox's talented graphics editor Javier Zarracina, who's previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. The text accompanying the graphics, however, appears to derive largely from previous Vox posts, most likely ones penned by the site's content manager Max Fisher.

While the post is not as error-laden as some of the site's previous articles and supposedly explanatory maps, one mistake is glaring and deserves both attention and correction.

In its copious coverage of the Iranian nuclear program, Vox - and Mr. Fisher in particular - routinely refers to Iran's heavy water research reactor at Arak as a "plutonium plant," a description that is not only factually inaccurate but also deliberately alarmist. The new post, attributed solely to Zarracina, is unfortunately no different.

In its brief section on the nuclear facilities Iran will continue to operate under deal and the specific restrictions agreed to pertaining to these facilities, Zarracina produced the following map:

(Image: Javier Zarracina / Vox)

The bold text at the top of the map above is misleading. Iran currently has 18 nuclear facilities and nine additional locations (all hospitals) where nuclear material is used. All of these facilities - not just three, as Vox says - will continue to operate. All of them have long been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and all are under agency safeguards and open to regular monitoring and inspection. At least four times a year for the past dozen years, the IAEA has consistently continued to "verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at these facilities" to military and weaponization programs.

The three facilities Zarracina focuses on, however, are especially important and that figure centrally in the parameters of the agreement. Two - Natanz and Fordow - are operational enrichment facilities; the other is a nuclear research reactor still under construction at the Arak complex.

In his explanation of the limitations Iran has accepted on its nuclear program, Zarracina claims the following:
The Arak facility matters because Iran has used it to develop plutonium, another nuclear fuel that can be used for energy or for a weapons program. Iran will be required to restructure its plutonium plant at Arak such that it will only make energy-grade plutonium, and will ship out its spent plutonium. The Arak facility will also be monitored.
Each of Zarracina's three sentences contains either egregious errors or is explicitly misleading. His "explanation" is, as a result, just the opposite - an embarrassing exercise in ignorance and disinformation.

Let's take the sentences one by one:

"The Arak facility matters because Iran has used it to develop plutonium, another nuclear fuel that can be used for energy or for a weapons program."

For starters, the reactor at Arak remains under construction and has never been operational; therefore, Iran has never - ever - "used it to develop plutonium." The reactor has in fact never been "used" to do anything. It's never even been turned on.

Zarracina is clearly confused as to what facilities Arak contains, what those facilities do, and what Iran has done with these facilities. At Iran's Arak complex, two facilities are relevant in this discussion: one is the IR-40 heavy water research reactor, the other is a heavy water production plant (HWPP). There is no such thing as a "plutonium plant" on the site.

The half-built IR-40 reactor is under full IAEA safeguards and is visited regularly by inspectors; the production plant, however, is not under safeguards and thus not legally subject to inspections. This is less alarming than it might sound and here's why: heavy water is not nuclear material, it merely acts as a moderator and coolant in nuclear reactors that use natural uranium rather than enriched uranium. Still, Iran voluntarily provided IAEA inspectors access to HWPP in August 2011 and again in December 2013, even though this exceeded Iran's legal obligations to the agency.

The IR-40 reactor at Arak - like all reactors - produces energy, not nuclear fuel. It runs on nuclear fuel. And once that fuel is used, it becomes irradiated and must be extracted from the reactor and replaced with new fuel.

All reactors that use uranium (natural or enriched) as fuel produce plutonium as a waste product. Ever heard of nuclear waste? Yeah, that includes plutonium, which hypothetically can be used to produce nuclear weapons. The amount of weapons-capable plutonium produced as a byproduct in the spent nuclear fuel of a heavy water reactor is usually more than what naturally occurs in the spent fuel from light water reactors, which run on enriched uranium and use normal water as coolant. This is why the Arak reactor in particular is considered by some to be an unacceptable proliferation risk.

But there's more: weapons-grade plutonium present in irradiated (used) fuel must be extracted through a process known as reprocessing before it can be used for anything else. Iran has no reprocessing facility and has for years agreed never to build one. The new Iran deal simply reaffirms this past decision.

As nuclear expert Martin Sevior has explained, "Going the plutonium route to nuclear weapons is more difficult than using highly enriched uranium" because Iran "would have to build a sophisticated reprocessing plant which would be very hard to conceal while constructing, and requires even greater skill to conceal while operating." Considering Iran has the single most scrutinized nuclear energy program on the planet and is constantly spied on by its adversaries, the idea that it would undertake this route is comical.

Vox's writers seem to think that once a heavy water reactor is switched on, out pops weapons-grade plutonium, ready to be loaded into the nose cone of a ballistic missile bound for Tel Aviv or Boca Raton. This is not the case.

"Iran will be required to restructure its plutonium plant at Arak such that it will only make energy-grade plutonium, and will ship out its spent plutonium."

Ok, again, there is no such thing as a "plutonium plant at Arak," so that's wrong. As part of the final agreement between Iran and its six negotiating partners, the Arak reactor will be redesigned and rebuilt so that it runs on 3.67% enriched uranium, not natural uranium, and no longer produces weapons-grade plutonium as a waste product. This essentially means Arak will be converted from a heavy water reactor to a hybrid heavy and light water reactor; heavy water will still be used a "coolant, moderator and reflector" with normal water used as a safety measure if necessary.

Once operational, the Arak reactor will be used for "peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production for medical and industrial purposes," just as Iran originally intended.

Zarracina compounds his misunderstanding of what nuclear reactors do and what they produce with the claim that Iran "will ship out its spent plutonium." Reactors don't produce "spent plutonium." They produce energy. They also, as a waste product, produce spent uranium, the substance that actual fuels reactors, which, after irradiation, contains (along with many other radioactive byproducts) both plutonium isotopes Pu-239, which is suitable for weapons, and Pu-241, which is not. Plutonium enriched to more than 97% Pu-239 is dangerous; the more it is contaminated by Pu-241, the less danger it poses. The length of time nuclear fuel stays in a reactor determines how much of each plutonium isotope is leftover once the fuel is used up and removed from the reactor core. The longer the fuel stays in the less Pu-239 there is and the more Pu-241 there is. That's why Pu-239, which is combustible, is referred to as "weapons grade," while Pu-241 is known as "reactor-" or "energy-grade" plutonium. None of this plutonium, in whatever form, is used to fuel reactors; it is the byproduct of fuel, not the fuel itself.

And, again, for this plutonium byproduct to ever be used in a nuclear weapon, it must first be isolated and extracted from the spent fuel through reprocessing, which Iran is incapable of - and not interested in - doing.

"The Arak facility will also be monitored."

Ok, here's an easy one. In simple terms, yes, Zarracina is correct. Arak will be monitored. But this statement is misleading without context. As mentioned already, Arak is already monitored by the IAEA - this is not a new development as a positive consequence of the Iran deal. Zarracina makes it sound like Iran finally agreed to put Arak under IAEA safeguards, but that's not even remotely true.

In truth, even before Hassan Rouhani was elected president, Iran's delegates to the IAEA under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were urging international "nuclear monitors to use powerful new detection technologies to dispel international concern that the Persian Gulf country is seeking to build atomic weapons," reported Bloomberg News. "We always welcome the agency to have more sophisticated equipment, to have more accuracy in their measurements, so that technical matters will not be politicized," Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh said in early June 2013, adding that Iran "won't object to IAEA monitors using new technologies to determine whether plutonium is being extracted from spent fuel at its new reactor in Arak."

Ignoring Facts and Avoiding Responsibility

Whether the blame for these errors (some by commission, some by omission) should fall to Zarracina or Max Fisher or someone else is unclear. Regardless, all of the writers, content creators and editors at Vox have a responsibility not to mislead their readers. Sure, nuclear technology is complex and journalists on deadline don't always have time to study a lot of the details. Still, all of this information is open-source and easy to find. Once errors are pointed out, Vox's editors should do their best to own up to and correct their mistakes and those of their contributors. When it comes to their Iran coverage, this tends not to happen at Vox. Quite the contrary, fact-checking Vox on Iran's nuclear program often results in hostility and dismissal from Vox staff.

At the very least, Vox should immediately stop referring to the research reactor at Arak as a "plutonium plant." This is easy to do: call it what it is and stop misleading readers. Instead, due to either a stubborn allegiance to ignorance or extreme laziness, Vox has continued to misinform it audience about the Iranian nuclear program. Unless facile and faulty explanations are its editorial mission, a widely-read resource like Vox that prides itself on "explaining" things to the less informed should try a little harder at first informing itself.
I got blocked by Yglesias for this tweet.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Does Iran Really Need Nuclear Power?



As multilateral negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and international sanctions continue in Vienna, it is important to remember that, for Iran, this is not about nuclear weapons, but rather the domestic production and control over nuclear energy.*

Iran has officially forsworn any interest in nuclear weapons - constantly and consistently - since it restarted its nuclear program in the early 1980s.1 Iran's desire for the indigenous mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle and control over its own supply chain was never a secret. Its eventual purchase of nuclear technology on the black market and decision to enrich uranium domestically was a last resort, born of a deliberate American policy to deny Iran the very nuclear infrastructure acknowledged as an "inalienable right" and international cooperation guaranteed in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Article IV of the NPT clearly states that all signatories to the agreement "undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy" and that nuclear superpowers such as the United States, are obligated to help "non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty," such as Iran, to acquire and utilize nuclear energy through direct cooperation or multinational consortia, "with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world."

The American effort to deny Iran of nuclear technology, long couched as an effort to stop potential nuclear weapons programs, thus placed illegal restrictions on Iran's technological and scientific development. This has been public knowledge since at least 1984, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War. Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department admitted to having "no evidence Iran has repudiated or violated its pledge under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to place its nuclear activities under international safeguards to prevent their use in the production of bombs," the Reagan administration (which was actively aiding Iranian exiles intent on overthrowing Khomeini's government and providing military and intelligence support for Saddam Hussein) imposed an embargo on nuclear-related trade with Iran. Citing its mistrust of Iranian intentions, the State Department declared in a press release that "the United States will not consent to the transfer of U.S. nuclear technology to Iran. In addition, we have asked other nuclear suppliers not to engage in nuclear co-operation with Iran, especially while the Iran-Iraq war continues."

Still, the release noted that Iran's nascent nuclear program posed no immediate danger. After all, it said, "light-water reactors are not particularly suitable for a weapons program" and "there is no evidence of construction [in Iran] of facilities needed to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel."

Years later, Reagan's successor followed suit. In early 1991, The Los Angeles Times reported that the "[George H.W.] Bush Administration and its allies are quietly launching a new international effort aimed at making it more difficult for such countries as Iraq and Iran to buy the high-tech items needed to develop nuclear weapons," which purposefully affected trade in "so-called 'dual-use' goods--items that, while they have other legitimate uses, are also important components for a program to develop nuclear weapons."

That same year, however, Hans Blix, then-Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made it clear that there was "no cause for concern" regarding Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear technology.

The following year, in 1992, IAEA inspections in Iran found no evidence of illegal nuclear activity. After visiting numerous nuclear sites, chief inspector Jon Jennekens announced that "everything that we have seen is for the peaceful application of nuclear energy and ionizing radiation." He told the press, "We visited without any restriction everything we had asked to see. All nuclear activities in Iran are solely for peaceful purpose."

Nevertheless, in Senate testimony delivered early that year, then-CIA director Robert Gates (who later served as Defense Secretary under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama), claimed that Iran "has not abandoned the goal of one day leading the Islamic world and reversing the global dominance of Western culture and technology." Gates admitted, however, that "most of these technologies are so-called dual use technologies—that is, they have legitimate civilian applications. This makes it difficult to restrict trade in them because we would be limiting the ability of developing nations to modernize."

The American policy of denial has long been met with Iranian accusations of hypocrisy and monopoly. As Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told CNN's Christiane Amanpour only a month after his first inauguration:
We're against "nuclear apartheid," which means some have the right to possess it, use the fuel, and then sell it to another country for 10 times its value. We're against that. We say clean energy is the right of all countries. But also it is the duty and the responsibility of all countries, including ours, to set up frameworks to stop the proliferation of [nuclear weapons].
Years later, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, condemned as "unacceptable" the "monopolization of technology and science and nuclear apartheid," which he said "is in stark contrast to the undeniable rights of countries based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the agency's Articles of Association."

This frustration is shared across political lines. At a May 2014 meeting of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, President Hassan Rouhani declared, "We are after our national interests, and we will not accept nuclear or scientific apartheid," adding, "In the direction of science, knowledge and progress, the Atomic Energy Organization had no choice but to stand on its own feet for its scientific goals and technological achievements."

Yet critics of diplomacy with Iran and those whose interests lie with promoting Netanyahu-inspired fear-mongering often ask why Iran - a country with reportedly the planet's fourth largest oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves (if not more) - should be so intent on developing a nuclear sector. Naturally, as it so often goes with propaganda, the double standard is obvious. The United States is the second largest oil producer on Earth. With its nearly 100 nuclear reactors, however, it is also world's leader in nuclear energy production. Russia, the planet's third leading oil producer, has 35 nuclear plants. Other top ten oil producers like China, Canada, and Brazil all have growing nuclear energy programs of their own. Of course, none of those nations is ever asked to account for its interest in nuclear power.

The answer to the question of why an oil-rich nation would want nuclear energy, however, is simple: like any other nation, in order to compete on an international stage, Iran must vastly diversify its energy policy. With a growing population and a developing economy, energy demands are rapidly increasing. Oil and gas, Iran's leading natural resources (and which are finite), must be available for export to foreign markets, not merely used for energy domestically, in order to fuel Iran's economy. Therefore, for domestic use, Iran has long sought different energy sources, from nuclear to solar to wind.

The Iranian government has long made this very argument. On November 18, 2005, a full-page message was published in the New York Times, outlining Iran's position with regard to its nuclear program. "Although it is true that Iran is rich in oil and gas, these resources are finite and, given the pace of Iran's economic development, they will be depleted within two to five decades," the message said. With a growing population, "Iran has no choice but to seek access to more diversified and secure sources of energy," it read, adding that "the youthfulness of the Iranian population, with around 70% under 30, doesn't allow complacency when it comes to energy policy. To satisfy such growing demands, Iran can't rely exclusively on fossil energy. Since Iranian national economy is still dependent on oil revenue, it can't allow the ever increasing domestic demand affect the oil revenues from the oil export."

After leaving his post as Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif (now Iran's foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator), published a paper entitled, "Tackling the Iran-U.S. Crisis: The Need for a Paradigm Shift," in the Spring/Summer issue of the Journal of International Affairs in 2007. In it, he wrote at length about the need for a diversified energy policy in Iran:
A review of objective facts would establish Iran's need for alternative sources of energy, including nuclear energy. According to a recently released study by the National Academy of Science, "Iran's energy demand growth has exceeded its supply growth," and therefore, "Iran's oil export will decline," or even "could go to zero within 12-19 years." The study acknowledges that Iran's need for nuclear power is "genuine, because Iran relies on...proceeds from oil exports for most revenues, and could become politically vulnerable if exports decline." Nuclear reactors, the report adds, "will substitute for the power now generated by petroleum, thus, freeing petroleum for export." Many other U.S. and western experts have reached the same conclusions. In fact, Iran's current plans to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity by 2020 may save Iran 190 million barrels of crude oil every year or nearly $14 billion annually.
From an environmental perspective, more Western utilities are looking to nuclear power "because of the prospect of controls on fossil-fuel generated power, while possible climate-change legislation wouldn't affect nuclear power, which doesn't generate the same pollutants."
"Therefore," Zarif continued, "Iran's nuclear program is neither ambitious nor economically unjustifiable. Diversification—including the development of nuclear energy—is the only sound and responsible energy strategy for Iran. Moreover, Iran's energy diversification strategy is not concentrated solely on nuclear energy, but encompasses various other alternative and renewable sources."

This was, and remains, true.

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that "Iran has the largest installed renewable-energy capacity in the Middle East." The Iranian government has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting clean energy projects. "The government sees renewables as a way to alleviate pollution, a common problem in congested cities such as Tehran. It also sees an opportunity for Iran to reduce its oil dependency," wrote the Journal.

Iran has an official Renewable Energy Organization (SUNA), is an exporter of wind energy, and already has dozens of hydroelectric power plants and a number of operational solar power plants around the country, including one near Shiraz and another near Yazd, which is reportedly the world's first combined cycle plant that uses both natural gas and solar energy.

In 2011, Iranian media reported that Iran's largest solar plant had opened near Mashhad which was said to "produce enough electricity to power Khorassan province's Regional Electric Company building" and was "expected to generate 72,000 kilowatt hours of electrical power each year." A small wind-solar hybrid power plant is also said to have been installed on the Persian Gulf island Kharg.

The same year, Iran's Energy Minister Majid Namjou said that, by 2015, Iran planned to generate more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable energy resources. Plus, if a joint American and Iranian workshop back in 2010 is any indication, it appears that Iran is very receptive to increasing their solar energy capacity.

Indeed, independent analysts agree with the Iranian assessment of its energy needs - including nuclear power.

"[W]hy should Iran deplete its nonrenewable oil and gas sources when it can, much like the energy-rich United States and Russia, resort to renewable nuclear energy?" asked a New York Times oped on October 14, 2003. "Nuclear reactors have their problems, and they will not resolve Iran's chronic shortage of electricity. Yet they represent an important first step in diversifying Iran's sources for energy." The authors lamented, "Sadly, with their fear of an Iranian bomb, the United States and some of its Western allies have failed to acknowledge Iran's legitimate quest for nuclear energy."

In 2004, even the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of Britain's parliament said that based on a study it commissioned: "It is clear... that the arguments as to whether Iran has a genuine requirement for domestically produced nuclear electricity are not all, or even predominantly, on one side." A 2006 Energy Tribune article argued that, "given Iran's ongoing energy struggles, it makes sense, both economically and from an energy point of view, for the country to be pursuing nuclear power." A 2007 essay published in the journal Atoms For Peace noted, "Rapid growth in Iran's domestic energy demand and its dependence on oil exports for revenue has forced it to consider alternative future energy solutions."

A 2009 Foreign Policy article by Christopher de Bellaigue, for instance, concurs with these conclusions when directly challenging the claim that "Iran Has No Use for Nuclear Power." De Bellaigue writes that this is "False," and goes on to explain:
Iran is the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves. But its energy needs are rising faster than its ability to meet them. Driven by a young population and high oil revenues, Iran's power consumption is growing by around 7 percent annually, and its capacity must nearly triple over the next 15 years to meet projected demand.
Where will the electricity come from? Not from the oil sector. It is retarded by U.S. sanctions, as well as inefficiency, corruption, and Iran's institutionalized distrust of Western investors. Since 1995, when the sector was opened to a handful of foreign companies, Iran has added 600,000 barrels per day to its crude production, enough to offset depletion in aging fields, but not enough to boost output, which has stagnated at around 3.7 million barrels per day since the late 1990s. Almost 40 percent of Iran's crude oil is consumed locally. If this figure were to rise, oil revenues would fall, spelling the end of the strong economic growth the country has enjoyed since 1999. Plugging the gap with natural gas is not possible — yet. Iran's gigantic gas reserves are only just being tapped, so Iran remains a net importer.
Beyond mere population metrics and potential energy needs, the national mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle is seen by Iran's government as vital for scientific progress and sustainability. In a September 9, 2004 interview with the Financial Times, Iran's then-representative to the IAEA Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT-educated physicist, made this clear:
Nuclear technology, of you are able to master it, opens the way to other technologies, because you are dealing with the highest limits of engineering – the highest pressures, highest temperatures, the highest material properties. This know-how can be used in other industries. 
With technology you cannot have big jumps. You can't suddenly expect an underdeveloped country to send a rocket to the moon. 
Nuclear technology would give us the base for future technology in fusion, which is the ultimate answer to unlimited supply of energy for human beings. If you do not, [and] fusion comes in 20 to 30 years, you will be totally ignorant.
But there's something else.

A decade ago, Dick Cheney himself voiced the age-old line about Iran, a hydrocarbon-rich country, not needing alternative sources of energy. "They're already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas," he said. "Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy." Henry Kissinger echoed this sentiment in an oped, writing that "that "for a major oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources."

But here's the rub: in the mid-1970s, the Ford administration (in which Kissinger, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz themselves held high-level positions) was heavily in favor of Iran's decision - under the Shah - to pursue nuclear energy. A 2005 Washington Post article by Dafna Linzer tells the tale.
Ford's team commended Iran's decision to build a massive nuclear energy industry, noting in a declassified 1975 strategy paper that Tehran needed to "prepare against the time -- about 15 years in the future -- when Iranian oil production is expected to decline sharply."
Estimates of Iran's oil reserves were smaller then than they are now, but energy experts and U.S. intelligence estimates continue to project that Iran will need an alternative energy source in the coming decades. Iran's population has more than doubled since the 1970s, and its energy demands have increased even more.
The Ford administration -- in which Cheney succeeded Rumsfeld as chief of staff and Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation issues at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency -- continued intense efforts to supply Iran with U.S. nuclear technology until President Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford in 1977.
[...]
In 1975, as secretary of state, Kissinger signed and circulated National Security Decision Memorandum 292, titled "U.S.-Iran Nuclear Cooperation," which laid out the administration's negotiating strategy for the sale of nuclear energy equipment projected to bring U.S. corporations more than $6 billion in revenue. At the time, Iran was pumping as much as 6 million barrels of oil a day, compared with an average of about 4 million barrels daily today.
The shah, who referred to oil as "noble fuel," said it was too valuable to waste on daily energy needs. The Ford strategy paper said the "introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals."
Of course, because the Shah was a good friend to the US government at the time, the issue of nuclear proliferation never even came up.

In early 2012, Michael Hayden, George W. Bush's CIA and NSA chief, confirmed that opposition to Iran's domestic nuclear program has nothing to do with proliferation fears or international law, but rather regional hegemony, impunity and regime change.

"It's not so much that we don't want Iran to have a nuclear capacity, it's that we don't want this Iran to have it," Hayden told a gathering of analysts, experts and journalists at the Center for the National Interest. "Slow it down long enough and maybe the character [of the Iranian government] changes."

Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said much the same at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. the following month. "When there is a secular and democratic Iran, let them have all the technologies in the world, whatever they like. Not this regime," he said.

Now, years later, regime change remains the ultimate goal of those opposed to a diplomatic solution to this decades-long impasse.

Such is the lie that is the "Iranian nuclear crisis," the bogus propaganda ploy to exert power over one of the only nations on the planet to, three and a half decades ago, successfully break its imperial chains and pursued its own path. It has nothing to do with Iranian proliferation or power generation and everything to do with American and Israeli power projection.

Let's hope this nonsense is soon behind us all.

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Updated to include more information regarding the Reagan administration's nuclear embargo on Iran.

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* This should go without saying, but I find it necessary to point out that I am in no way an advocate of nuclear energy. Clearly, it is not the greatest or safest form of energy production in the world; but that's not the issue here. Nuclear power is very real and widely utilized, promoted and guaranteed via the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Arguing against nuclear power is probably a good idea, but until all nuclear power is done away with, Iran has just as much right to pursue it as any other sovereign nation. (Return to article)

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1 UPDATE - July 16, 2015: As a note in the comments on this article points out, the Shah's nuclear program was mothballed by the nascent leadership of Iran shortly after the revolution in 1979. The Khomeini government derided the nuclear project as "imperialistic," namely due to its close association (and inception by) the United States. This was the primarily impetus for its being put on the back-burner. Indeed, by April 1979, the AEOI was virtually defunded and by July 1979, work on Bushehr ground to a halt when Iran's European partners reneged on their construction contracts. Much of Iran's nuclear program was effectively put on hold.

But not all of it.

Even in April 1979, Iranian media reported on the continuation of building an (albeit smaller scale) nuclear industry than what the Shah had envisioned. On April 9, 1979, an interview with Fereydoun Sahabi, Iran's Deputy Minister of Energy and Supervisor of AEOI, broadcast on national radio revealed that the organization would "be cut back on a wide scale." Nevertheless, work on Bushehr was at that time still expected to proceed and "the Atomic Energy Organization's activities regarding prospecting and extraction of uranium would continue."

Following constant electricity shortages that plagued Iran in the early years after the revolution, official Iranian policy began to change with regard to alternative sources of energy. What really revitalized government interest in the nuclear program was the "discovery of huge uranium deposits in four places in Iran" in late 1981. Far from being a boon to a nefarious and clandestine project, this discovery was also announced on national radio, with the new head of AEOI, Reza Amrollah, noting "that the organization is to follow up with a detailed programme for nuclear research and scientific study."

About three months later, Iranian state media outlet IRNA reported that, according to the head of the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTEC), "Iran was taking concrete measures for importing nuclear technology, while at the same time utilizing Iranian expertise in the field. He said the decision was made in the wake of discovery of uranium resources in the country and after Iran's capability for developing the industry had been established." The report even outlined ambitious Iranian plans for "developing nuclear capability" in short-term, mid-term, and long-term phases.

Shortly thereafter, as the United States became heavily involved in supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. policy of denying Iran of nuclear technology and assistance was implemented, leading the the further deterioration of Iran's previous business relationships with European partners like Eurodif.

The next year, in 1983, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization invited the IAEA to visit ENTEC and the Tehran Nuclear Research Center and requested assistance from the IAEA in resuming its research in domestic uranium enrichment and possibly setting up a pilot enrichment plant. As soon as the U.S. government got wind of such potential cooperation, it "directly intervened," demanding the IAEA cease all assistance to Iran (in contravention of the basic tenets of the NPT). "We stopped that in its tracks," said a former U.S. official years later. Following American obstruction, "the IAEA dropped plans to help Iran on fuel production and uranium conversion."

Nevertheless, Iran pushed forward with its research, and in 1985 discovered even more uranium deposits near Yazd. Amrollah, according to the BBC at the time, "stressed" that "the availability of uranium will be a big help to the economic infrastructure of the country."

As I point out above, by the early 1990s, the IAEA was appraised of Iran's progress, had visited Iran's uranium mines, and found "no cause for concern."

Following Iran's declaration of its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz to the IAEA, and its announcement in February 2003 that it would begin domestically mining uranium at Saghand for an indigenous enrichment program, IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming told the press, "This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project for several years now. In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992."

(Return to article)

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Back to the Bazaar: Fact-Checking the BBC on Iran's Nuclear Program


Reporting on the Iranian nuclear program in the mainstream press has always been fraught with disinformation, misinformation, speculative shorthand, and myriad errors. The BBC is no stranger to such mistakes.

In a new report from Vienna, where nuclear talks continue, the Beeb's diplomatic correspondent James Robbins attempts to give readers some historical context for Iran's nuclear development following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

He writes:
The new religious leadership inherited a nuclear research programme, but consistently denies expanding it with the aim of making "the bomb".
The big powers have never accepted that, pointing instead to all the Iranian effort to produce highly-enriched uranium in the quantities you could only need to build a bomb, as well as the secrecy and alleged concealment of so much activity which is specifically outlawed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory.
Ok, first, the "big powers" who doubt Iran's sincerity about their nuclear development don't include Russia and China, which have consistently noted in the past decade that Iran's enrichment program is under strict safeguards and there exists no evidence of militarization.

For instance, in September 2012, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov explained, "We, as before, see no signs that there is a military dimension to Iran's nuclear program. No signs."

"We see something different - that there is nuclear material... in Iran that is under the control of inspectors, specialists of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Ryabkov continued. "This nuclear material is not being shifted to military needs, this is officially confirmed by the (IAEA)."

Ok, small point. Moving on...

'Highly Enriched Uranium'

Robbins writes of "all the Iranian effort to produce highly-enriched uranium in the quantities you could only need to build a bomb," which doesn't make sense since Iran has never - ever - produced "highly-enriched uranium," let alone "in the quantities you could only need to build a bomb." This is a total falsehood.

Before the implementation of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), signed between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1, Iran had been enriching UF6 (uranium hexafluoride feedstock) to between 3.5% and 5% U-235 for use as fuel in nuclear power plants and to just under 20% U-235 for use in medical research reactors. Both 5% and 19.75% enriched uranium are considered "low-enriched uranium" (LEU). Neither of these enrichment levels is close to the minimum of 90% U-235, or high-enriched uranium (HEU), needed to produce nuclear bombs. All Iranian enrichment activities and facilities are - and were - under strict IAEA safeguards, round-the-clock surveillance and regular intrusive inspection.

As I wrote yesterday, since JPOA went into effect in January 2014, Iran ceased all enrichment above 5%, diluted or disposed of its entire stockpile of 19.75% LEU, and converted the vast majority of its remaining stockpile of LEU to a form incapable of being weaponized. At every step along the way, Iran has been in full compliance with its obligations.

Tellingly, the BBC often refers to 19.75% enriched uranium as "higher-enriched" material, despite the fact that there is no such designation as defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) itself. The IAEA glossary (p.205-6) is clear: "high enriched uranium" or HEU is "uranium containing 20% or more of the isotope 235U," while "low enriched uranium" or LEU is "enriched uranium containing less than 20% of the isotope 235U." There is no such thing as "medium" or "higher" enriched uranium except in media articles purposefully alluding to a potential Iranian nuclear weapons threat that doesn't exist.

Robbins' claim that Iran has gone to great lengths "to produce highly-enriched uranium" is 100% incorrect. Making such a suggestion is ignorant in the extreme.

What's even stranger is that the BBC already knows this. Back in March 2009, it reported on National Intelligence director Dennis Blair's testimony to Congress that affirmed "that Iran does not have any highly enriched uranium."

Violating the NPT?

The rest of Robbins' sentence compounds the error. He claims allegations of nuclear weapons work and Iranian duplicity have merit since Iran has concealed "so much activity which is specifically outlawed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Except Iran has done no such thing.

In fact, nothing Iran has ever done in its procurement of nuclear technology and mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle has ever contravened its obligations under the NPT since it has never been found to have diverted any fissile material to a weapons program. Iran's past noncompliance with its IAEA safeguards - due to its "failure to report" otherwise totally legal activities - is not the same as violating the NPT. Even so, in November 2003, the IAEA affirmed that "to date, there is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material and activities referred to above were related to a nuclear weapons programme." And the following year, after extensive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities were conducted under the auspices of the IAEA's intrusive Additional Protocol (implemented voluntarily by Iran for two years) the IAEA again concluded that "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities."

IAEA investigations into Iran's previously undeclared activities, as adjudicated by a 2007 Work Plan, resolved all of the initial outstanding questions that led the IAEA to send Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council in the first place - all of them in Iran's favor.

In March 2013, Nobel laureate Hans Blix, who previously headed both the IAEA and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), affirmed that "Iran has not violated NPT and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons."

Even the Congressional Research Service, whose analysis heavily favors the U.S. government's interpretation of international law, has stated, as recently as June 25, 2015, that it is "unclear" whether or not Iran has ever violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, noting that the "U.N. Security Council has never declared Iran to be in violation of the NPT" and "the IAEA has never reported that Iran has attempted to develop nuclear weapons."

Lingering Colonial Tropes

For all of Robbins' dubious journalism, perhaps nothing is as offensive as his quoting of remarkably Orientalist statements made by former diplomat Sir John Sawers about Iranians. Sawers, who Robbins writes was "chief British negotiator with Iran from 2003 to 2007, and after that the UK's representative on the UN Security Council when sanctions against Iran were being decided," speaks like Rowan Atkinson doing a Cecil Rhodes impression.

"Sir John," Robbins writes, "from all his years negotiating with Iran, is blunt: 'Whenever you buy a carpet in Iran, you have to buy it two, three times over.'" Sawers adds, "You sometimes feel that is the same in the nuclear negotiations as well. There is an Iranian saying that the real negotiation only begins once the agreement is signed. They will always come back for more."
If that's not bad enough, the section of the BBC article containing these statements bears the subheading, "Carpet sales tales." Really.

Allusions to Persian rug merchants, wily bazaari haggling, and devious and duplicitous wheeling and dealing - all this is expected from the Wall Street Journal's neocon editors and career propagandists like Michael Oren. But Robbins and his editors at the BBC?

Looks like colonialism dies hard in the old empire.

*****

Friday, July 3, 2015

On Iran's Nuclear Program, Ghosh's "Gotcha" is Nothing But Smoke

Bobby Ghosh

"Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs."
-Albert Einstein


Bobby Ghosh, former TIME contributor and currently managing editor at Quartz, decided on Tuesday to produce some absurd, mouth-breathing click-bait - the kind of deliberately sloppy disinformation that serves only to further chum the waters of public opinion with the false narratives and grotesque stereotypes that have long been the stock-in-trade of agenda-driven, attention-seeking commentators about Iran and its nuclear program.

Here's the headline:


There's a quick answer to this leading - and deceiving - question: No, no he did not.

There's a longer answer, too, which we'll get to in a minute.

Ghosh, in his desire to expose what he thinks is a "gotcha" moment from a recent Iranian media interview with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, eagerly and disingenuously conflates uranium enrichment with nuclear weapons development. In doing so, he reveals himself to be more interested in delivering page views to his website and dishing out conventional wisdom than in reporting truthfully and critically about an important international issue.

Ghosh notes that, during an interview with Iranian media about the pending nuclear deal with six world powers, Rouhani said that "if the other side breaches the deal, we will go back to the old path, stronger than what they can imagine." Ghosh omitted Rouhani's initial comment, "If we reach a deal, both sides should be committed to it."

What gets Ghosh's goat is Rouhani's reference to "the old path," that is, the allusion to Iran's previous state of nuclear development, as opposed to its current restricted program under the interim deal and what results from a potential negotiated multilateral agreement.

Conceding that Iranian officials have long "sworn, over and over again, that [Iran] has never pursued nuclear weapons," Ghosh then gets to the crux of his claim:
If we're to believe the regime's claim, then Rouhani's threat makes no sense. The "old path" would simply be more "peaceful" nuclear research, allowing the sanctions to continue devastating the Iranian economy. That's not so much a threat as a flagellant's cry for help: "If you go back on your word, I’ll hurt myself."
To jump to such a conclusion requires a remarkably mistaken understanding of both the history of Iran's nuclear program and either the ignorance or dismissal of the massive concessions Iran has already made during ongoing international talks. Ghosh apparently suffers from both.

In an emblematically Ghoshian column on why the Iranian government is eviler than the Cuban government, Ghosh wrote on December 18, 2014, that Iran "was caught trying to build nuclear-weapons technology as recently as 2002, when its secret facilities at Arak and Nataz [sic] were discovered. Thereafter, under pressure from the US and the international community, the Tehran regime backed down from its policy of developing dual-use nuclear technology (for energy and weapons) and promised not to build bombs."

There's a lot wrong here, but I'll try to be quick (not my strong suit).

The facilities at Arak and Natanz were never "secret" nor do they "build nuclear-weapons technology." In 2002, they were both under construction and non-operational. Iran was, at that point, not obligated to declare their existence to the IAEA. Arak was designed as a power plant, Natanz is an enrichment site. Upon declaration, both have been subject to IAEA safeguards for over a decade. Iran's interest in developing an uranium enrichment industry has been open knowledge (and publicly acknowledged) since shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The Iranian government never "backed down" from a "policy of developing dual-use technology" and "promised not to build bombs" as Ghosh claims. Such a claim is bizarre. Beyond the fact that, as an original signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has in effect "promised not to build [nuclear] bombs" since 1968 and Iranian officials have - since at least the early 1990s - constantly and consistently condemned and prohibited any domestic development of nuclear weapons (not only after 2002), it is literally impossible for any nation with an ongoing enrichment program to stop the acquisition of "dual-use" nuclear infrastructure since every single enrichment program on Earth is inherently dual-use: enriched uranium can be used for both energy or weaponry.

With this false narrative, Ghosh has, however, set up a convenient straw man with which to bandy about his erroneous assumptions of Iran's nuclear past. This brings us back to his recent article.

In trying to hash out what Rouhani's "old path" statement means, Ghosh establishes two options - the bluff or the blackmail - one of which, he claims, must be true. The bluff is that, in Ghosh's words, "There’s no “old path,” and Tehran is simply trying to frighten the P5+1 into relenting on the remaining sticking points at the negotiating table in Vienna."

The blackmail, on the other hand, is a damning admission by the Iranian leader of a clandestine nuclear weapons program Iran has long denied having. "The alternative," Ghosh writes, "is that Rouhani has unwittingly revealed that Iran was indeed pursuing nukes. That would be a real threat, especially if he is also sincere in pursuing this path 'stronger than what they can imagine.'"

But there is a third option, unacknowledged by Ghosh, which is the most obvious and most accurate: Rouhani is not talking about a nuclear weapons program to return to, but rather the reestablishment of full-scale uranium enrichment, which has been curtailed by Iran's obligations under the terms of its diplomatic agreements since January 2014.

Ghosh doesn't tell his readers that, in the same interview he cites as "fascinating" and "belligerent," Rouhani said of his international interlocutors, "If they claim that they want to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, they should know that Iran has never sought to build nuclear weapons." Obviously, such a statement - in the very same interview - severely undermines the credibility of Ghosh's blackmail or blunder claim that Rouhani has either purposely or accidentally revealed something alarming about its nuclear work.

Under the terms of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, agreed to by Iran and the six powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States - known as the P5+1, Iran has halted all enrichment above 5%, diluted or disposed of its entire stockpile of 19.75% low-enriched uranium (LEU), converted the vast majority of its remaining stockpile of LEU to a form incapable of being weaponized, suspended upgrades and construction on its safeguarded nuclear facilities at Natanz, Fordow, and Arak, and allowed unprecedented access to its program by IAEA inspectors.

At every single juncture, Iran has complied fully with the demands of the plan.

All Rouhani was saying, therefore, is that these commitments - which were negotiated and agreed to by Iran, not imposed forcibly by foreign countries - would no longer be binding and Iran would resume its previous course of action, or "the old path." This previous course of action, still, was anything but a mysterious, opaque, nefarious development of dubious and deadly technology. Rather, even before current talks began, Iran's was the most heavily-scrutinized nuclear program on the planet and had been for years.

Rouhani's statement, therefore, was actually a fairly innocuous clarification of the fact that, if the P5+1 reneges on its own negotiated commitments, Iran will no longer abide by the deal either. That's hardly cause for Ghosh to collapse on his fainting couch.

What Ghosh also doesn't point out is that there is clear historical precedent for Rouhani's statement.

A dozen years ago, Iran's then-nascent uranium enrichment program was the subject of intensive diplomacy between Iran and the EU-3, shorthand for Britain, France and Germany. It was on Rouhani's watch - he was secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and lead negotiator at the talks - that Iran voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment in 2003 and accepted intrusive inspections above and beyond what was legally required by its safeguards agreement as talks progressed. During this period, the IAEA affirmed the peaceful nature of the program.

In mid-2004, with Iran fully complying with its obligations under Saadabad Agreement of October 2003, the negotiations were strained by the prospect of a new European-drafted IAEA resolution against Iran. President Mohammad Khatami told the press, in terms strikingly similar to Rouhani's recent statement, that Iran's voluntary suspension of enrichment would thus be endangered if the resolution passed.

"If the draft resolution proposed by the European countries is approved by the IAEA, Iran will reject it," Khatami said on June 18, 2004. "If Europe has no commitment toward Iran, then Iran will not have a commitment toward Europe."

A month later, Khatami insisted that "nothing stands in the way" of Iran "building and assembling centrifuges designed for uranium enrichment," reported the Associated Press.

Throughout the first half of 2005, Iranian officials were still intent on resolving the nuclear impasse through diplomacy with Europe, but explained that the resumption of "full-scale enrichment" was the ultimate goal of the talks, along with assurances that the program would remain forever peaceful.

Following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2005, outgoing president Khatami made the Iranian position clear. "We will never overlook our legal and national right for possessing nuclear technology and fuel cycle to generate electricity. Iran will never change its national policy in this respect," he said, adding, "We have made it clear that suspension of uranium enrichment will not be forever. We have displayed our good faith. Now, it is the turn of the European friends to do in line with the commitments they have made about the matter."

Regardless of the offer soon to be put forward by the EU-3, Khatami reiterated that Iran would resume its conversion activities and eventually enrichment as well, in line with its inalienable rights to development domestic, civilian nuclear technology. "I hope that the Europeans' proposals will, as agreed, allow for the resumption of [nuclear activities]," Khatami told reporters in late July 2005. "But if they do not agree, the system has already made its decision to resume [uranium conversion] at Isfahan."

Uranium conversion restarted in early August 2005.

It was only after Iran's European negotiating partners, at the behest of the Americans, reneged on their promise to offer substantive commitments and respect Iran's inalienable right to a domestic nuclear infrastructure that talks dissolved and Iran resumed enrichment. The proposal eventually brought to Iran by Western negotiators on August 5, 2005 has been described as "vague on incentives and heavy on demands," and even dismissed by one EU diplomat as "a lot of gift wrapping around an empty box."

In his 2011 memoir, former IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei described the European position in 2005 this way: "When Iran was already suspending its enrichment program, all it got in return was an offer made of hot air" due to the sad fact that the Europeans "were too afraid of opposition by the Americans to promise Iran Western nuclear power technology," as required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Thus, ElBaradei explained, the Iranians felt "they were being taken for a ride. And that is how this series of diplomatic failures began."

The resumption of full-scale enrichment by Iran had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, as the IAEA has affirmed consistently in quarterly reports over the past decade that no fissile material has ever been diverted to military purposes. Lingering questions about Iran's past work have long been debunked as unfounded allegations for which no credible evidence actually exists.

Rouhani's statement about "the old path" - that is, the legal and inalienable right of Iran to enrich uranium under international safeguards and supervision - therefore reveals nothing not previously known.

On the other hand, Ghosh's reaction to Rouhani's statement reveals the extent to which Ghosh himself will go to demonize and propagandize about Iran and its nuclear program. If he can't get the small stuff like this right, why are we listening to him about anything at all?

*****

Disclosure: I am an (often erstwhile) editor for the online magazine Muftah, which has recently announced a new partnership with Quartz, where Mr. Ghosh is managing editor.

*****

UPDATE:

In response to my critique of his uncritical thinking, Bobby Ghosh is now calling me names. Classy!

*****

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Von Hippel's "Really Good Idea" to Resolve the Nuclear Impasse Was Actually Iran's Idea First


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.

*****