As the P5+1 countries and Iran continue negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the issue of uranium enrichment remains a divisive topic. The P5+1 countries and Iran hold seemingly incompatible views on Iran’s right to enrich uranium; they disagree about whether or not this right is guaranteed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). With both sides polarized, negotiators should seek a compromise that advances stability and trust between the involved parties rather than demanding the complete abandonment of Iran’s enrichment program.
The dispute over Iran’s enrichment program stems from both conflicting interpretations of NPT rhetoric and from the possible applications of enriched uranium. At low enrichment levels (20% and below), uranium can be used for nuclear power reactors and medical radioisotopes, examples of the peaceful purposes defended by Iran. At 90% enrichment, however, uranium can also be used to construct nuclear weapons for military purposes, a major security concern for the P5+1. Therefore, terms of the interim agreement reached at Geneva included the down-blending of Iran’s highly enriched stockpile and increased levels of IAEA access to Iranian nuclear facilities: measures created to ensure Iran’s nuclear program remain exclusively peaceful.
In past months, Iran has complied with terms negotiated at Geneva. According to recent IAEA reports, six of the measures agreed upon have already been fully implemented and others are in progress.[i] This, combined with Iran’s continued cooperation in multilateral talks, indicates that although the maintenance of a low-level enrichment program might remain a point of resistance in negotiations, Iran is nevertheless willing to sacrifice in certain areas and implement directives fairly. Now that this has been established, it is critical to find a point of compromise on the issue rather than assume extreme positions.
Aside from possible energy benefits, allowing Iran to maintain monitored, low-level enrichment programs would increase regional security. Neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have already praised the Geneva agreement for advancing the possibility of nuclear energy programs in the Middle East and for limiting the threat of Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. Allowing monitored enrichment would also set a new precedent for levels of IAEA inspection and involvement internationally, fostering greater transparency and trust between nuclear power countries. Smooth interactions in Iran would also bolster the IAEA’s reputation in the Middle East as a fair and unbiased agency. Finally, it would strengthen relationships between Iran and the P5+1 countries; continued implementation of safeguards would serve as confidence building measures, proving to Iran that its nuclear energy and research programs are not being threatened while proving to the international community that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.
If, on the other hand, the P5+1 countries were to insist that Iran abandon all enrichment, the possibility of a complete breakdown in negotiations would be imminent. Pushing this issue too far might result in greater backlash from the same hard-liner groups that berated Iranian officials for “selling out” during the Geneva agreement, creating a less favorable environment towards any future progress.[ii] A termination of talks would do nothing to strengthen regional stability; additionally, it would only reinforce the perception of Western powers as hypocritical and bullying in their treatment of Iran.
Rather than eliminating enrichment completely, limiting Iran’s capacity and stockpile so that it does not exceed the supply needs of nuclear power and research programs is a mutually beneficial alternative. Complete elimination might ensure that Iran wouldn’t acquire nuclear weapons, but it would not foster long-term stability or security. Furthermore, limiting enrichment sets a precedent for restraint and transparency, as Iran sets caps, converts materials, and agrees to intrusive onsite checks and other security measures from the IAEA.
[i] IAEA Board Report. 20 February 2014. http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iaeairan/iaea_reports.shtml
[ii] Erdbrink, Thomas. New York Times. 9 March 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/world/middleeast/iran-nuclear-program.html?_r=1