12 March 2015

An immodest Iranian proposal

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security, and the anthropology of...

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LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND—In a worldwide news exclusive, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists can report that Iranian nuclear negotiators have shocked their American counterparts by announcing—after months of haggling over the minutiae of uranium enrichment—a 180-degree change in their negotiating position.

Looking tired after a negotiating session that stretched late into the night and apparently caught off-guard by a reporter’s question, a top Iranian negotiator, Arad Iqhal, offered the Bulletin a startling inside look at his country's new position: Iran has agreed to dismantle every bit of its nascent nuclear weapons capability, he said, if the United States complies with the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"The Iranian people can no longer withstand the sanctions," Mr. Iqhal said. "We have thrown in the towel. All the Americans have to do is follow a treaty they helped write back in the Beatles era. It should be simple."

US diplomats refused to confirm or deny having received the Iranian proposal. Senate Republicans immediately denounced it as treaty-mongering that threatens Israel.  

Over the last few months, negotiators from the major nuclear powers and Iran have sought to reach an agreement that limits Iran's nuclear program, focusing on moderate reductions in the infrastructure that could otherwise enable Iran to make a nuclear bomb. These reductions would be frozen in place for 10 years, keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons; a relaxation of sanctions against Iran would presumably be offered as a quid pro. Until today's stunning turn of events, Western negotiators had tacitly conceded that they cannot turn the clock back to 2003. In 2003, when Iran had far fewer centrifuges than it has now, it made an exploratory offer through a Swiss intermediary to freeze its nuclear program and make peace with Israel in return for normalized relations with the United States. The Bush Administration ignored the attempted opening.   

With 19,000 centrifuges to its name now, Iran is closer to a bomb-building capability than it was in 2003. But accepting that there is a limit to their ability to change facts on the ground, in the negotiations of the last few months US diplomats have focused on persuading Iran to shrink its stockpiles of enriched uranium, reduce the number of operating centrifuges to about 7,000, put its other centrifuges under seal, reconfigure the centrifuges so as to inhibit higher levels of enrichment, reduce the amount of plutonium generated by its reactor at Arak, and agree to intrusive international inspections. The goal has been to fence in Iran’s nuclear program so that it would take the country a year to build a bomb if it decided to renege on the agreement.  

The startling and radical proposal made by Iqhal today turned negotiations on their head; it would dispense with complex haggling over centrifuges and uranium stocks, and Iran would simply agree to comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if the United States also complied. Taking a page out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook, Iranian negotiators call their proposal “the Zero Option.” The Bulletin has learned from other Iranian sources that Iran would agree, under the terms of its offer, to publicly confess that it had had a secret nuclear weapons program and to commit to its step-by-step dismantlement, verified by international inspectors, over ten years.

During that time its centrifuges would be dismantled in batches of almost 2,000 a year, the heavy water reactor at Arak would be mothballed, and Iran’s secret weapons design team would be reassigned to other tasks. Iran’s stockpile of uranium would be blended down and turned into electricity in that country's pressurized water reactor at Bushehr. Iran would then rely on other countries, including Russia, to supply low-enriched uranium for its energy reactors and its medical program. Such a complete dismantlement of its nuclear program would go even further than the concessions demanded of Iran by the Bush Administration.

In return, the United States would have to agree to also be in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the end of ten years. In that treaty, now 45 years old, non-nuclear countries agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons if the five countries which had nuclear weapons agreed to end the arms race “at an early date” and then scrap their nuclear weapons. Under Article VI of that treaty, which the United States signed and which entered into force in 1970, Washington agreed that “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” In recent years, there has been increasing sentiment among diplomats outside the United States that it is out of compliance with Article VI, and there has even been talk of attempting to force the nuclear powers into compliance by passing a nuclear weapons ban treaty modeled on the 1997 landmine treaty. 

The Bulletin has learned that the Iranian delegation has taken a hard line in the closed-door negotiations in Geneva and Lausanne, insisting that 45 years is enough time for the United States to move into compliance with the NPT. Pointing out that the United States spends more on nuclear weapons research and development now than it did during the Cold War, Iqhal said sarcastically, “the US lectures us on a program that might one day produce a nuclear weapon, but the US has 8,000 of these demonic weapons and is planning to spend over $7 billion a year on nuclear weapons research and development to further improve those weapons. They call it modernization, but it is the perfection of mass killing. Maybe we should have international sanctions against the US with its 8,000 nuclear weapons, not against Iran which has none.” 

Iqhal’s comments come on the heels of other recent news reports that Iran’s foreign minister had expressed concern that "[o]ur intelligence estimates indicate that, if it is allowed to progress with its aggressive nuclear program, the United States may soon possess its 8,500th atomic weapon capable of reaching Iran."

Although he acknowledged its innovative elements, John G. Libb, an analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said that Iran’s proposal showed a lack of seriousness. “In its efforts to keep the world safe from nuclear war, the international community should be focused on the danger represented by countries that do not have nuclear weapons, not countries with thousands of them,” he said. 

I.L. Newcombe, a frequent commentator on Iran’s nuclear program for MSNBC News, said the Iranian proposal, while superficially attractive, was a policy non-starter. “Let’s be realistic here,” he said. “Since when does a small regional power get to insist that the world’s most powerful nation honor its treaty commitments?”

This column is satire. Some of the events described are not factual.