Reports that Iran and Russia have reached an agreement on a plan for the joint enrichment of Iran’s uranium in Russia have eased fears of a major international confrontation over Iran’s nuclear plans. But this danger has by no means been eliminated. Without a permanent resolution of the dispute agreeable to both the United States and Iran, the prospect of an armed clash will grow increasingly severe. Such a clash might not entail full-scale war, but it could trigger an uncontrollable explosion of sectarian and religious strife throughout the Middle East. Preventing such a clash is among the most pressing tasks facing the international community today.
At heart this dispute revolves around Iranian efforts to enrich natural uranium (i.e., increase its content of fissionable U-235) in its own facilities–either for use as a fuel in civilian power plants, as claimed by Tehran, or as the core of nuclear bombs, as claimed by Washington. Enrichment activities of this sort aren’t prohibited by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran signed in 1968, but would constitute a breach if the highly enriched uranium was used for military purposes.
The problem for international regulators is that the enrichment technology used to make civilian reactor fuel–in this case, uranium gas centrifuges–can also be used to make highly enriched uranium, and it’s not possible to determine the objective of such an operation until it’s well under way. Accordingly, those who fear that Iran is intent on obtaining nuclear weapons seek to prevent any enrichment from taking place there; the Iranians, for their part, insist that they have every right under the NPT to conduct such activities for peaceful uses and that interference with that right would constitute an intolerable assault on their sovereignty.
Under pressure from Britain, France and Germany, Iran agreed in 2004 to suspend enrichment activities at its pilot plant in Natanz while negotiating a permanent solution to the dispute. However, when the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted on February 4 to communicate its suspicions concerning Iran’s nuclear objectives to the United Nations Security Council–a step that could lead to economic sanctions against Iran–Tehran announced that it would terminate its voluntary freeze on enrichment. Since then, Iran has resumed small-scale enrichment at Natanz, thereby upping the ante.
If the plan for a joint Iranian-Russian enrichment enterprise proceeds, and Iran ceases activities at Natanz, the ground will be cleared for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. However, if the Russian plan fails or if the Iranians continue operations, the risk of a crisis will grow. Should the Security Council vote to impose sanctions, Tehran might decide to withdraw from the NPT altogether (as some officials have threatened) and commence an even more ambitious enrichment effort. And should UN sanctions fail to prevent this, pressure from right-wing hawks in Washington for a military solution could prove irresistible in light of George W. Bush’s pledge to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.