I've some bad news for progressives - Iran isn't going to stop enriching uranium to reactor fuel standards. Both Iran's UN Envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh and Foreign Minister Mottaki have now said earlier reports that Iran would consider a halt to domestic enrichment if a "legally-binding instrument for assurance of supply" was available were based upon a misunderstanding. Talking to Iran's FARS news agency, Soltanieh said he had only talked about how, in the past, other nations broke their promises to supply Iran with enriched uranium. He said he rejects "whatever is reflected otherwise."
That's a blow to progressives who had hoped that exactly such an incentive could be used in diplomatic negotiations by an Obama administration, but isn't at all surprising. As Soltanieh pointed out, America and France both reneged on promises to supply Iran with nuclear fuel in the past. Russia, too, has temporarily suspended then restarted fuel supplies recently, playing the by now familiar game of great power energy politics and reminding Iran of just how dependent it is on Russian largess at the UNSC.
If George W. Bush were president of Iran, he certainly wouldn't suspend enrichment for any reason. Neither would John McCain or Barack Obama. All have backed the concept of domestic energy independence from the whims of other nations, from vagaries of resource availability and from intentional use of energy resources as leverage over America's actions. Why should Iran be any different?
I've set out before the basic reason why Iran wants nuclear power - as a means of turning oil into hard currency instead of electricity and smoke. It is the same reason it always has been - the same reason Rumsfeld used to sell the Shah of Iran's first reactor and one touted at the time by American companies hoping to make money from foreign nuclear projects.
But domestic enrichment has a twofold civilian purpose for Iran. One is energy security - an essential part of any nation's national security as even the most avid "bomb Iran" neocon acknowledges. The second is, again, all about the money.
Iran's closing of the nuclear fuel cycle is a direct threat to the Bush administration's plan for a very lucrative nuclear fuel cartel. Way back when, Mohammed el Baradei and the IAEA suggested setting up an international consortium to manage nuclear fuel, ensuring that every nation with a civilian program could get access to an uninterrupted supply as long as it kept to the NPT and at the same time ensuring the IAEA would have an unprecedented ability to monitor the whereabouts and usage of nuclear fuel worldwide. As soon as Dubya heard about it he suggested an alternative, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) which would be US-led and US controlled. It would make money for the same energy companies that have always overwhelmingly supported the GOP with donations and let the US indulge in a fair bit of big power energy leverage itself - by primarily selling enriched uranium to nations like Egypt and the Gulf States who have announced wishes for several nuclear power plants.
Uranium is at its highest price ever and is expected to keep rising for the next two decades at least. If Iran can make money from selling enriched uranium outwith any US cartel, then so might others - and sidestep the unfortunate (to them) leverage they'd be granting America.
Nor is it a necessary step that enriching uranium leads to weapons production. Australia has been actively consideringa massive multi-billion investment in enriching and reprocessing facilities so that it can engage in this lucrative fuel trade. Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands all have enrichment facilities but no nukes(as do non-weapon nations Belgium, Italy and Spain who hold an investment interest in the French Eurodif enrichment plant). The Bush administration are aggressively pushing their new enrichment and reprocessing ventures even though the U.S. uses plutonium rather than uranium in its weapons. Ditto with France, the UK, Russia and China. Despite what the neocons would say, there is no necessary inference from enrichment to a weapons program.
The way forward, it seems to me, is to resurrect the IAEA's proposal for an international consortium. That way, all nations who are involved in enrichment can sell to the lucrative international market under IAEA supervision, with IAEA access throughout - thus cutting the chances of material being redirected to weapons programs. It's a notion that Iran has already supported but that the Bush administration does not.
Once negotiators have the right "carrot", negotiations become possible. In a guest post at Washington Monthly, Faith Smith from the New America Foundation writes:
An agreement to meet, formally--no more backroom meetings--would be a great show of respect to the country and its citizens. Sanctions and rhetoric have done exactly the opposite of their intended goal. The more we try to push Iran into a corner, the stronger their resolve and regional support. The moderates in Iran are weakened by a stubborn US administration and Ahmadinejad is proven correct.
If a policy does not work, it must be revisited or scrapped entirely. There is no glory in sticking with a failing policy especially when failure is likely to lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
We must talk to Iran. The international community has been doing so since 1979, but not the US. Let's be clear, this does not necessarily mean talking to Ahmadinejad. There are alternative high level channels that are more moderate and approachable. In fact, Ahmadinejad might be out of a job soon. There may well be pragmatic presidents in both Iran and the United States before the end of the year.
If you ask about their intransigence to the IAEA's consortium idea, State has a difficulty trying to come up with a reason for saying "no" that doesn't transparently translate to "but...the money!" The neocons in the Fourth Branch and McCain camp have difficulty trying to come up with reasons to say "no" that don't transparently translate us "but...the war!" Biden and Obama make noises about Iran's gaining of a nuclear weapon being "unacceptable" because saying otherwise is political suicide in America's climate of militaristic fetishism. Biden at least seems to really believe it, and to believe against all the evidence that Iran is about to develop just such a weapon any moment now. Obama may well believe it too - but there should be better reasons than "the money" and "the war" for not trying to talk, and there just aren't.