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Iran: Russian Expert Talks About Salvaging Compromise From Nuclear Impasse

Aleksei Arbatov (Courtesy Photo) On March 7, Radio Farda correspondent Fariba Mavaddat discussed the dispute over Iran's nuclear program -- and possible implications for U.S. foreign policy -- with Aleksei Arbatov, who heads the International Security Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences' World Economy and International Relations Institute (IMEMO). Arbatov is the author of numerous books and publications on global security and disarmament issues. He talked about ways to bide "warning time," Tehran at a crossroads, and uniting the international effort to extract a compromise from Iran. The following is an edited version of that interview. Radio Farda first asked Arbatov about the possible benefits of any deal that might allow Tehran to pursue small-scale uranium enrichment.

Aleksei Arbatov: [Under that type of deal] Iran gains technological expertise and some working equipment for the enrichment of uranium because it will be permitted to retain what is called "scientific research" in this area. It will be denied large-scale, industrial production facilities for enrichment. That means if Iran finally decides still to go for it, which would mean a decision to go eventually for the acquisition of nuclear weapons, then it will still have to spend several years -- maybe four or five years -- before Iran can reach this goal. As of now, without even a scientific-research enrichment capability, Iran would be as much as 10 years away from nuclear weapons at the moment of a hypothetical decision to "go for it."

So we are basically -- since Iran already has some elements of nuclear infrastructure and is keen on developing further its nuclear -- peaceful -- energy industry, we are basically arguing and negotiating about the lead time that would be left to Iran if Iran makes a decision to go for nuclear weapons.

Now it is 10 years. If Iran acquires not only research enrichment skills and technology but also large-scale industrial technology, it will be one year from decision to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The compromise, which is apparently being discussed now and will probably be supported by the IAEA, is a lead time of about five years. Well, five years is a long time, and, for the world community, it [would] have enough time to reconvene again in the IAEA and to take a decision to the Security Council of the United Nations, to take actions to prevent Iran in whatever way from acquiring nuclear weapons.

If Iran in two years decides to go for full-scale industrial uranium enrichment, which would be a signal to the world community that a decision has been taken to eventually go for nuclear weapons -- if you interpret it in this way -- then it is a reasonable compromise. Because you have to keep in mind that legally there are no grounds to deny Iran what is called a "full nuclear-fuel cycle" for peaceful purposes provided that the cycle, all the technology and sites, are under IAEA safeguards, inspections, and supervision. Iran is ready to go for it. The world community is afraid that if Iran is permitted to have all that, then one day Iran might decide to expel IAEA safeguards, equipment, and inspections and go for nuclear weapons and will only need about a year to already have nuclear weapons. So, what we are gaining here is several years of warning time, which is as much as you can bargain for.

Radio Farda: But where would that leave the United States? The United States would be very disappointed...

Arbatov: The United States certainly is not getting what it wanted to get. But you never get everything; you only get some semblance of the ideal. We are not living in an ideal world.

North Korea has shown the example of a country which openly withdrew from the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty and declared possession of nuclear weapons. Where does that leave the United States? I think it leaves the United States in a much worse position.

So Iran is still several years away from this situation, and if it makes a commitment for a two-year break or a two-year respite before it takes a decision on industrial production, there is at least two years to work out a more effective policy. And if after that Iran [opts] for large-scale industrial production, then the United States would have to apply its resources to unite all other countries, including Russia, Western Europe, China, and India to take much stronger measures against Iranian development of large-scale industrial enrichment, which then would be a signal to the world community that Iran has taken a decision to go for nuclear weapons.

Radio Farda: But the fact that it was [reported that] Russia floated a proposal...might it be seen as a serious rift between Russia and the United States? [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov subsequently denied the existence of any deal between Moscow and Tehran to allow for small-scale uranium enrichment in Iran.]

Arbatov: I think that if this facility in Natanz, which will be considered a scientific-experimental site with several dozen centrifuges -- 160 or 200 -- small-scale production centrifuges, if this facility is under the permanent and very vigorous monitoring of the IAEA, then Russia might tell the United States [that] it still leaves a lot of time to take necessary measures if Iran decides to go for large-scale industrial production. Moreover, since all countries would have a stake in the present compromise, an Iranian decision to break out of this compromise certainly would make it much easier for all other countries to unite in a common, united coalition to prevent Iran from going there.

Radio Farda: But everyone needs a face-saving formula. [In the event of a deal to allow for small-scale enrichment in Iran] I see Iran's face being saved by keeping a small-scale enrichment operation. The EU [saves] face because it manages to convince Iran to forego large-scale enrichment Where [would] that leave the United States?

Arbatov: It [would leave] the United States in a situation in which it can say that we have gone for a small compromise -- leaving Iran with the right to have a small-scale research facility. It is impossible to enrich a sufficient quantity of weapons-grade uranium using this facility, all the more so because it [would] be permanently under the very rigorous supervision of the IAEA. And, moreover, we [would] have achieved the political unity of all other countries that matter, which is based on an agreement that going from small-scale to large-scale, industrial capacity -- which Iran really might want if it decides to acquire nuclear weapons -- that would be considered almost as an act of war and a clear signal that Iran is planning to withdraw from the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty. Then, on that basis, it would be much easier to have a joint decision even in the Security Council.

Otherwise, well, politics is the art of the possible and the achievable. If the United States didn't get itself bogged down up to their ears in Iraq, they would be certainly in a much stronger position to apply some pressure on Iran. But their hands are completely tied and they know that if you calculate this whole process several steps ahead and think what can you do to Iran if you apply sanctions -- even through the United Nations Security Council -- to say nothing of unilateral actions....

But even if the United Nations Security Council approves sanctions, what can you do to Iran when the United States is now so vulnerable and so unhappy in Iraq? They should have thought about all that a long time ago, when they were contemplating the military operation in Iraq. And many people warned them about that. It is not as if it turned out unexpectedly. Many people -- myself included -- were pleading with the United States not to commit this irresponsible action because it would make fighting for nonproliferation -- in particular in the cases of North Korea and Iran -- that much more difficult. They didn't listen to this and now they have to pay for it.

U.S. IAEA Governor Gregory Schulte

U.S. IAEA Governor Gregory Schulte

THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY SPEAKS: Listen to excerpts from a November 22 Radio Farda interview with Gregory Schulte, the U.S. representative on the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


Listen to the complete interview:
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THE COMPLETE STORY: For RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program, click here.

CHRONOLOGY: An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.