The Latest IAEA Report: Iran’s Peace Overture to the U.S.?

Photo by David Yaghoobi.

Los Angeles

Tehran Bureau | a⋅nal⋅y⋅sis

The International Atomic Energy Agency just released its latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. The most important aspect of IAEA’s latest report on the program, overlooked or ignored in the propaganda against Iran, is that Iran has slowed down increasing the number of centrifuges in Natanz that are operating to produce low-enriched uranium. According to the IAEA report, as of February 1, 2009, Iran had 3936 centrifuges that were being fed with uranium hexafluoride, 1476 centrifuges installed and under vacuum (in preparation for being fed), and 125 installed but not under vacuum, for a total 5537 centrifuges, a number somewhat smaller than around 6000 centrifuges that many experts had expected. But, most importantly, the number of operating and productive centrifuges has not increased dramatically over the past many months.

There are two plausible explanations for the slow down, which are in fact complimentary. One is that Iran is waiting to see how the Obama administration is going to approach the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program in particular, and U.S.-Iran relations in general. This is totally consistent with the conciliatory messages and signals that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has been sending since the election of Barack Obama in November 2008. Surely, in addition to their desire for improving Iran’s relations with the United States under the present devastating global recession, the prospects of negotiating with a U.S. president whose middle name is Hussein, the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and one of the most revered figures in Shi’ite Islam, is intriguing and enticing to the Iranian leaders.

The second explanation is that there are behind-the-scene negotiations between the United States and Iran, of which the public is unaware. Even if there are no such negotiations, the fact is that both sides have been sending positive signals, that it may be responsible for what Iran has done regarding its uranium-enrichment program.

Take, for example, the recent announcement that the U.S. State Department has declared PEJAK, a Kurdish rebel group that launches raids into Iran from the Kurdish region of Iraq, a terrorist organization. PEJAK (which stands for Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan) is, in fact, the Iranian branch of the Kurdish group PKK that has been fighting with Turkey for decades, and has been classified a terrorist organization by the United States. In addition, PEJAK forces have apparently been expelled from the region near the Iran-Iraq border. Given the close cooperation between the Kurdish forces in Iraq and the United States, it is difficult to imagine that this could have taken place without at least tacit U.S. consent and support. Thus, Iran may be returning the favor to the United States by not increasing the number of centrifuges that are actually producing low-enriched uranium.

In addition, the IAEA report states that all of Iran’s nuclear materials, research, and development are being monitored and safeguarded by the Agency. There has been no divergence of nuclear material, in line with Iran’s repeated contention that its nuclear program is peaceful. Thus, Iran has carried out its obligations under the provisions of its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

The seemingly negative part of the report has to do with the IAEA’s requests to visit certain sites in Iran. Most of the requests by the IAEA to visit the sites in Iran, which have been turned down by Iran, are covered by the Additional Protocol of the Safeguards Agreement, which Iran is not currently implementing, (not with Iran’s Safeguards Agreement). There is a brief history behind Iran’s refusal.

In October 2003, the government of President Mohammad Khatami signed the Sa’dabad Agreement (named so after Iran’s presidential palace) with Britain, France, and Germany (EU3), that committed it to signing the Additional Protocol and carrying out its provision on a volunteer basis, until the Iranian parliament ratified the Agreement. In the Paris Agreement of November 2004, Iran reaffirmed its intentions. In return, the EU3 promised Iran that it would present a proposal that would address Iran’s aspirations for having access to advanced nuclear technology, as well as the EU3 concerns regarding the nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

However, the proposal that EU3 presented Iran in August 2005 was long in a list of demands and essentially nil on concessions to Iran. Among other things, the EU3 demanded that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment program, thus demanding elimination of major “facts on the ground,” namely, the enrichment and related facilities and all the R&D work, in return for some vague promises in the distant future. No sane nation would agree to that.

Thus, after some negotiations, Iran suspended its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol in February 2006. The United Nations Security Council does not have any legal rights to demand Iran to implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol, because the Iranian parliament has not ratified it, and it is Iran’s sovereign right to refuse implementing an agreement that it has not accepted.

Most of the visits requests stated by the IAEA in its latest report are covered by the Additional Protocol, toward which Iran has no obligations. However, the latest report by the IAEA also states that since March 2007, the Agency has carried out 21 unannounced visits to Iran’s nuclear sites.

Such intrusive and unannounced visits are an important part of the Additional Protocol. Therefore, Iran is still selectively and voluntarily carrying out some provisions of the Additional Protocol.

Regarding the Arak reactor and the IAEA request to visit the under-construction facility, such visits are covered by the modified text of the Subsidiary Arrangements (Code 3.1) of its Safeguards Agreement.

Iran had agreed to the modified text, part of which states that Iran must allow inspection of the under-construction sites. However, because the EU3 reneged on its promises, Iran suspended the implementation of the modified text in February 2006, and went back to its original Safeguards Agreement, signed in 1974. The original Subsidiary Arrangements states that only 180 days prior to the introduction of any nuclear material into a nuclear facility does Iran have the obligation to allow visits and inspection.

Thus, Iran has no legal obligations towards the Agency regarding the Arak reactor.

So overall, despite the propaganda and bogus alarms, the IAEA report actually indicates positive developments in the thorny issue of Iran’s nuclear program.

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