A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

by Author(s): Brent Scowcroft

ARE WE pursuing the right strategy to ensure that Iran (or, for that matter, any other aspirant nuclear power) does not cross the threshold to join the ranks of nuclear weapons states?

To deter Tehran, it is essential that there be a united front between the United States, the European Union, Russia and China to prevent Iran from exploiting any differences or finding any sort of wiggle room that would allow it to continue with its program.

The issue, of course, is that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran--as well as any other signatory of the NPT--is entitled to a fuel cycle as part of its right to peacefully utilize nuclear energy for civilian use. The problem is that the process and equipment for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel for peaceful purposes is identical to that for producing weapons-grade material.

What we need to do, therefore, is find a mechanism that will allow all NPT countries to enjoy all of the benefits of a civilian nuclear energy program while preventing the production of weapons-grade nuclear material under close supervision.

The permanent five members of the Security Council should be prepared to make the following offer to Iran. Acknowledging that Tehran has every right to exploit nuclear energy for civilian use, Iran should be guaranteed an adequate supply of nuclear fuel for its reactors (under a use-and-return system such as that proposed by Russia) in return for abiding by all IAEA regulations. This, in turn, should serve as the basis for a new international fuel-cycle regime that applies to all countries. Any approach to stemming nuclear proliferation that singles out specific countries--such as the Bush Administration is doing with Iran--is not likely to succeed.

The first step should be an immediate freeze on all new capacity for the enrichment and reprocessing of uranium anywhere in the world. I am concerned about a trend that we see reflected in the U.S.-India nuclear deal where we try to address proliferation risks by assessing the character of regimes and governments. Such an approach also opens up divisions among the world's nuclear powers, with each making a list of "friends" who can be trusted with nuclear technology and "foes" who are dangerous risks. Iran is certainly trying to capitalize on perceived disagreements between the United States, Europe, Russia and the China. Focusing on a process eliminates such loopholes--this freeze would apply equally to Iran, Brazil, South Korea, Argentina or any other state that is contemplating developing an enrichment and reprocessing capability, regardless of whether they are democracies, dictatorships or something in between.

Once the ban is in place, the next step would be to work out the mechanism, under the guidance and supervision of the IAEA, as to how enriched fuel would be delivered, utilized and returned to supervised facilities. The Bush Administration's proposal for a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (where member states of the nuclear supply group would provide enriched uranium to customers around the world) is a step in the right direction, but in its present form it lacks guarantees that all countries would have access to adequate supplies of nuclear fuel. This arrangement would still give individual suppliers the ability to arbitrarily cut off or suspend deliveries. What is needed is an international guarantor so that countries that currently lack their own indigenous fuel-enrichment cycle would always have access to nuclear fuel. Indeed, it may be in the interests of the leading nuclear states (perhaps under the auspices of the G-8) to subsidize such a program, so that no country would have an economic rationale to defy the ban and proceed with developing an indigenous fuel cycle, on the grounds that relying on the international system might prove too costly.

Could this proposal serve as the basis of a workable settlement with Iran? It could certainly take the wind out of the sails of the Ahmadinejad approach, which has relied on using the nuclear issue--and the perception that Iran is being denied its legitimate rights--to stir up Iranian nationalism in order to distract the population from the pressing domestic problems of the regime. Having the international community--and the United States in particular--take at face value Iran's claims that it needs a civilian nuclear energy program in order to reduce reliance on diminishing hydrocarbon reserves and cut down on a growing pollution problem caused by fossil fuels--places more pressure on the Iranian government to demonstrate its good intentions. A U.S.-led international front that starts out by recognizing that Iran has legitimate rights and concerns could go far in depriving the current regime of its ability to utilize Iranian nationalism in this crisis. And should the Iranian government reject an international proposal that implicitly recognizes and safeguards its rights to a nuclear energy program under the NPT, it would become easier to convince other leading states of the need for sanctioning the regime.

Iran's strategy remains predicated on the assumption that no "united front" is possible, that even if the United States, the European Union, Russia and China all agree that a nuclear-capable Iran is undesirable, disagreement over tactics will preclude any effective action. The Bush Administration needs to be prepared to find common ground with the other permanent members of the Security Council. This includes being prepared to talk to the Iranians and to put the question of security guarantees on the table. Indeed, something that might develop as a result of this process would be a move toward giving all non-nuclear states firm security guarantees about safeguarding their independence and territorial integrity as a way to further provide incentives for current non-nuclear states not to pursue a nuclear program.

I have found the Europeans and Russians that I have discussed these ideas with to be supportive of moving toward creating such an international regime to control the fuel cycle. But we also need to recognize that, in the case of Iran, we need to be prepared to strike deals with the other major powers to take their interests into account. In particular, China is caught between its stated desire not to see Iran become a nuclear weapons state and its growing energy dependence on Iran. The United States and other countries should be prepared to guarantee to China that if, as a result of pressure placed on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program, oil and gas supplies to China are affected, all efforts will be undertaken to minimize the disruption to the Chinese economy, and at a minimum that China would suffer no more than anyone else. We should be prepared to offer similar considerations to other countries (such as Russia or European countries) who might have to put significant economic interests at risk in order to apply pressure against Iran. We should never take the stance that "virtue is its own reward" when dealing with a serious issue like nuclear non-proliferation.

Nuclear weapons technology is no longer a closely guarded secret in the possession of a handful of countries. And an approach that relies on determining the character of regimes to assess worthiness to use nuclear energy is full of loopholes. Only by creating a new international regime--and applying it without exception across the board--can we hope to guarantee that all countries can enjoy the benefits of nuclear energy without risking the spread of the world's deadliest weapons.

Brent Scowcroft is president and founder of the Scowcroft Group. He served as national security advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush.

Essay Types: Essay