Iran’s Japan Option

Last week, representatives from Iran and the so-called “P5+1” — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — met in Geneva to try to reduce tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. The meeting was widely hailed as a success, although what exactly was agreed, and what may happen next, are nearly anyone’s guess.

From Iran’s perspective, the meeting could not have gone better. Iran didn’t agree to suspend its enrichment of uranium, or even to suspend construction of a new underground uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom. According to Iranian news media, the suspension of uranium enrichment was never even discussed, and appears to have been a de facto precondition for talks. This, Iran argues, is a tacit recognition of Iran’s right, as a sovereign nation and as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Likewise, the threat of “crippling sanctions” was never made, at least within the confines of the meeting. Economic sanctions seem unlikely to have any effect, and this is probably why they were never on the table. With so few economic ties between the countries, America has little economic leverage over Iran. The US has already confiscated all possible Iranian assets and sold them off to compensate victims of “state sponsors of terrorism,” and that’s about as tough as a sanctioner can get. Public threats to block the sale of refined gasoline to Iran were met by offers from Venezuela and China to take up the slack. Most likely, crippling sanctions weren’t proposed simply because Iran would recognize such threats as a bluff.

Barack Obama also declared the meeting a success, although it’s unclear what he has actually achieved, other than a slight change in tone in US-Iranian relations. Obama has held off neoconservative warhawks for the time being, if that was his goal. Whatever other game plan he may have had went out the window when Iran disclosed the Qom facility just days before the Geneva meeting. This shifted the debate, from how to convince Iran to change its course, to demanding that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be allowed to inspect the facility “within two weeks.”

The American reaction to the disclosure was both hasty and defensive. Officials argued that they’d known about the Qom facility for years, and had intended to surprise the Iranians with their knowledge at the Geneva meeting. Iran must have gotten wind of their plans, they said, and disclosed the facility to avoid embarrassment. This story doesn’t hold water, though. First of all, there’s no denying the benefit Iran received to its negotiating position. Practically nothing was discussed except for whether and when Iran would allow the IAEA to inspect the facility. And, of course Iran will allow IAEA inspections. Iran highly values its relationship with the IAEA, its first line of defense against the kind of disaster precipitated by Hans Blix’ inconclusive search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Excavation of the underground facility was obvious from satellite imagery, and its purpose could not have remained a secret indefinitely. The timing of the disclosure turned what might have been a problem into a negotiating advantage. It was clearly meant to influence the Geneva meeting. That’s more likely than believing Iran was able to discover the P5+1’s strategy going into Geneva.

There is some debate over whether Iran was legally obligated to disclose the facility six months before it went online, or when construction of the facility first began. According to the original terms of the NPT, which were signed and ratified by Iran, Iran only needed to give six months notice. Iran says that the Qom facility is still 18 months away from completion, and it has met its legal obligations. The legal history is a little more complex, though. An additional protocol to the NPT, Section 3.1, requires all signatories to inform the IAEA at the time construction of any new facilities began, and Iran initially agreed to the amendment. Iran’s parliament refused to ratify it, and Iran informed the IAEA that it did not consider itself bound by Section 3.1. Iran did not, then, violate its legal obligations by not disclosing the Qom facility when construction first began, since the amendment never became binding law, but it did put itself on “the wrong side of the law,” as outgoing IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei put it. Or, at least on the wrong side of the other signatories of the NPT.

Obama prepared for Geneva by making his own surprise announcement: the US would be scrapping a nascient missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The program might have been cancelled for budgetary reasons, or to improve relations with Russia in order to secure Russian support for crippling sanctions. Nevertheless, the reason given to the public was that “western intelligence” had determined that Iran was not as far along in its missile development program as originally thought, and was no longer believed to be capable of striking Europe. This was answered within days by an Iranian missile test, clearly demonstrating Iran’s ability to strike Eastern Europe, if that was ever an issue. The missile test was misperceived by many as a threatening gesture, but seems to have been intended to put the lie to Obama’s stated reason for trash-canning the missile shield.

Initial news reports seemed disappointed that the two sides had had an amicable meeting, and that another one would be scheduled in two weeks time. No frightening options on the table, and no scandalous insults to report. A typical headline reads “Iran agrees to let in inspectors. ((“Iran agrees to let in inspectors,” by Jason Koutsoukis, The Age, Oct 3, 2009.)) Buried within this particular article was a quote from Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, saying that Iran had agreed to export low-enriched uranium from a small research facility in Tehran producing isotopes for medical purposes, for further enrichment outside of Iran. According to Mr. Solana, this tentative agreement did not apply to the main Iranian enrichment facility in Natanz.

Some hours later, Barack Obama gave a press conference and broke the big news: Iran had agreed, “in principle” to transfer the majority of its stockpile of low enriched uranium to Russia, and then to France, where it would be enriched to 19.75%, a level needed for the medical isotope reactor. ((“Iran, Major Powers Reach Agreement On Series of Points: Obama Sees a ‘Constructive Beginning’,” by Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, October 2, 2009.)) This was widely seen as a breakthrough in the negotiations. As Iran continued enriching uranium and building another enrichment plan, the international community would buy up its supply,

refine it to the level needed to make medical isotopes (but not enough to make weapons), and everyone would be happy. Well, almost everyone, anyway. Neoconservative commentator John Bolton argues that rather than being a clever way to reduce Iran’s stockpile, Iran could simply enrich the material in 19.75% fuel rods to weapons grade at a later date.

A day later, Peyman Jebelli, Press Secretary for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council told Iranian Press TV that Obama’s story was untrue. Iran had offered to purchase 19.75% refined uranium from the West, he said, not to transfer its own stockpile for offshore processing. Press TV reiterated the denial in another story the following day, citing unnamed Iranian officials. ((“Iran: We reached no deal to ship nuclear fuel,” Press TV, Oct 3, 2009.)) One of Iran’s threats all along has been to increase its enrichment from 3.5% to 19.75%, inching its way towards High Enriched Uranium (HEU), the fuel for nuclear weapons, if the West refused to provide it. So, between Javier Solana, Barack Obama, and the Iranian Press Secretary, the main issue in the next round of negotiations would seem to be that of the medical isotopes. Iran seems likely to go along with this idea, although it may be uneasy about putting its entire uranium stockpile in the hands of the French, even for a short time.

Several other aspects of Obama’s press conference are worth noting. Obama gave Iran a two week deadline to allow the IAEA to inspect the Qom facility. But when Mr. ElBaredei visited Tehran two days later, he agreed with the Iranians that inspections would occur on October 25. ((“IAEA to inspect Fordo facility late October,” Press TV, Oct 4, 2009. )) This not only snubbed Obama’s deadline. It also placed the inspection a week after the next P5+1 meeting, scheduled for October 19th. This preserves the inspection of the Qom facility as an distracting issue, such that Iran will probably not have to make any real concessions at the next meeting, either.

This is not to say that Iran is getting everything it wanted in the negotiations. The West has successfully narrowed the agenda of the meetings to Iran’s nuclear program. The meetings don’t look like a prelude to more general discussions about nuclear disarmament, which Iran would love to be involved in. But the hawks have been outmaneuvered for now, and absent some further provocation from Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Western press may soon grow bored with the Iranian nuclear story. After all, this has been going on for years and years. There is really nothing new about it, and still no indication that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Many people do believe that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, though, and there seems to be a mad rush to prove it. But there is a far simpler explanation, which is self-evident when you think about it. If Iran has the capability to enrich uranium to weapons-grade, and has a significant stockpile of low enriched uranium, it could further enrich the stockpile and produce nuclear weapons on fairly short notice. This is sometimes referred to as “the Japan option,” although Brazil also has this capability. Having a Japan option is a deterrence in itself. Just as no one needs to actually use nuclear weapons to realize their political leverage, if you’re always six months away from having a nuclear weapon, you already have a significant deterrent capability. Case in point: a few months ago, the Japanese parliament debated whether to develop nuclear weapons in response to threatening gestures made by North Korea. I’m sure the Japanese debate was heard loud and clear in Pyongyang.

Considering what happened to its neighbors in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s desire for a nuclear Japan option is understandable. We shouldn’t automatically side with the “international community” against Iran. We should balance the goal of nuclear nonproliferation against the legitimate concerns of the Iranian people. These include both security and technological development. The Japan option may be safer than we think.

Paul Wolf is a human rights lawyer currently living in Apartado, Colombia. He has appeared as a legal expert in various Iranian media, including Press TV, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), and Hamshahri. Read other articles by Paul.

5 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on October 6th, 2009 at 11:55am #

    Well, if 200 countries and 10k atomic experst don’t know what is going on i iran’s nuclear power plants, it is time call on josephine, the plummer, to visit the plants and tell us what is happening there.
    Maybe, she might even pay a visit to dimona. And on to n.korea to make sure that korea’s is not lying ab. having nukes.
    I think that korea is lying about having a nuke. Iran shld emulate korea and the mad christians and talmudniks might leave iran alone.
    Folks, if your mad neighbor, is flashing a gun, u better get one or two self.
    U’ll see the change u hoped for! tnx

  2. Christian Louboutin Boots said on October 6th, 2009 at 11:58pm #

    Be sure to read the whole account and follow the links. It’s an insightful look at what makes a man like Bill Ayers tick – spoiled rich kid turned radical, yet still willing to take a hand up from his rich daddy. He’s

  3. DDearborn said on October 7th, 2009 at 7:32am #


    I think a relevant question to be asking is “why is the US still swinging after the bell? That is to say, Iran has agreed to ship most of its uranium to Russia for enrichment and then onto France for transformation into fuel rods. This simple agreement makes it virtually impossible for the Iranians to build bombs. And of course there has been zero evidence presented to the world that they even have this capability. As a signatory on the NPT Iran has every legal right to utlize atomic power if it so desires. And like every other signatory it has allowed inspection of all its facilities. (Israel refuses to sign or allow inspections) So why is the US and its lapdog media along with Israel still acting as if there was an imminient threat? Obviously the media is still in a frenzy because Israel is still demanding that another one of its neighbors be attacked. And of course the massive press coverage of the “Iranian threat” neatly covered the delivery to Israel of 2 nuclear equiped attack submarines last week. These subs are designed to be OFFENSIVE weapons systems.

  4. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on October 7th, 2009 at 11:53am #

    May be the christo-talmudic wars planners don’t know waht they are doing or shld do but, i infer, they surely know what they or their masters [world plutos] want.
    And forget about finding out. They ain’t gonna tell u! It’s the planet they want and world-wide a plutocratic rule.
    The rule will be known to school children as a “world democracy” and best ever.
    The wars planners may even know that iran cannot make a nuke. However, with 98% of americans voting for uncle sam and thus everything he does or doesn’t do, uncle might think it wld be foolish not to use such capital also against iran.
    Nevertheless, uncle appears scared to attack while the US pop that matters is raring to go.
    Uncle is wating for better moments. But uncle always knows better. So, he’ll wait at least a decade before he attacks iran.
    Will he use nukes or other wmd? And not just against afgh’n but also other defenseless lands.
    Once again, only he knows! tnx

  5. Ewiak Ryszard said on October 7th, 2009 at 4:05pm #

    Iran should not arouse concern. Georgia is the most dangerous flashpoint in Russia’s tense relations with the West. The Bible says: “At the appointed time [the king of the north = Russia] will return back [will regain the influence, which it lost after the break-up of the Soviet Union] and come into the south [many indicate that this might be Georgia], but it will not be as the former [1921] or as the latter [2008]. For the dwellers of coastlands of Kittim [the West] will come against him, and he will be humbled, and will return.” (Daniel 11:29,30a) Then Iran will be humbled also. “But ships will come from the direction of Kittim, troubling Asshur [Russia] and troubling Eber [inhabiting on the other side the Euphrates].” (Numbers 24:24a, BBE)

    At that time, peace will be taken from the earth and the “great sword” – nuclear sword – will be used. (Revelation 6:4) However, it will be neither the great tribulation nor “the end of the world” (Armageddon). As Jesus foretold, that will be “the beginning of birth pains”. (Mathew 24:7,8)

    If the Heavens planned a full return of Russia (and much suggests this) the present economic crisis will deepen. Then also the European Union and NATO will not stands.

    In the same way the earlier prophecy had fulfilled: “And (he) [the king of the north = Russia] will go back (to) his land with great wealth [1945]; and his heart (will be) against the holy covenant [state atheism]; and will act effectively; and turned back to his own land [the break-up of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the return of Russian troops to country].” (Daniel 11:28)