As Iran and the group of six world powers are engaged in a marathon of intensive and breathtaking negotiations in the Austrian capital Vienna to find a solution for ending the decade-old controversy over Tehran's nuclear program, it becomes more important to ask the experts and scholars how a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) looks like and how the two sides of the dispute should approach the talks to obtain significant and substantive results.
A prominent American nuclear expert believes that the coming to power of the moderate politician Hassan Rouhani as the President of Iran and the subsequent recommencement of nuclear talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany are good signs that indicate a mutual interest in the diplomatic settlement of the disputes ensuing from Iran's nuclear activities in the past ten years. Prof. Matthew Bunn believes that the road ahead is very troublesome and difficult to traverse, but there are good chances that the ongoing negotiations will lead to positive and promising results.
"... [I]n both Tehran and Washington, there are critics who oppose the current talks because they do not believe the other side will agree to or abide by any agreement that will be “good enough” to serve their countries’ interest. There is a need on both sides to find opportunities for compromise and moderation, as President Rouhani has advocated," said Prof. Bunn in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times.
Prof. Matthew Bunn was an advisor of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1994 to 1996. He was also a Study Director at the National Academy of Sciences. Bunn got his Ph.D. in Technology, Management, and Policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007. Currently, he is serving as a Professor of Practice at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the Co-Principal Investigator in the Project on Managing the Atom, too.
Prof. Bunn says that it's quite natural for the NPT member states to demand the United States to dismantle its nuclear arsenal: "[o]f course, the non-nuclear-weapon states party to the NPT want to see the United States and the other nuclear powers fulfill their obligation to negotiate in good faith toward disarmament. An 85% reduction in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile since the NPT was signed should be acknowledged as major progress in that direction."
To discuss the negotiations underway in Vienna between Iran and the six world powers, the points of conflict and disagreement between the two sides, the future relations between Iran and the United States under President Rouhani and the possibility of the forging of a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear program, Tehran Times conducted an exclusive interview with Matthew Bunn of the Harvard University. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: In one of your articles, you talked of the idea of an “international nuclear fuel bank” where the countries tying to develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes will be able to obtain the nuclear fuel they need, without requiring the construction of uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities which raise the concern of weaponization. Do you believe that the international community has the readiness to help Iran supply the nuclear fuel it needs for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), while some politicians in the West, including a great number of the U.S. Congressmen, demand that Iran’s nuclear program should be dismantled altogether, and that Iran is by no means entitled to have a peaceful nuclear program?
A: Yes. In the context of a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the international community would be happy to sell Iran all the fuel it needs for its nuclear reactors, including both the present power reactor and research reactor and the future reactors Iran may build in each category.
Iran has been legitimately concerned about ensuring a secure supply of fuel for its reactors, given past U.S. and other efforts to cut off several countries’ nuclear cooperation with Iran. It has used this need to justify its proposal that tens of thousands of centrifuges be permitted under an agreement. But (a) it will not be possible to achieve an agreement for sanctions relief while maintaining some 20,000 installed centrifuges - much less the 50,000 to 100,000 Iranian negotiators have talked about; (b) there are other options for Iran to achieve reliable fuel supply; and (c) having a plant with a large number of centrifuges would still not provide reliable fuel supply for Iran.
First, it will not be possible to achieve an agreement if Iran insists on 20,000 or more centrifuges. That number of centrifuges would make it possible to make the nuclear material for a bomb within weeks, leaving the international community too little time to respond. Unfortunately, the centrifuges used to make low-enriched uranium for reactor fuel are the same as those that would be used to make high-enriched uranium for bomb material, and a much smaller number of centrifuges is needed to make material for a bomb, which requires kilograms of nuclear material rather than tens of tons needed each year for power reactor fuel.
Even if President Obama wanted to accept an agreement with that number of centrifuges, Congress would reject it and pass legislation imposing still worse sanctions on Iran with a two-thirds majority, making it impossible for Obama to veto. Hence, if Iran wants an agreement that will lead to lifting the most important sanctions, it will have to accept a limit of only a few thousand centrifuges.
Fortunately, that could serve Iran's interests as well. All but 1,000 or so of Iran's installed centrifuges are an older, inefficient model known as the IR-1, which is prone to breaking. For an efficient civilian program, Iran could abandon these older centrifuges and rely on the newer models now installed or the still better models Iran is now developing.
Second, Iran does not need many centrifuges of any type to achieve its stated goal of providing reliable fuel supply for Iran's reactors, as there are other options. To ensure that it will have all the fuel it needs for its reactors, Iran could take several steps. First, it would make sense to negotiate an extension of the current 10-year fuel supply contract with Russia, perhaps to 20 years. Second, Iran could purchase fabricated fuel and store it at the reactor site in case there's ever an interruption of foreign fuel supply. South Korea, for example, which relies on nuclear energy for a major part of its electricity supply but does not currently do its own enrichment, typically stores a couple of year's worth of fuel to avoid any interruptions. Most countries using nuclear energy do not have their own enrichment facilities. Third, in the event of an interruption in fuel supply, Iran could draw on the IAEA fuel bank now being established in Kazakhstan.
Third, it's important to understand that having tens of thousands of centrifuges in Iran does not actually solve the reliable fuel problem, for several reasons. First, Russia owns the fuel design for the fuel for the Bushehr reactor, and would no longer guarantee safety if Iran designed fuel of its own to use in that reactor or other future Iranian plants. It's better to use the fuel the reactors are designed to use. Second, Iran has relatively limited uranium supplies, which could not provide enough fuel for a long-term reliable supply for Iran's reactors. Third, having an enrichment plant does not mean the plant will operate reliably, even if outsiders are not trying to sabotage it. Years ago, for example, an earthquake destroyed a major portion of the centrifuges in Pakistan's enrichment plant.
In short, the path to an agreement is an arrangement in which Iran would agree to a limit somewhere in the range of 1,000-5,000 centrifuges, with various other constraints to build confidence that there would be no covert facilities and that Iran could not rapidly produce bomb material, in return for lifting nuclear-related sanctions and various steps to ensure that Iran will have reliable fuel supply for its nuclear energy program.
Q: That being said, you know that the United States is the first country to develop nuclear weapons, the only nation that has used nuclear weapons in warfare and the largest possessor of atomic warheads. It’s said that since 1945, the United States produced 70,000 nuclear warheads and has dedicated enormous budgets to its nuclear weapons program. Do you agree with the premise that the United States’ nuclear prowess has triggered a nuclear arms race across the globe and has driven so many countries in the world, such as Israel, India and Pakistan to pursue nuclear weapons?
A: The United States has reduced its stockpile of nuclear weapons by more than 85%, to 4,804, as of May of this year. I do not agree with the premise that U.S. nuclear forces have “driven” countries such as Israel, India, and Pakistan to pursue nuclear weapons. Israel pursued nuclear weapons to protect itself against neighboring states that saw it as illegitimate and threatened its existence. India sought nuclear weapons in part for international status, in part because of domestic and bureaucratic politics, and in part to counter potential threats from China and Pakistan. Pakistan sought nuclear weapons after having been dismembered by India in the 1971 war, and its quest was reinforced by the 1974 Indian nuclear test.
Of course, the non-nuclear-weapon states party to the NPT want to see the United States and the other nuclear powers fulfill their obligation to negotiate in good faith toward disarmament. An 85% reduction in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile since the NPT was signed should be acknowledged as major progress in that direction. The United States has called for further reductions in negotiations with Russia, but at present Russia has not supported deeper reductions.
In any case, Iran is a party to the NPT, legally bound to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes and to accept safeguards on all of its activities. The size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile is not directly relevant to the ongoing discussions between Iran and the P5+1 on building confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s program.
Q: You have recently addressed the importance of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) proposed ten years ago by the George W. Bush administration that was aimed at getting dangerous nuclear bomb material out of vulnerable research facilities around the world. You noted that the initiative has been remarkably successful since it removed over four tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium from different countries. Is this program simply confined to “other” countries or would be applied to the U.S. nuclear stockpile as well? Overall, has the United States delivered its commitments on nuclear disarmament, especially those stipulated by the virtue of the START Treaty signed between Washington and Moscow in April 2010?
A: In contrast to the roughly 4 tons of HEU from other countries that GTRI has addressed, the United States has declared some 183 tons of HEU excess to its military program, and has destroyed some 143 tons of that material by blending it to low-enriched uranium that cannot be used in a bomb. Russia has done even better, destroying over 500 tons of excess HEU. As noted in the previous question, the United States has delivered on its disarmament commitments by reducing its nuclear weapons stockpile by 85 percent. The United States is fulfilling its obligations under the New START treaty of 2010, and will likely reach the reduced limits before it is legally obligated to do so.
Q: The election of moderate diplomat Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in June 2013 elections, and the subsequent adoption of a new foreign policy approach by Iran created unprecedented opportunities for the long-term resolution of the decade-old controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. Do you see any sign from US or EU officials of being aware of this opportunity?
A: Yes. Indeed, this is an odd question, given that the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 have already negotiated the Joint Plan of Action and are working to negotiate a comprehensive agreement; that President Obama and President Rouhani have shaken hands and spoken on the phone; and that there have been months of backchannel talks between Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and senior Iranian representatives. This does not mean, of course, that either Iranian distrust of the United States or U.S. distrust of Iran has gone away. The deep distrust and hostility between our two governments is one of the factors that makes the present negotiations so difficult; in both Tehran and Washington, there are critics who oppose the current talks because they do not believe the other side will agree to or abide by any agreement that will be “good enough” to serve their countries’ interest. There is a need on both sides to find opportunities for compromise and moderation, as President Rouhani has advocated.
Q: A comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is in prospect. Iran will probably agree to limit the aspects of its nuclear program, and in return, it will receive significant sanctions relief. Unquestionably, this is going to be a win-win game where both sides of the dispute will benefit from the compromises they’re going to make. What’s your viewpoint regarding the future of Iran-West relations following the conclusion of comprehensive nuclear deal? Will Iran’s relations with the United States and the European Union be normalized after a possible final agreement?
A: There is still a difficult road ahead for a comprehensive nuclear agreement; many disagreements remain to be resolved. If there is a comprehensive agreement, I believe it will transform the overall relationship between Iran and the United States and Europe, and will give the Iranian people new opportunities for trade, development, and interaction with the international community. It would, indeed, be a “win-win game.” That being said, there are many other issues that separate the U.S. and Iranian governments, from terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Syria. At the same time, there are many opportunities to cooperate where interests coincide, for example in ensuring that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq end up dominated by violent extremists, and in fighting the drug trade.
Q: So, do you think that Israel will be trying to hinder and obstruct the nuclear talks or somewhat manipulate the U.S. policy on Iran to prevent a lasting, sustainable deal from emerging?
A: Israel, like the United States, wants a nuclear deal that will verifiably ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons or get close to the edge of a nuclear weapons capability. Israel would prefer tougher demands on Iran than the P5+1 are making. One of the many complications of this negotiation – as with many others – is that the United States has to get agreement among its various domestic stakeholders, within its coalition of allies and friends, and with Iran, which faces similar difficulties managing its domestic coalitions.
Q: Prof. Bunn; you’re a nuclear expert and have long studied and investigated the nuclear program of different countries. Do you agree that nuclear power is being used as a leverage by some world powers to exert political pressure on their adversaries? While Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and have amassed hundreds of nuclear warheads, Iran is being denied the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes for fears that it might probably produce one atomic bomb someday. Is the issue really technical, or is taking some political aspects?
A: Inevitably, nuclear nonproliferation is a political, military, and technical issue at the same time. Iran is not being “denied the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” – the P5+1 has made clear that Iran has that right and will be able to exercise that right. Iran is operating a nuclear power reactor today, provided by and fueled by Russia, one of the P5+1 [members]. The P5+1 proposals have explicitly offered nuclear cooperation, for example in working with Iran to build research reactors that would pose less proliferation risk than the original design of the Arak reactor would have done.
In the modern world, nuclear weapons are not being used to “exert political pressure” on adversaries. Indeed, they have no real use for that; experience has shown that the only thing nuclear weapons can really do is to deter either nuclear attacks or attacks so threatening they might threaten the survival of the state. India has found that its nuclear weapons do not deter Pakistan from sponsoring terrorist attacks. Israel found in 1973 that its nuclear weapons did not prevent the Arab countries from launching a war against it. Britain found that its nuclear weapons did not prevent Argentina from seizing the Falklands or help Britain take them back. The United States found that nuclear weapons did not help us avoid defeat in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union found the same in Afghanistan.
For Iran and for the vast majority of countries on earth, nuclear weapons would bring no benefit in solving any of their security or political problems, but would create major new security risks and political challenges. It is therefore in Iran’s interest to agree to reasonable constraints that will build confidence that its nuclear program is purely peaceful and lead to lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.