Iran's Nuclear Program: Talk of International Consortium

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Interest is growing in a possible US-Iran nuclear compromise that could enable sensitive atomic work on Iranian soil, lower the risks of proliferation, and ease Iran's isolation.

Despite a series of UN sanctions designed to halt Iran's ability to enrich uranium, Iran has continued to make progress. And a growing number of Western and Iranian officials and analysts, arguing that turning back the clock is impossible, are pushing for a new framework to ensure that Iran's nuclear work is aimed at peaceful, not military, applications.

On the agenda is a proposal to turn Iran's uranium-enrichment program into a multilateral consortium on Iranian soil, bringing Western eyes and expertise directly into the project in a bid to minimize potential weapons danger. In exchange, the West would end Iran's pariah status.

"Now we are in the point of realizing our right to enrich uranium in our land in Iran, by our own people," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Monitor during a conference on nuclear issues in Tehran. "If any proposal is there for joining to this activity, we can consider that."

US policy has focused on convincing or forcing Iran to give up uranium enrichment - a process that Iran says it wants to create nuclear fuel for power plants, but which can be used for nuclear weapons if taken to higher levels. But sanctions have not curbed Iran's program, spurring Iran instead to refuse to step back "one iota" from peaceful nuclear technology.

The proposal for a multilateral effort was first made by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 2- 1/2 years ago while speaking at the UN. But Iran's technical prowess has grown since then from toying with a handful of centrifuges, which are crucial to the process, to a working chain of 3,000, with fresh progress on a more advanced unit, something that may make Iran less interested in cooperation.

"We told them [in 2005] if your problem is confidence-building ... come and directly cooperate in our nuclear activities, [but the West] didn't welcome it," Saeed Jalili, Iran's top nuclear negotiator said at the conference. The cabinet had ratified operational guidelines for "any country" to take part, he said. "Our nation however did not wait for anybody, you saw that they didn't come and we started [our work]."

Analysts say a confluence of recent events may be improving the chances of compromise. The US strategy of isolating Iran does not appear to be hurting Iran's nuclear efforts. And Iran might see that more scrutiny is a price worth paying to reassure the West that it does not want a bomb.

"The zero-enrichment option is almost certainly gone, so we need to figure out what the next best thing is," says Michael Levi, a nuclear physicist and nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's far from clear we could get any deal under the current circumstances."

Three decades of hostility between the US and Iran have tangled politics and deep mistrust with technical issues about Iran's rights and obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). A US-European package of incentives requires total suspension of enrichment as a pre-condition to even begin negotiation - a stance many argue is untenable.

"Right now, Iran is holding the cards," says Mr. Levi, author of the recently published On Nuclear Terrorism. "The odds of us getting zero enrichment without a military strike are low.... If we can't muster much additional pressure, I don't see any solution that does not involve limited enrichment. And if we are going to accept [that], we want to put as many constraints on it as we can."

Experts say that to be effective, any joint program would depend on - among other restrictions - Iran accepting the additional protocol of the NPT, which enables intrusive, short-notice inspections.

Iran was praised in the February report by the UN's nuclear watchdog agency for taking such open steps to resolve several outstanding issues, but says it will not accept the protocol wholesale until its case is removed from the Security Council agenda. …