Brent Scowcroft on Iran:
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 US, 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 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Iran - as well as any other signatory to the NPT - is entitled to a fuel cycle as part of its right to peacefully use nuclear energy for civilian purposes. The problem is 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 the benefits of a civilian nuclear energy program while preventing the production of weapons-grade nuclear material through close supervision.
The five permanent members of the UN 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 in return for abiding by all International Atomic Energy Agency 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 US-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, 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 capitalise on perceived disagreements among the US, Europe, Russia and 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, used and returned to supervised facilities. The Bush administration's proposal for Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (where member states of the nuclear supply group would provide enriched uranium to customers across 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 countries that lack an 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 G8) to subsidise 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 stymie the Mahmoud 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 to distract the population from the pressing domestic problems of the regime.
Having the international community - and the US in particular - take at face value Iran's claims that it needs a civilian nuclear energy program 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 US-led international front that starts out by recognising that Iran has legitimate rights and concerns can go far in depriving the present regime of its ability to use Iranian nationalism in this crisis.
And should the Iranian Government reject an international proposal that implicitly recognises 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 US, the EU, Russia and China all agree that a nuclear-capable Iran is undesirable, disagreement over the tactics will preclude any effective action.
The Bush administration needs to be prepared to find common ground with the other permanent members of the UN 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 such a process would be a move towards giving all non-nuclear states firm security guarantees and territorial integrity as a way to provide further incentives for non-nuclear states not to pursue a nuclear program.
I have found the Europeans and Russians with whom I have discussed these ideas to be supportive of moving towards creating such an international regime to control the fuel cycle. But we also need to recognise that, in the case of Iran, we need to be prepared to strike deals with the other large 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 US 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 minimise the disruption to the Chinese economy and that China would suffer no more than anyone else.
Washington should be prepared to offer similar considerations to other countries (such as Russia or European countries) that may have to put significant economic interests at risk to apply pressure to Iran.
We should never take the stand that "virtue is its own reward" when dealing with a serious issue such as nuclear non-proliferation.
Nuclear weapons technology is no longer a closely guarded secret in the possession of a handful of countries. An approach that relies on determining the character of regimes to assess worthiness to use nuclear energy is full of loopholes.
Only by creating an 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, a former national security adviser to US presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, is president and founder of the Scowcroft Group in Washington. This is adapted from the spring 2006 issue of international affairs journal The National Interest.