The President on Iran's Right to Nuclear Energy

"Without going into specifics, what I do believe is that Iran has legitimate energy concerns, legitimate aspirations. On the other hand, the international community has a very real interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in the region." President Barack Obama in comments to the BBC

The President today in an interview with the BBC asserted that Iran had a right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Additionally, President Obama restated the Administration's plans to pursue direct diplomacy with Tehran to encourage it to set aside any ambitions for nuclear weapons it might harbor.

While Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program, which dates to 1970s, is aimed at generating electricity, the US and other Western governments suspect the Iranians of playing a double game in seeking to self-enrich uranium. More from the Washington Post:

The comments echo remarks Obama made in Prague last month in which he said his administration would "support Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections" if Iran proves it is no longer a nuclear threat.

Iranian state television described the news as Obama recognizing the "rights of the Iranian nation," a phrase typically used to refer to Iran's nuclear program.

The president has indicated a willingness to seek deeper international sanctions against Tehran if it does not respond positively to U.S. attempts to open negotiations on its nuclear program. Obama has said Tehran has until the end of the year to show it wants to engage.

"Although I don't want to put artificial time tables on that process, we do want to make sure that, by the end of this year, we've actually seen a serious process move forward. And I think that we can measure whether or not the Iranians are serious," Obama said.

No one should dispute the right of the Iranians to nuclear energy development for peaceful purposes. Iran's oil production peaked in 1974 and has been declining ever since. There is little doubt that Iran needs to plan for a post-oil world.

From Energy Bulletin:

The first peak was passed in 1974 at 6.1 million barrels per day, falling to a low of 1.2 million barrels per day in 1980, before recovering to 3.4 million barrels per day in 2002. Some reports suggest that depletion of present reserves is running as high as 7%, which may reflect operational shortcomings and lack of investment. Production could in resource terms rise to a second peak in 2009 at almost 5 million barrels per day before commencing its terminal decline at 2.6% a year, but operational and investment constraints may prevent such a level being reached in practice, with 3-4 million barrels per day peak being perhaps more likely.

In fact, the Shah's government in the 1970s sought approval for the sale of nuclear energy technologies from the Nixon and Ford Administrations. Indeed, the Iranian nuclear programme dates to the establishment of the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre (TNRC) in 1975. The question concerning Iran centers on the issue of enrichment. According to Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Iran now possesses 7,000 centrifuges.

Centrifuges are machines that spin rapidly to enrich uranium. Highly enriched uranium can be used for making nuclear bombs, but Iran says that it is enriching uranium to lower levels in order to produce nuclear fuel for civilian use. The United States among other Western countries suspect that Iran is pursuing a clandestine weapons program under the guise of a civilian one. While Tehran denies the charges, the regime has not fully cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

According to Iran analyst Mark Fitzgerald of the Institute for International Strategic Studies, Iran will probably reach the point at which it has produced the amount of low-enriched uranium required to make a nuclear bomb sometime in 2009. But being able to enrich uranium is not the same as having a nuclear weapon. In his December 2008 and widely disseminated report entitled The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-Case Outcomes, Mr. Fitzpatrick argues that international community should accept Iran's growing uranium enrichment capabilities and concentrate on preventing the Middle Eastern state from tapping the program to develop a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA has long argued to allow Iran to maintain a small face-saving nuclear enrichment program. I suspect that ultimately that this approach is the avenue out of the current impasse. The question is will the Israelis permit any Iranian self-enrichment or not?

Additional Sources
Iran's Laser Enrichment Program by Charles D. Ferguson and Jack Boureston, June 2004.
Global Security on Iran.
The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-Case Outcomes Mark Fitzpatrick, Institute for International Strategic Studies, December 2008.

Tags: Iran, Nuclear Issues, US Foreign Policy (all tags)

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