The Russia Card

By Rose Gottemoeller, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center, was responsible for nonproliferation policy at the Department of Energy from 1997 to 2000 (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 03/05/06):

IN recent months, Iran has pursued defiance as if it were a virtue, declaring itself a member of the nuclear club, curtailing cooperation with international nuclear inspectors and rejecting calls by the United Nations to drop its nuclear enrichment program.

Should the rest of the international community give up on negotiations and take another path, either sanctions or the military options that have been bandied around in Washington? Maybe — but maybe there is also an opportunity to get Iran back to the negotiating table.

What we need is a wedge to push open the door to talks, and Russia might be able to provide it. Before the latest downward spiral with Tehran, the Russians had proposed bringing Iran into a nuclear fuel services center on Russian soil that would enrich uranium, manufacture fuel and deal with nuclear waste.

The concept isn’t perfect — it would leave intact Iran’s existing enrichment and other nuclear facilities. With Iranian defiance at its height, however, that might be a tactical advantage. The Russian proposal does not challenge Iran’s right to enrichment, but it provides Iran with a less costly way to produce nuclear energy, its ostensible goal. The Russians could propose that the Iranians resume exploring this option, beginning with three immediate steps.

First, the Iranians would announce that they are ready to take a break in their enrichment program while they plan the next campaign of experiments, which would take six or eight months or even a year. Iran would in the meantime allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to resume monitoring its enrichment sites. Although no different in effect from resuming a moratorium, this approach has certain face-saving advantages for the Iranians.

Second, the Russians would propose that they and the Iranians focus their talks on the practical steps that are under way to establish an international fuel services center at Angarsk, in Siberia. The Iranians have been so hell-bent on enrichment that they have forgotten the rest of the fuel cycle — in particular, how burdensome it is to deal with nuclear waste. The Russians could remind them of that fact — and highlight how good a deal an international fuel service center would be for Iran.

Third, the Russians could urge the Iranians to examine the proposal for technological cooperation — including in nuclear energy — that Britain, France and Germany made last summer. At the time, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had just been elected and the Iranians rejected the proposal out of hand. But if the Iranians look closely, they might find better solutions to their professed energy problems.

A little tactical momentum along these lines might turn a hopeless negotiation into a productive one. That is, assuming that Iran is not a monolithic juggernaut determined to have nuclear weapons, but a country where different interest groups might be willing to listen and move policy in a new direction.

The other missing link is America. The United States could join the discussion with Iran about its interests in the future of nuclear power. After all, the United States is talking to other countries about global warming and energy security problems under the auspices of its new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

The United States would be unwilling to share nuclear technology with Iran any time soon. But America has a strong stake in laying out its vision for the future of nuclear power. Nuclear energy cannot expand in a way that avoids proliferation if the current model of Iran’s nuclear program dominates the debate. An Iran that makes use of international fuel services — as countries like Spain and Sweden have decided to do — would be an important part of the equation.

A discussion of nuclear power’s future, even if it had to be conducted through Russian and European proxies, might in turn narrow the larger distance between Washington and Tehran. For this to happen, however, American policy will really have to be what President Bush called for, a continuation of diplomacy.