The deadline that passed last night over the deal for Iran to outsource three-quarters of its known stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing is only the latest milestone on the tortuous path towards the West’s acceptance of Iran as a regional power. Even if no deal was agreed, there has been perceptible movement. Nuclear inspectors will still arrive on Sunday at Qom to examine the enrichment site there which has just been disclosed. And further efforts will be made to get the talks going again within the next week or two on how to ensure that reprocessing does take place as a nuclear fuel that can only be used in a civilian reactor. There are good reasons for expecting that progress will continue to be made.
Those reasons no doubt include the continuing consequences of the disputed presidential election in June which has significantly weakened the power of Ayatollah Khamenei, and the embarrassing (to Iran) revelation of the parallel enrichment plant being built near Qom. However, the key reasons are very likely to be fear of Western oil sanctions, combined with growing uncertainty about whether the Iranian regime can continue to count on Russian support to prevent or limit such sanctions, plus anxiety about the economic impact of oil sanctions on the Iranian population against the background of the mullahs’ serious loss of public support already in the bungled elections. The fear among the ruling elite of losing power is, as always in such situations, the decisive factor.
But this still remains an eyeball confrontation. Even if the Vienna deal had gone through, it would not have stopped enrichment (which the Iranians are entitled to pursue under the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, provided it is for civil energy purposes), and it would take Iran’s centrifuges just a year to replace the 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium removed to Russia. Further, once one secret enrichment plant is discovered, one wonders if there are others. And letting international inspectors into Qom is not necessarily the same as their being able to gather all the information they need – we shall see.
Even allowing for all these contingencies, there is still more than a sniff of Western hypocrisy over Iran, as Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has recently noted. How would any country react if it were surrounded on all sides by nuclear-armed powers, some of them hostile – China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Israel, and an American nuclear-armed fleet in the Gulf? How can it be justified to allow Israel to remain a nuclear State, but forbid Iran to provide itself with similar protection? And, most fundamental of all, what right do nuclear States have to demand that all other States remain non-nuclear when they themselves will not give up their nuclear weapons?