"Trust but Verify", NIAC symposium in Washington DC (June, 2009)

One small, if interesting, side effect of what is unfolding now in Tehran is that I had to rewrite my paper up to the last moment. We already know that things will never be the same in Iran after the 15th of June. But in the wake of these events, could the Iranian nuclear negotiation go trough dramatic changes? In the best case, which is yet far from sure, that is with the arrival of somewhat different teams at the table of negotiation, certainly the atmosphere could change, things could go faster and easier. But basics won't change.

What will not change, for instance, is the pride of the Iranian people for having been able to develop on their soil a technology, enrichment, which the most advanced nations seemed to keep jealously for themselves. So there is no more hope than before to convince people in charge in Tehran, whoever they are, to accept the "zero centrifuge" formula than the Europeans, and the Americans, have tried for several years to impose on the Iranians.

What will not change either are the laws of physics, and therefore the quantity of enriched uranium or plutonium necessary to induce an explosion. Nor international law, nor the obligations of NPT parties including Iran, nor the elaborate methods of inspections and controls developed over more than four decades by the IAEA to safeguard the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

A small parenthesis, at this stage, over my own experience.

As French ambassador to Iran from 2001 to 2005, I was immersed in this nuclear negotiation. And, luckily, I had served previously for several years in my Ministry in the department in charge of non-proliferation. I was also at a time deputy secretary to the French minister of defence. Thank to this expertise, I felt quite at ease with the issue. But there was a setback. My knowledge of the subject drove me to develop convictions which came sometimes at variance with the line I had to defend. So part of my problems were with people on my own side. I left diplomacy in 2005, and it took me no time to avail myself of the delicious freedom of speech. It should then be clear that I express myself today as a free and independent person.

Let us go back to the heart of the nuclear file. In the new phase that will open, if only because of the new American attitude, we will not start from scratch. One should always remember that the Iranians, since the beginning of the crisis, even after the arrival of Ahmadinejad, never thought of expelling the IAEA inspectors, never withdrew from NPT. When the IAEA inspections put to light in 2003 undeclared activities of enrichment, though limited in size, they could have reacted like the North Koreans. They had tried to cover up this activity, but discovered to their own amazement the efficiency of the IAEA methods, which could, with small environmental samples : air, soil, water, leaves... detect, even on an empty site, the presence at atomic level of tale-telling particles of human-made enriched uranium. Whatever their public humiliation at the time, the Iranians chose to remain within the IAEA safeguards system, and have not changed their mind since. This is why we can still collect so much information on the development of the Iranian nuclear program, simply by reading the IAEA reports. So there is a base of goodwill on which it is possible to build.

Let me jump over many episodes and summarize the situation as follows.

After many crises, failures and stand-byes, both sides, to come out of the present impasse, have to accept that the Iranian nuclear program, in terms of its NPT commitments, is still ambiguous, is still at a kind of crossroads. Listening to the Iranians, this program will go civilian and peaceful, but we cannot be sure of that as long as do not exist and operate the Iranian nuclear power plants which would give its meaning to the Natanz enrichment plant. The other track may very well be military and explosive, but we are not sure yet and won't be sure as long as we do not see the characteristic signals of excursions into high level enrichments, or the preparation of some explosive test. If both parties can agree to recognize this ambiguity, it will become possible to resolve it, of course for the better, by giving substance and credibility to the civilian and peaceful dimension of the Iranian nuclear program.

Here I would like to quote part of the recent press conference of President Obama in France, which has caught little public attention. What did President Obama say in the French city of Caen?

«The last point I'd make on Iran, the Supreme Leader has said "We don't want nuclear weapons; that's not what we're pursuing".  I'm happy to hope that that's true, but in international relations I can't just base things on hope, especially when you see actions to the contrary. One of my famous predecessors, Ronald Reagan, said it pretty well when he said, "Trust, but verify." ...Ultimately, if in fact Iran does not seek nuclear weapons, then it shouldn't be that hard for us to have a series of negotiations in which the international community feels that confidence, and in which Iran then is able to enjoy a whole host of economic and political benefits..."

I agree 100% with this motto "trust but verify". We may have, or not, nicer guys facing us tomorrow, but a day will come with other leaders and situations that we cannot think of today. This is where the long lasting, sophisticated and impartial IAEA system of control is of critical help. Let us remember, by the way, that up to now no country under full-scope IAEA safeguards has ever been able to come close to produce and explode, undetected, a nuclear device : neither Saddam, nor North Korea. Of course the IAEA could not stop North Korea or even Saddam, but this is not its role, this is the role of willing Nations.

"Trust but verify..." Let us see how the formula could apply to the Iranian case.

First, we should be careful not to ask for commitments which cannot be easily verified. This is why asking Iran to commit itself to "zero centrifuge", however politically rewarding and easy to sell to the public, has no practical value since nobody will be able to ascertain that Iran will not run someday, somewhere, on its vast territory, in an underground facility, a few dozen clandestine centrifuges. But you don't build a nuclear arsenal with a few dozen centrifuges.

The alarm system to surround Iranian activities should be drawn elsewhere. There are in fact a few simple commitments which would allow us to react in safe time to any attempt from this regime or any other Iranian regime to build a nuclear device.

The first of them would be, or course, for Iran to ratify and to implement the Additional protocol, offering the IAEA inspectors a wider capacity of controls. But this is not enough. Concerning more specifically the Iranian enrichment capacity, on which focuses, with good reason, the world attention,

·                     Iran could and should formally confirm its intention, already expressed, not to enrich uranium beyond 5%,

·                     it could and should accept to keep, as today, all its enrichment activities on one site and one only, in order to facilitate inspections,

·                     it should also accept to maintain the output of its upstream uranium cycle - mining, production of yellow cake, conversion, enrichment, fuel manufacturing -, at a level consistent with the actual need of fuel of its nuclear power program, still at a very early phase,

·                     finally, it should agree to immediately incorporate into fuel components for power plants the uranium enriched at Natanz. In such form and conditioning, diversion to clandestine uses becomes much more difficult. IAEA controls on the Iranian stock of low enriched uranium would be made safer and easier.

I shall stop here not to become too technical.

In conclusion, I firmly believe that with the proper approach, the Iranians, whoever they are, can be brought to accept such commitments and others of the same venue. And the most valuable gift which we could give them in exchange would be the assurance that the faithful implementation of such commitments would open for them the door of the community of advanced and respectable nuclear nations. Gaining respect from the outer world is still something very important the Iranian population and even for the regime, even for somebody like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even more so for the people who could succeed him.

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