India's vote against Iran at the last International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting displays the serious deficiencies in our ability to come up with innovative solutions to complex foreign policy issues of our times.
The strategic thinkers in the Prime Minister's Office and the ministry of external affairs failed to suggest any way out of this imbroglio, and instead took the easy way out by siding with the US.
Many have commented on the motives behind the Indian vote, but what is required now are suggestions pointing towards feasible solutions. This article is an attempt to suggest a multilateral solution to this problem, for the urgent consideration of the government.
Most of the allegations levelled against Iran cannot be characterised as violations of the NPT, though its actions over the last two decades cast a serious shadow of doubt about the real intentions of its nuclear efforts.
In this connection, the IAEA has raised several valid questions for which Iran must provide satisfactory answers before long.
However, the major difference of opinion which persists between Iran and the Western nations is whether it can be permitted to have uranium enrichment facilities of its own, for producing Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) for power-reactor fuelling.
If Iran is to have control of its LEU supply, what is required is an approach to ensure confidence that Iran will not be able to use this material as the initial ingredient for a nuclear weapons programme which it may run in parallel. But, this approach should not, however, inhibit Iran's right to use nuclear technologies for power generation.
Denying it this right as a punishment will not be acceptable to Iran, when we are seeking an amicable solution to the problem.
In October 2003, Dr Mohamed El-Baradei, director general, IAEA made the following proposal in his article in The Economist: 'It is time to limit the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment, by agreeing to restrict these operations exclusively to facilities under multinational control. Such a framework should be inclusive: nuclear-weapon States, non-nuclear weapon States, and those outside the current non-proliferation regime should all have a seat at the table.'
Subsequently, the IAEA formed an international group of experts to consider the possible multilateral approaches to the civilian nuclear fuel cycle. This group on Multilateral Nuclear Approaches (MNAs) under Bruno Pellaud submitted a comprehensive report to the IAEA in February 2005.
One of the five approaches suggested in their findings is for "creating, through voluntary agreements and contracts, multinational, and in particular regional, MNAs for new facilities based on joint ownership, drawing rights or co-management for facilities such as uranium enrichment, reprocessing --
The history of multilateral management of sensitive nuclear operations dates back to the Baruch Plan presented to the UN in 1946. The IAEA, ever since its creation in 1957, has continued to be interested in this approach. As early as in 1972, two separate multilateral uranium enrichment consortia, the Urenco and the EURODIF, were formed. EURODIF runs a single facility in France, but with five countries participating in its investment and management. Urenco has three participating nations, with one facility in each country.
Ironically, in 1975, Iran was accepted as a partner in EURODIF, and it paid one billion US dollars towards the purchase of a 10 per cent share of ownership. But after the Iranian revolution in 1979, neither was Iran given any enriched uranium nor did it get back its investment from EURODIF.
In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 17, 2005, Iranian President Ahmadinejad said, 'peaceful use of nuclear energy without possession of nuclear fuel cycle is an empty proposition. Nuclear power plants can indeed lead to total dependence of countries and peoples if they need to rely for their fuel on coercive (external) powers. No popularly elected and responsible government can consider such a situation in the interest of its people.' Especially in the current scenario, and in view of the Tarapur fuel-denial experience, the words of the Iranian president apply equally to India as well.
India must desist from importing foreign nuclear reactors unless we also have multi-laterally assured fuel supply arrangements for the 40 to 50 year lifetime of such reactors. In light of this, Multilateral Nuclear Approaches (MNAs) become equally vital for India, even if the present Indo-US cooperation deal is approved.
The Iranian president also made the following constructive proposal in his talk, based on which India and the international community must attempt to build a viable solution, acceptable to all. He said, 'As a further confidence building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment programme in Iran.'
In view of the above, I would urge the Government of India to seriously consider the following approach, with appropriate modifications if need be, for immediate implementation:
1. India should consider initiating and participating in the setting up and operation of a Regional Uranium Enrichment Facility (RUEF), to be built in Iran, with joint financial investments and collective management by a consortium consisting of India, Iran, Russia, and South Africa.
An appropriate enrichment plant supplier will be identified by the consortium and suitable terms and conditions for setting up an enrichment plant will be finalised in close consultation with the director general, IAEA.
Once the plans for constructing the RUEF are finalised, Iran will have to dismantle all its national uranium enrichment facilities and associated developmental programs. Iran will have to agree that all its requirements for enriched uranium shall be met only through the RUEF.
The governing board for the RUEF will consist of the representatives of the consortium countries and a senior nominee of the IAEA. All facilities and operations of the RUEF will be subject to IAEA safeguards and its additional protocol.
While the plant will be operated and maintained mostly by the personnel from the consortium nations, the required training and provision of spare parts and services will be assured by the supplier under a long-term contract.
2. India must immediately start consultations with Iran, Russia and South Africa to first get their concurrence in principle for this approach. Next, jointly with these partners, India must take the lead in seeking the support for this idea from the NAM countries, China and others in the IAEA board.
Only after ensuring a wide enough support base from all these quarters should India and the consortium partners open a formal dialogue with the US, UK, France and Germany to get their concurrence.
Whether or not their concurrence is forthcoming, India should introduce a suitable resolution, co-sponsored by the consortium partners at the November 2005 IAEA board meeting.
This resolution should seek the minimum time required to prepare the details of such a consortium for subsequent placement before the board. The Indian-led resolution should also simultaneously seek the deferring of any referral of Iran to the UN Security Council till after the detailed proposal of the consortium is discussed.
In the interim, Iran will have to simultaneously agree to return to the additional protocol provisions and not to initiate any activities towards enrichment, or the construction of its heavy-water reactor or reprocessing test facilities.
With the above move, India could regain the lost ground on the Iran issue and earn back the respect it lost internationally due to its recent actions. Whether or not the US agrees to the above move, India must present the resolution at the IAEA and not once again surrender our right to pursue an independent foreign policy.
The author is a former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board