November 18, 2007

The Swiss Option

Has an opening appeared for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear weapons standoff? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged that Iran might have a neutral third party such as Switzerland perform their uranium enrichment in order to appease Western nations who insist Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons:

Iran's President President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Dow Jones Newswires Sunday that he would be consulting with Arab nations on a plan to enrich uranium outside the region in a neutral country such as Switzerland.

Such a plan would allow Iran to develop its nuclear energy program while potentially easing fears that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

"We will be talking with our (Arab) friends," he said in exclusive comments to Dow Jones Newswires on the sidelines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' heads of state summit in Saudi Arabia.

Under a proposal put to Tehran by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, a multinational consortium established by the GCC will provide enriched uranium to power plants in Iran, the Middle East Economic Digest reported earlier this month, citing Saudi Arabia's Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

The GCC would not just operate for Iranian benefit. Arab nations interested in peaceful nuclear power would also receive nuclear fuel from the consortium. It would relieve these nations of the cost of developing and maintaining enrichment capabilities, and hopefully would eliminate the potential for a costly arms race in the Middle East.

Could it work? It might, although Iran eventually rejected a similar offer from the Russians in 2005 to settle the dispute. Arab nations do not want Iran's mullahcracy to get nuclear weapons any more than the US does, and they don't want to have to create a regional MAD scenario to keep them from using one against their Sunni counterparts. The GCC would have to have robust capacity to meet the eventual demand, but with the French and Russians involved -- both would like to export their nuclear expertise under the right circumstances -- that capacity is achievable.

The sudden flexibility of Ahmadinejad may signal that the economic and diplomatic sanctions have begun to bite deeply into their power base. Iranians want the option for peaceful nuclear power, but they don't want war or bad relations with their neighbors and the West, and many feel that Ahmadinejad has bungled the entire issue. As economic sanctions tighten, the mullahcracy will worry about their population demanding dramatic political change -- and they may be looking for a face-saving path out of the corner in which they've stuck themselves.


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