War With Iran Aborted? IAEA Talks a Positive Sign

Finally some good news on Iran's nuclear program. According to a recent AP report Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and Yukiya Amano, the IAEA’s director, have agreed in principle to allow U.N. inspectors to visit the country’s nuclear sites. While a second set of talks in Baghdad between Iran and the six powers later this week will likely not move negotiations forward in any tangible way, the new flexibility Teheran seems to be displaying on the issue means we may witness a qualitative diplomatic shift later this year (or in 2013).

Yet, tensions remain. Iran has shown that it can produce its own nuclear rods, and has heightened the level of uranium enrichment to 20%. Meanwhile, Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, serving in Israel, has informed Tel Aviv that a military option has been planned in case the talks fail and negotiations deteriorate to the point of no alternative.

Iran has explained the enrichment of uranium to 20% by claiming it is producing medical isotopes. There are several reasons why this claim has some credibility. Radiological therapies are used all over the world, and least in the developing countries. Different types of isotopes exist for different kinds of treatments. The World Nuclear Association has published where most isotopes come from: Canada, the United States, China, Egypt, South Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia, for a grand total of 12 reactors in the world for all types of isotopes. A few companies supply these products: MDS Nordion, IRE, and Covidien and smaller players operate largely in respective domestic markets. At the same time, the total market for radiological treatments and imaging in 2010 was $3,213 million, with a projection that by 2015 that number will be $4,731 million. Effectively, the growing economies of the developing world will see a rise in the demand for radiological treatment because at the moment they are under-supplied and the democratization of producers and suppliers will make it very profitable for emerging players like Iran to do such business and measure it by billions.

Giving Iran such a share of the pie will probably be another motivation to ensure that the talks in Baghdad produce as little result as possible. Operationalizing the production of nuclear equipment on cost-effective scales also makes Iran a potential exporter of technology – something largely reserved for the West and Russia for a very long time. For these reasons, I think the reasons for implementing the sanctions are largely of a commercial strategic nature rather than a political one.

Predictably, Ehud Barak dismissed the positive development for negotiations as a ploy for Iran to stall, but he is alone in the general world community, which prefers a diplomatic resolution.

Attention will now focus on the Baghdad round of talks, and the positive momentum created in the discussions with the IAEA has been met with cautious optimism by the involved parties. Iran will most likely not give up its nuclear program, and for this reason integrating it into global nuclear architectures is the antidote to the fatal destabilization of the Middle East. Diplomacy has worked before and it must persevere now.