WASHINGTON DC – More than 200 Iranian MPs are pushing for a bill that would oblige the government to enrich uranium to 60 percent purity to fuel Iranian ships and submarines that are denied oil sales at many ports worldwide under US-led sanctions, the Mehr news agency reported on Sunday.
“Given the Western states’ sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which include an embargo on the supply of fossil fuels to Iranian vessels, the Islamic Republic will replace the fossil fuel with nuclear fuel to counter the sanctions,” Allahverdi Dehqani, a member of the parliament’s Industries Commission, told the Fars News Agency (FNA).
“The lawmakers are completely serious about studying and approving this bill,” Ismail Kowsari, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Mehr.
Iran currently does not have any nuclear-powered ships or submarines.
Iran’s hardline lawmakers are the ones pushing to increase uranium enrichment to a higher grade, in a bid to give their country an upper hand in negotiations with world powers.
“We are witnessing posturing by hardliners seeking to undermine the interim deal achieved by US and Iranian negotiators in November,” retired US ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, who is now director of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy, told Rudaw.
“They also want to set the stage for the Geneva expert talks on implementation measures that started this week,” he said.
From a political standpoint, however, any move to enrich to 60 percent would be enormously detrimental. Iranian officials have insisted that their program is for “peaceful nuclear energy purposes,” and that Iran has never intended to develop nuclear weapons.
“Iranian hardliners in parliament hope to reduce the wiggle room available to negotiators,” during discussions with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, Cavanaugh said. The hardliners want “at the same time to block any efforts toward further sanctions by the United States,” he added.
Iran’s hardliners, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have been critical of President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate faction as it engages in talks in Geneva.
They say his government is ceding too much, calling an interim agreement reached in November that would ease economic sanctions against Iran as a “heroic flexibility.”
Last June, Rear Admiral Abbas Zamini told FNA that, “Since we possess peaceful nuclear technology, we can also put on our agenda the construction of propulsion systems for nuclear submarines.”
Paul R. Pillar, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) veteran and current Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, told Rudaw: “This move by the Majlis is less about ships and submarines than it is a direct response to what the Iranian legislators are hearing from the US Congress.”
“The Iranians are in effect saying that if American members of Congress want to play tough by threatening to impose more sanctions, then the Iranians can play tough, too,” Pillar said. “This is mutual brinksmanship,”
Martin Hellman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Nuclear Risk Analysis at Federation of American Scientists (FAS), said that the US has promised to set up an international fuel bank to guarantee Iran access to low-enriched uranium (LEU), but the Iranians do not seem to trust the US.
Meanwhile, said Hellman, the hawks in the US are pushing bills to impose new, stiffer sanctions if the interim agreement fails to produce results.
“While there is some logic to their thinking, imposing new sanctions if the interim agreement fails will tend to pull the rug out from under the Iranian moderates, reinforce the hardliners, and almost surely guarantee the failure of the interim agreement,” he said.
Judith Yaphe, Professor of International Affairs and Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said it all looks like a tit-for-tat fight between the Iranian Majlis and the US congress.
“The Iranian parliament is trying to match the American Congress, which has been threatening to impose tougher sanctions on Iran if Iran does not comply with everything the Congress thinks it should and/or is committed to do under the first agreement,” Yaphe told Rudaw.
Professor Stephen Kinzer of University of Boston said that Rouhani and US President Barack Obama seem to be in the same trench.
“It is evident that radicals in both Tehran and Washington are working intently to upset the process of reconciliation,” he said. “There are not only negotiations underway between Iran and the US, but also between Obama and radicals in Washington and between Rouhani and radicals in Tehran. Threats are a big part of this.”