Iran: Getting Back on Track

Daryl G. Kimball

Since the world’s nuclear watchdog agency confirmed reports of Iran’s extensive and secret nuclear activities more than two years ago, international concerns that Tehran might soon acquire bomb-making capabilities have grown.

The crisis will surely worsen in the next few months unless Iran exercises greater restraint and stops short of completing a large-scale nuclear material production capability. At the same time, the United States must recalibrate its strategy to complement, not complicate, the European diplomatic initiative to reduce Iran’s incentives to acquire the bomb and keep it within the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Last year, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom persuaded Iran to agree to voluntarily and temporarily halt its uranium-enrichment program and accept tougher International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The deal created valuable diplomatic breathing space and the opportunity for the IAEA to gather detailed information about the full extent and nature of Iran’s program.

Iran has grudgingly allowed the IAEA extensive access and information about its covert projects. But several questions still remain, including whether Iran has already enriched uranium. And, last spring, Iran began to undermine confidence by delaying the entry of inspectors and by continuing to manufacture parts for centrifuges for the enrichment process.

The leaders of energy-rich Iran insist these activities are for peaceful purposes and are allowed under the NPT. Their assurances are hardly reassuring. Uranium-enrichment technology cannot only be used to produce low-enriched fuel for power reactors, but also weapons-grade nuclear material.

A close reading of the NPT makes it clear that peaceful nuclear endeavors are a benefit that accrues only to those nonweapons NPT states that credibly fulfill their obligation not to divert nuclear material and technology for weapons.

Accordingly, the Europeans have privately held out the possibility of greater economic ties and a guaranteed nuclear power fuel supply if Tehran’s leaders agree to forgo the capacity to produce nuclear weapons-usable materials. Though this would open the way for much needed foreign investment and allow Iran to produce nuclear energy, the idea has not yet been embraced by Tehran.

Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats have maintained a harder line, charging that Iran has already violated its safeguards agreements. U.S. and Israeli officials have unsuccessfully called on IAEA states to refer the case to the UN Security Council, where they could seek international sanctions against Iran.

This, in turn, has inflamed Iranian nationalism and hardened the government’s stance. Shortly after IAEA member states urged it not to do so, Iran announced last month that it will begin processing about 40 tons of uranium into feed material, which, if enriched to weapons grade, would be enough for several bombs.

Some U.S. officials argue that diplomacy at the Vienna-based IAEA has run its course. However, referral of the Iranian case to the Security Council may push Iran to eject IAEA inspectors or withdraw from the NPT. Getting the council’s approval for sanctions is far from guaranteed and would do little to halt Iran’s advanced nuclear program. More drastic action is also unwise. The effect of a pre-emptive strike by Israel or the United States on Iran’s capabilities would be temporary and would likely trigger a wider war in the region involving exchanges of ballistic missiles.

Although difficult, diplomacy remains the best option. First, Iran should be careful not to escalate the crisis. The European powers must hold Iran to its earlier pledge to halt all uranium-enrichment work and provide the access and cooperation necessary to finally resolve outstanding questions about its past activities. Otherwise, the credibility of Iran’s claim that it has no weapons ambitions will diminish further.

For its part, the United States should tone down its tough talk and work with the Europeans to test Iran’s “peaceful” intentions by endorsing the proposal to provide Iran with a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel. If Iran is only interested in developing a nuclear power capacity and its perceptions of vulnerability are not reinforced, it should eventually agree to such a deal.

To prevent other states from acquiring the means to produce nuclear bomb material, the international community must be prepared to guarantee nuclear fuel services to states that forgo indigenous uranium-enrichment and plutonium production capabilities. In addition, all states should be pressed to allow more intrusive inspections under the terms of the IAEA Additional Protocol.

Even if Iran complies with its NPT commitments now, it may still choose to follow the nuclear weapons route in the future. Given the stakes, the United States must counter arguments from Iranian hard-liners who wrongly believe that nuclear weapons will enhance Iran’s prestige and counter Israel’s nuclear arsenal. To help do so, Washington should reiterate its long-standing commitment to achieve a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone.

Time is running out. The situation demands a new and more sophisticated U.S. strategy that increases Iran’s incentives to halt its dual-purpose nuclear projects and reinforces the view within Iran that it does not need and will not benefit from nuclear weapons.