Further restrictions on Iranian enrichment are not obtainable
Iran has repeatedly held that they have an inviolable right to enrich uranium and will not accept a complete restriction on their ability to do so. By restricting the number of centrifuges they have, the current nuclear deal is the best available compromise that allows Iranian leaders to save face while still slowing down their path to a nuclear weapon.
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We are currently in an unenviable position for containing or reversing Iran's nuclear programs. We claim their programs are developing weapons and must be halted at the enrichment stage, but our proof requires public understanding of the scientific argument that enrichment is the critical threshold. The variability of intelligence assessments about the stage of the Iranian program also increases the difficulty of making our case. Moreover, after Iraq, the credibility of Western, and especially American, intelligence is very much in question. All of which leaves us with a complicated technical case to make based on dubious sources of information. Skepticism will be especially prevalent in the Middle East, where competing narratives will have greater sway.These fundamental weaknesses make our case unwinnable. Enrichment may be the right substantive place to draw the line on the Iranian nuclear program, but it is indefensible ground as a matter of public policy. If the U.S. were to use military force against Iran because of enrichment, we would be seen as provoking the ensuing war. Neither European nor regional allies would support us. Iranians would surely unite behind their government. And we would be defending our choices at the un over a chorus of castigation. It is not even difficult to imagine the U.S. being accused of using nuclear weapons against Iranian facilities because of the nuclear material any conventional attack would release.
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In spite of increasing political tensions within the regime, there seems to be a broad political consensus to pursue the programme along these lines. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, reformists and even the chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani have criticised Ahmadinejad’s more provocative positions, but not the nuclear programme itself. The programme has broad popular support: it is presented and perceived as a national technological achievement. The international discussion, focused on putative military intentions, contrasts strongly with the internal political debate in Iran. The internal perception is influenced by feelings of pride and grandeur, a deeply rooted ideology of independence and, above all, a desire for progress in an area considered crucial for future energy supply. There is a widespread impression that ’the West’ tries to prevent the country from advancing in science and technology. The international position is seen as condescending, intended to keep the country in dependence and tutelage. The regime can count on strong popular support for its argument that as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it has a right to develop its own civil nuclear industry as well as a right of access to nuclear technology, stipulated in Article IV. Iranians feel singled out and punished compared to non-signatories Israel, India and Pakistan, which are not penalised – in fact are favoured – notwithstanding their possession of nuclear weapons.
"The Iranian Nuclear Impasse
. Vol. 49, No. 3 (Autumn 2007): 169-178. [ More (2 quotes) ]
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Iran has repeatedly voiced its support for an international consortium – and even proposed a version of the idea itself – on condition that the enrichment takes place on Iranian soil. In a September 2005 speech to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad said that Iran was ‘prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of a uranium enrichment program in Iran’. In July 2007 talks with Javier Solana, Ali Larijani made the case for an international nuclear consortium, which he claimed Solana initially welcomed but later rejected. In February 2008, Ahmadinejad said that Iran’s proposal was ‘no longer on the table. But if others formulated it again, we would study it – under one condition: that the Iranian people’s right to enrich uranium be preserved.’ In May 2008, Iran formally tabled with UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon a negotiation proposal calling for the establishment of ‘enrichment and nuclear fuel production consortiums in different parts of the world – including in Iran’.
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Lack of confidence in Iran’s intentions is the central problem. As discussed in Chapter 9, there are compelling reasons to believe that the principal purpose of Iran’s enrichment programme is to create a nuclear-weapons capability. If this is the case, then no technical solution will work, because Iran will not accept any condition that would prevent it from aaining this objective. Iran may well accept the general notion of an international consortium. But in the event that such a plan were formally proposed and negotiations held over its details, it seems clear that Iran would not accept the kinds of limits on the programme and Security Council enforcement powers that the major powers would require to guard against the possibility of NPT break-out. Iran will not accept the kind of intrusive inspections that were forced on Iraq in 1991. Blanket restrictions on Iranian access to technology, such as the black-boxing condition mentioned above, would be rejected as violating inalienable rights and Iran’s core goal of achieving and demonstrating technical proficiency. The low probability of Iran ceding control of its nuclear programme to the international community is even lower now that the country has demonstrated an enrichment capability. In its official statements about accepting multilateral facilities, Iran has not said that it would put its own facilities under multinational control. It can be expected that other proposed restrictions would be neither accepted nor rejected, but would effectively be shunted aside through non-responsive counter-proposals and endless negotiation and filibuster, which was how Iran dealt with both Russia’s 2005 proposal for a joint uranium-enrichment venture on Russian soil and the E-3+3 proposal of June 2008.
The policy consequences of Iran having gotten this far down the road to a nuclear bomb are profound. These new facts require a fundamental reassessment not only of how we engage Iran but also of what we can realistically hope to achieve.
First, the long-held American objective to prevent Iran from acquiring the technical know-how to enrich uranium has been overtaken by events. While it was an appropriate goal at the time, Iran has acquired this capability. Its knowledge of how to enrich uranium cannot be erased. There is no realistic future in which Iran will not be "nuclear enrichment capable," that is, have the know-how to replicate its current enrichment facility at Natanz -- either overtly or covertly.
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Discussion in Iran on the country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons thus far has tended to focus on Iran’s right to acquire the technology needed to develop an independent nuclear energy program, even though weapons-related implications clearly follow. U.S. efforts to impede the flow of requisite technology have been cast by the hard-liners as an attempt to keep Iran backward and dependent. Washington’s policy has been depicted as animated by hostility toward an independent Iran. The principle of independence, of course, was one of the touchstones of the Iranian revolution, and few Iranians of whatever political persuasion—nationalists, secularists, or advocates of a strict religious government—would dissent from its importance. The long and painful history of foreign intervention in Iran (of Russia and Great Britain in Persia and, more recently, of U.S. influence in Iran) makes the issue of independence a critical point for Iranians.
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Overall, non-Western developing nations and rising powers (beyond Iran’s own Arab Gulf neighbors) are demonstratively not moved by US arguments saying that Iran is an unrepentant rogue or militarized state, both domestically and internationally, that must be treated like a pariah and to tally isolated. Strategic competitors to the United States and various other rising powers—including India, Russia, China, and even US allies Turkey and South Korea—have burgeoning energy, defense, and diplomatic ties to Iran.23 These powers all interpret the NPT to mean that Iran does have a right to enrichment. Their problem is rather in the area of Iranian trans parency and intentions. For instance, the United States can expect Turkey and Brazil to continue to play a classic “nonaligned” role as cultural and political mediators between East and West, North and South, essentially giving a less ideological face to programs and demands already made by the P-5, such as compromise proposals by Russia. They will continue to capitalize on the inherent political capital built up as part of their own grand strategic foreign policies of “zero problems with other countries.”24 Additionally, Brazil has innate political capital with Iran because of the tortured history of its own illicit nuclear program in the 1970–80s.25
Attempting to keep Iran as far away from nuclear weapons as possible seems prudent and reasonable. It is imperative that any final deal prohibits Iran from possessing facilities that would allow it to produce weapons-grade plutonium, for example. But in real- ity, the quest for an optimal deal that requires a permanent end to Iranian enrichment at any level would likely doom diplomacy, making the far worse outcomes of unconstrained nuclearization or a military showdown over Tehran’s nuclear program much more probable. Regardless of pressure from the United States, its allies, and the wider international community, the Iranian regime is un- likely to agree to end all enrichment permanently.
Khamenei, the ultimate decider on the nuclear file, has invested far too much political capital and money (more than $100 billion over the years) in mastering enrichment technology and defending Iran’s nuclear rights (defined as domestic enrichment). The nuclear program and “resistance to arrogant powers” are firmly imbedded in the regime’s ideological raison d’être. So, even in the face of withering economic sanctions, Khamenei and hard-liners within the Revolutionary Guard are unlikely to sustain support for fur- ther negotiations—let alone acquiesce to a final nuclear deal—if the end result reflects a total surrender for the regime. As Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation, observes, “[S]anctions are a danger to their rule, but weakness in the face of pressure might be no less a threat.”
Nor are Rouhani and his negotiating team likely to agree to halt enrichment or advocate for such a policy, since doing so would be political suicide. In 2003, during Rouhani’s previous role as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, he convinced Khamenei to accept a tem- porary suspension of enrichment. But further talks with the inter- national community stalled in early 2005 over a failure to agree on Iran’s asserted right to enrichment, and Tehran ended its suspen- sion shortly thereafter. Rouhani is unlikely to let that happen again.
For those who argue that any agreement must require Iran to give up its “nuclear capacity,” no window of time before Iran gets the bomb is enough. But even if the Natanz enrichment facility and others like it were destroyed, short of killing the scientists and technicians involved (and seeing that no new ones are trained), this could not be done. The program could always be re-started. The slogan that Iran should give up the bomb really just means that there should be even more time between the (re)start of the pro- gram and when bombs could be produced.
The added safety that would come from Iran dismantling its nuclear program would certainly be preferable, but one has to ask whether this is a realistic possibility. Critics of the interim agree- ment assert that it is. And this gets to the nub of the disagreement. Of course, proof is impossible, and the sanctions levied over the past two years have had more effect than many expected. It is noteworthy, however, that almost no experts expect that the West could put enough pressure on Iran to force it to disarm. For much of Iran’s population—not only the hard-liners—the enrichment program is a symbol of the country’s sovereignty, independence, and ability to stand up to the West. Given Iranian pride in the country’s long history and the memories of Anglo-American indirect control during much of the twentieth century, to give in would be a humiliation and an acknowledgement that Iran could occupy only a subordinate place in the world.
Clearly, we should not succumb to yet another episode of foreign-policy hawks crying wolf. But it is not enough to remain committed to a diplomatic process for dealing with Iran. If U.S. officials do not adopt more realistic expectations of what constitutes an achievable agreement that serves America’s security interests, the current negotiations will all too likely result in failure. Such an outcome would lead to pervasive disillusionment and the onset of an even more intense, dangerous crisis in U.S.-Iranian relations.
The foundation of a realistic policy is accepting that Iran will likely never agree to renounce all nuclear capabilities. Any Iranian regime will want the country to have control over some nuclear technology, including the nuclear fuel cycle. It is worthwhile to recall that Iran’s nuclear ambitions did not originate with the mullahs; they began in the early 1970s under the Shah. That suggests widespread, long-term support for such a goal, based on a variety of motives, ranging from national prestige to regional-security concerns. Even if the political equivalent of Thomas Jefferson came to power in Tehran, the resulting government still would be unlikely to accept the demand of American neoconservatives that Iran embrace abstinence regarding nuclear capabilities.