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.
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.
A final diplomatic settlement that provides sufficient transparency and assurances against weaponization efforts while respecting Iranian rights to a civilian nuclear program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be more difficult to achieve. But, unlike military action, it is the only sustainable solution. The Supreme Leader’s repeated insistence that Iran’s program is solely for peaceful civilian purposes, as well as his statements that the acquisition or use of nuclear weapons would be a “grave sin” against Islam, may or may not reflect his true beliefs. But they provide a public discourse that would allow the regime to climb down from the current nuclear crisis without losing face, so long as there are clear benefits to any final agreement and Iran’s rights under the NPT are respected.
Uranium enrichment may be the most important area of dispute. While technical arguments fly freely, the issue is fundamentally political. Noted the Crisis Group, Tehran has no need for so many centrifuges, other than to reject Western interference in Iran’s affairs, just as the allies have “no need to exaggerate the breakout risks of Iran’s current inventory of a few thousand obsolete IR-1 centrifuges, which are under the most stringent IAEA inspection regime.” Iran wants a rapid increase in allowable centrifuges after the initial period while the allies hope to sufficiently circumscribe Iranian enrichment to convince Tehran to eventually abandon the program. Compromise is required.
Tehran should be permitted to enrich uranium and conduct nuclear research, while accepting barriers between civilian and potential nuclear programs, including steps to hinder reversibility, with meaningful international oversight. The implementation schedule should be based upon technical requirements but adjusted for political considerations. That is, both Washington and Tehran must receive sufficient benefits upfront to justify battling powerful vested interests against peace. Steady progress in future years will be necessary to preserve support for the deal. It might be necessary, suggested the Crisis Group, to “postpone some difficult concessions until both sides have become accustomed to a new relationship.”
The Crisis Group suggested a complicated, multi-phase timetable to fulfill these requirements. Moreover, sanctions should be suspended and eventually lifted over time to reward Iran for progress while retaining incentives for completing the process.
Such an approach likely is the best the West can expect. Preserving industrial-scale nuclear enrichment matters as much for Iran’s national pride as for energy/economics. Iran would be allowed a controlled increase in enrichment capacity after resolving IAEA issues and under tougher monitoring. Having endured years of escalating penalties, Tehran isn’t likely to accept less. Even many Iranians inclined toward the West back the program. Iran’s leaders have no reason to trust Washington, while U.S. officials who blithely imagine an easy military solution would be setting the stage for another extended Middle Eastern disaster.
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Others will accept nothing less that the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program and want to “prevent” Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability. Setting aside the fact that the DNI assesses that Iran already has that capability, and the fact dismantlement is a political impossibility, this approach would be disastrous. Eliminating facilities would not eliminate Iran’s knowledge of how to build a centrifuge. Absent facilities to inspect, the IAEA would have no justification for inspections and monitoring. Dismantlement would mean that thousands of nuclear scientists and engineers would suddenly be out of work and thus available to other countries with nuclear ambitions or for an Iranian clandestine program – one that would then be more difficult to detect.
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Iran will be able to do R&D; there are few legal mechanisms to prohibit it. There is no legal or other basis for banning R&D–not in NPT, not in UN Security Council resolutions, not in previous proliferation and arms-control agreements. Many countries, including American allies, would object to attempting to impose a ban on R&D because of the precedent it would set. Verification of such a ban would be difficult.
Banning R&D and dismantling the enrichment program would create a new and dangerous proliferation threat. If a large cadre of nuclear scientists and engineers were to become unemployed with no legitimate or peaceful project to work on, some might be persuaded to work for foreign countries that are potential proliferators. Others might stay home and become advocates for an Iranian clandestine program.
Banning enrichment and dismantling Iran’s existing enrichment facilities would indeed be the best negotiated outcome. But such an agreement is not attainable.
Iran’s leaders have convinced the Iranian people that a ban on enrichment would deprive them of an inalienable right to pursue civil nuclear power as they see fit and impede their scientific advancement. Iranians across the political spectrum would prefer to forgo an agreement and muddle through under existing sanctions rather than accept what they would regard as a national humiliation.
Moreover, in a fundamental sense, it is too late to eliminate an Iranian enrichment capability. Iran already has the knowledge of how to produce and operate centrifuges. Even if somehow Tehran could be coerced into dismantling its current enrichment program, it would retain the ability to reconstitute it at a future time.
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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.