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.
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.
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.