A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff
A second problem is that Iran has moved in a relatively short period of eighteen months from a single cascade of 164 centrifuges to a reported figure of approximately three thousand centrifuges. If Tehran decides tomorrow to build another three thousand there is little Washington can do to stop it.
Historically, countries that have enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program have built many more centrifuges than Iran has so far, and run them for years at a time. Centrifuges are famously fragile and difficult to operate on a large scale, and building a nuclear weapon also requires fashioning the enriched uranium into a nuclear device—”weaponization.” There is the additional problem of finding a way to shrink the device so that it can fit on a plane or, harder still, onto the tip of an extremely reliable missile. In short, Iran is still years away from a nuclear weapon, as the recent NIE suggests.
The more immediate problem, however, is that every centrifuge Iran builds—whether it works or not—creates new facts on the ground. The current policy of containment and sanctions does not prevent Iran from continuing to build large numbers of centrifuges.
Unfortunately, recent events vividly demonstrate the conundrum that the US and its allies face as they consider another sanctions resolution. If Iranian scientists have made progress on the P-2, they have done so despite two sanctions resolutions. By the time a new resolution is passed, they may make further progress on a P-2 program. In this race between centrifuges and sanctions, the centrifuges are winning.
As a solution to the nuclear dispute, the US and its allies should propose turning Iran’s national enrichment efforts into a multinational program. Under this approach, the Iranian government would agree to allow two or more additional governments (for example, France and Germany) to participate in the management and operation of those activities within Iran.3 In exchange, Iran would be able to jointly own and operate an enrichment facility without facing international sanctions. Resolving the nuclear issue would, in turn, make it possible for Iran to enjoy a variety of other benefits such as membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), increased trade with Europe, access to badly needed equipment for its aviation and energy industries, and perhaps normalized relations with the United States.
Iran would be prohibited from producing either highly enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium. This is the most important principle in the proposal. If Iran cannot produce or acquire highly enriched uranium, it cannot build a nuclear weapon. If Iran’s enrichment program is turned into a multilateral project, it makes it extremely difficult for Iran to produce highly enriched uranium. Any attempt to do so, even secretly, would carry the risk of discovery by the international management team and the staff at the facility; the high probability of getting caught will likely deter Iran from trying to do so in the first place.
No work on nuclear fuel, including research and development, could be conducted in Iran outside the multilateral arrangement. In addition, no institution, personnel, or facility associated with the Iranian military would be allowed to participate in the production of nuclear fuel or other nuclear activities. Neither of the two kinds of materials used to make a weapon—highly enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium—would be produced, only uranium enriched to low levels that could be used in nuclear power plants.
Under a multilateral program, Iranian scientists and engineers would benefit from the knowledge and experience of the international managers and staff sent to work at the facility. This expertise could help Iran address the current technical problems its engineers have encountered in trying to get their existing centrifuges to work at full capacity. More importantly, Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers would be able to be part of the international scientific community: for example, they could travel, exchange ideas with colleagues, and attend professional conferences without sanction or suspicion. The Iranian government would thus get something out of this arrangement and see a path where it can win with nonproliferation and lose with nuclear weapons.
A multilateral solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse may also provide a blueprint for dealing with a more general global problem: the potential spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology to other nations that do not now have nuclear weapons. Both President Bush and the IAEA have called attention to this danger and have endorsed proposals aimed at preventing additional countries from engaging in nuclear fuel production. To achieve this goal, international officials have also advocated a variety of mechanisms, such as a guaranteed international supply of nuclear fuel, third-party enrichment services such as those now provided to Iran by Russia, and upgraded inspections to detect clandestine programs. Combined with such mechanisms, a multilateral approach along the lines we propose for Iran can dramatically reduce the incentive for governments to pursue their own enrichment programs.
These are not trivial issues. Still, the main objection to the multilateral approach has traditionally been that it increases the risk of proliferation. According to this argument, Iran’s capacities to build nuclear weapons could improve under a multilateral arrangement because of (a) the transfer of technical knowledge to Iranian managers and workers; (b) the potential diversion of nuclear materials or technology from the multilateral facility to a clandestine, parallel program; and (c) the possibility that Iran could cancel the program by renationalizing it and expelling the multilateral partners.
On the first issue, it seems fair to assume that Iranian technicians would, in fact, obtain technical knowledge that they did not previously possess by working with their international colleagues. What they would learn, whether the acquired knowledge would prove decisive, or whether they would have learned it on their own anyway is unclear.
On the second issue, diversion of material or technology to a clandestine program, it is worth remembering that even with routine safeguards, diversion is extremely difficult. In practice, the IAEA has been very good at accounting for nuclear material, and Iran would have to be willing to take a large risk of detection to engage in diversion. Given the enhanced transparency of a multilateral arrangement and the constant presence in Iran of foreign monitors that such a plan would require, the risk of detection would be even higher. Indeed, experience during the nuclear age strongly suggests that governments are less likely to attempt diversion or to defeat safeguards when there is an active verification effort within a country. (In general, proliferators prefer to wait until the inspectors have gone home.)