The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst Case Outcomes
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The problem is that the line is almost invisible. Unless Iran conducts a test, declares itself nuclear-armed or withdraws from the NPT, it will be impossible to judge for certain if and when it has crossed the nuclear threshold. If Iran were to expel inspectors and reconfigure Natanz in an overt break-out, analysts could calculate the number of weeks before a weapon’s worth of HEU could be produced using declared facilities. In the more likely case of Iran continuing ostensibly to adhere to the NPT, it would not be possible to know if it were operating clandestine facilities. There are some things that would be clear indicators of a weapons decision, including the discovery of clandestine enrichment, HEU production or weaponisation work, a declaration of weapons status or the unveiling by intelligence of such a status, and testing. However, the common wisdom in the West remains that Iranian possession of nuclear weapons will not be known until after the fact.
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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.
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It is sometimes argued that offering a fallback position would at least test Iran’s intentions, and that, in the event that Iran rejected technical solutions, the US would be beer placed to garner international support for coercive action. Such arguments for why the US should be willing to offer concessions have been made at each stage of the European-led engagement strategy. It is true that US concessions in the direction of greater engagement with Iran brought Europeans, and to a lesser extent Russia and China, into closer conformity with US policy on sanctions. Such concessions have not had any impact on Iran’s basic stance, however. Since 2005, Tehran’s intentions have repeatedly been tested by a number of US compromises, listed opposite. In the words of Middle East analyst Ray Takeyh – an advocate of détente with Iran – ‘it’s been slow-motion capitulation since 2005’. During the same period, Iran, which had previously made several compromises of its own, has become increasingly unbending.If the US and its allies make the further concession of legitimising Iran’s enrichment programme and Iran then crosses the line anyway, the ability of Western capitals to influence the international community will have suffered for their having shown misplaced confidence in Iran’s intentions. Given Iran’s long history of safeguards violations and unsatisfactory cooperation with the IAEA, there is ample reason to be sceptical about those intentions.
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Evidence of some debate within Iran notwithstanding, the country’s willingness to compromise, or even negotiate, has decreased even as external pressure on it to do so has increased. The enrichment programme has become ingrained in Iranian national consciousness as a ‘right’ that cannot be circumscribed. Given the extraordinarily high level of popular support that the programme commands (29% of those polled in a February–March 2008 survey considered it ‘very important’ for Iran to have a full nuclear fuel cycle), it is difficult to envisage Iran accepting any solution that does not involve enrichment continuing in some form on Iranian soil. The country’s negotiating flexibility is also constrained by Ayatollah Khamenei’s entrenched view that any compromise with the US will only be met with demands for additional compromises.
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It is possible that Iran does not need to actually assemble or test nuclear weapons in order to achieve the strategic, political and psychological benefits of being seen to have a nuclear-weapons capability. Deterrence has much to do with perception. Mastery of the technology should satisfy the national-prestige imperative and be sufficient for most of Iran’s deterrence needs, without the security costs, economic sanctions and political ostracism that would be forthcoming if Iran visibly crossed the line. Iranians of all political stripes have made this case, although the argument is not very reassuring to outsiders, given the weapons-development work that Iran kept up from the late 1980s to 2003. The unsavoury prospect of Iran using a nuclear-capable status for regional hegemony and blackmail is one reason the West hopes to deny Iran full mastery of enrichment technology. In terms of the danger of break-out, it maers a great deal whether the ‘programme-in-being’ is akin more to that of Japan or Israel, the two extremes along the scale from complete transparency to complete opacity. Despite its break-out capability, Japan enjoys widespread international confidence in its non-proliferation bona fides, whereas Israel is assumed to possess 100–200 weapons with sophisticated designs. Iran’s transparency is somewhere in the middle, while its intentions appear to be closer to the Israeli model.
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Clandestine development is more difficult to detect if Iran is able to operate legitimate enrichment facilities than if any such activity is a violation of Security Council resolutions. From a technical standpoint, an authorised operation may mask signals from a clandestine programme. From a legal perspective, legitimising even a low level of enrichment would make it impossible for inspectors to prove that any evidence they found of centrifuge-component pro duction was for clandestine purposes and not part of the replacement cycle for the acknowledged programme. Legitimising the pro gramme would also undermine the ability of Western allies to block Iran’s foreign-procurement effort. A tight international export-control system is the best means of impeding Iran’s ability to produce fissile material. If enrichment activity were legitimised, these controls would inevitably weaken and Iran would be able to hide all purchases behind the mask of the authorised programme.
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Societal controls have their limits, however. Iran could to a large extent evade such controls by giving cascade-operation training to newly-minted nuclear physics graduates unknown to the international managers. Opportunities for technical diversion could grow as Iranian staff developed greater technical proficiency. Proponents of multilateral consortia reply that Iran may learn more advanced enrichment techniques anyway, and that enrichment technologies alone are not sufficient to manufacture a nuclear weapon. These counter-arguments have technical merit, but they are not persuasive. Even if intrusive inspections and societal monitoring minimised the risk of parallel clandestine operations to which technical know-how could be diverted, no inspection regime can protect against the risk of personnel being re-employed in an NPT break-out scenario.
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Any option that involves Iran operating enrichment facilities carries the risk that these could be used to contribute to HEU production in the event of withdrawal from the NPT. The risk increases if Iran is able to build up a stockpile of LEU. By starting with LEU rather than natural uranium, Iran could reduce by a factor of four the time needed to produce HEU of weapons grade. Under the status quo, the risk of break-out increases with each day that Iran installs new centrifuges, improves cascade operation and stockpiles LEU. Fallback options for limiting such expansion may deserve consideration, although it remains doubtful that limits would be effective. Options that would provide Iran with additional technology that could be seized in a break-out scenario would exacerbate the danger. In a country that has expropriated foreign assets in the past and that still holds to revolutionary ideals, the possibility of seizure of multilateral enrichment equipment cannot be discounted.
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Other feasibility issues arise with regard to the specifics of various anti-proliferation precautions. While the black-boxing of enrichment technology may be sufficient to protect commercial secrets when the partners in question are France or the US, for example, it is more difficult to protect secrets in a hostile environment where it is national policy to acquire weapons-useful technology. Furthermore, the social bonds that would naturally develop between foreign experts and local staff at a multilateral facility could well lead to a leaking of technology secrets. Relying on self-destructive devices to render centrifuges inoperative in the event of unauthorised use assumes that Iran would not be able to engineer countermeasures. Such optimism may be misplaced. There is also the question of whether self-destruct techniques would even be applicable in practice, given the danger that could be posed to plant personnel.