Iranian Nukes: The Way Forward

Today’s New York Times ran a story on the fact that the U.N.’s atomic energy chief “has a gut feeling” that Iran wants nuclear weapons. This is as surprising and newsworthy as my gut feeling that the U.S. wants to hang onto its nuclear weapons. Much more enlightening was a fantastic panel discussion called “Reassessing Inspections and Verification” at yesterday’s National Iranian-American Council program on Capitol Hill. The moderator, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, sought the answer to the question was “How do you craft an agreement on the Iranian nuclear question?”

Bruno Pellaud, President of the Swiss Nuclear Forum and former head of IAEA Safeguards opened with the observation that the model used by fellow panelist David Kay in Iraq will not work in Iran, as the latter “has not lost a war.” The alternative of international inspection did not work because it focused on prohibition of enrichment. There are other areas of focus that are more promising.

Traditionally, design information is provided to the inspectors just before nuclear material is introduced. A better method is to provide early design information as soon as one decides to build a plant. Although Iran approved this approach, it became the first and only state to refuse to provide such information for a research reactor. The IAEA must insist that Iran comply. It may seem trivial, but it is important.  Since 1995 the IAEA has technology that can detect nuclear material. Now, we also have commercial remote photography and digital surveillance cameras. Pellaud thinks Iran is testing the international community by refusing additional surveillance cameras.

Many new measures developed in the 1990s could be slipped into the present agreements through the “additional protocols” that allow for new technologies. Only a few countries have refused to sign. Pellaud says Iran deserves credit for signing the additional protocol and then voluntarily suspending enrichment, voluntarily abiding by the protocols despite the fact that they never ratified it. This is what allowed the IAEA to discover additional violations in the past. Unfortunately, the IAEA ignored additional offers by Iran because of the expectation that the next election would bring in someone even more compliant. Instead a less complaint candidate won and, perhaps feeling insulted, Iran ceased to voluntarily comply with the unratified agreement.

Suspension of all enrichment is unenforceable both because many countries would consider it a violation of national rights and because centrifuges are portable by their nature.

François Nicoullaud, the former French Ambassador to Iran (2001-2005), said that because no international law can change the laws of physics, he left diplomacy and can now speak freely. He argued that we cannot start from scratch. The Iranians never withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty (NPT), so there is a base of good will on which it is possible to build. Both sides must accept that  there are many ambiguities regarding NPT commitments. If both sides would recognize these ambiguities it would become possible to resolve them for the better.

Iran said it doesn’t want nuclear weapons. Nicoullaud echoes Ronald Reagan, saying, “Trust but verify.” No country has been able to test a nuclear weapon undetected. Do not ask for commitments that are not easily verified, like asking for zero enrichment. Instead ask Iran to ratify the additional protocols. Then ask Iran to formally agree not enrich beyond 5% (enough for nuclear power but not nuclear weapons) and to facilitate inspections to keep production in line with its nuclear power requirements. He firmly believes that with the proper approach, the Iranians, whoever may be in office, would agree to such commitments.

Dr. David Kay, former Iraq Weapons Inspector, insisted that we have to recognize that inspection and verification of Iran is a very difficult task because of past violations, existence of delivery systems, and the toxic relationship between Iran and many other countries. Inspection can’t prevent Iran from development of nuclear weapons; it just makes it more expensive. It does however create a strong plate glass window that Iran would have to break to produce a nuclear weapon. He agreed that the IAEA is perfectly capable of detecting enrichment beyond 5% if given access, prohibiting critical experiments (except those meant for reactor safety), and inspecting all missile sites. This would require strong political support and a permanent inspection presence in Iran. He felt this requires an agreed and transparent dispute resolution process under the Security Council even if delegated to IAEA.

Nicoullaud believes that a time frame of 3-4 months to reach agreement in outline is reasonable, but suspects that someone needs to be appointed to work full time on this. In the past Iranian willingness to negotiate was not capitalized upon because the Europeans wouldn’t spare the time. The Iranians and the West were at cross-purposes on the purpose of negotiations. The Iranians wanted low enrichment approval and the Europeans wanted zero enrichment. Because Iran had suspended enrichment, Europe had incentive to drag its heels. That has changed now.

Iran has 900mg of low enriched material. The panelists disagreed on how long it would take to re-enrich it, estimates ranged from 3 to 12 months. Re-enriching could be done in 3-6 months. A uranium device need not be tested. (Israel never tested uranium, only plutonium.) Merely having the potential gives political leverage even if you don’t actual enrich. However, Kay thinks Iran is five years away from developing multiple devices and reliable delivery systems. He argues that the only country with an existential risk from an Iranian nuclear weapon is Iran and not talking to them has deprived us of the opportunity to explain this to them.

On the obstacle Israel poses to a nuclear free Middle East, Kay notes that the U.S. has given confidence to Japan and South Korea that we will protect them and he thinks we can convince Israel, too. For him the tough issue is the toxic relation we have with Iran. Nicoullaud, however, argued that Iranian leaders can’t, on the one hand, call for nuclear free Israel and, at the same time, say they want to remove it from the face of the earth.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

One Response to “Iranian Nukes: The Way Forward”

  1. […] do not trust it to limit its enrichment o sub-weapons grade.  There is good reason to believe that a reasonable compromise is possible, but the previous U.S. administration showed little interest in trying to achieve it. Obama has […]

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