June 1, 2011

Iran's Nuclear Program: The Road Not Taken

This is the New Yorker's summation of a new piece by Seymour Hersh suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program is being exaggerated. 
Is Iran actively trying to develop nuclear weapons? Members of the Obama Administration often talk as if this were a foregone conclusion, as did their predecessors under George W. Bush. There’s a large body of evidence, however, including some of America’s most highly classified intelligence assessments, suggesting that the U.S. could be in danger of repeating a mistake similar to the one made with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq eight years ago—allowing anxieties about the policies of a tyrannical regime to distort our estimates of the state’s military capacities and intentions.
The two most recent National Intelligence Estimates (N.I.E.s) on Iranian nuclear progress have stated that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran has made any effort to build the bomb since 2003. Yet Iran is heavily invested in nuclear technology. In the past four years, it has tripled the number of centrifuges in operation at its main enrichment facility at Natanz, which is buried deep underground. International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) inspectors have expressed frustration with Iran’s level of coöperation, but have been unable to find any evidence suggesting that enriched uranium has been diverted to an illicit weapons program.
In mid-February, Lieutenant General James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, provided the House and Senate intelligence committees with an updated N.I.E. on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. A previous assessment, issued in 2007, created consternation and anger inside the Bush Administration and in Congress by concluding, “with high confidence,” that Iran had halted its nascent nuclear-weapons program in 2003. . . .
Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s national-security adviser, said in a speech on May 12th that the U.S. would continue its aggressive sanction policy until Iran proves that its enrichment intentions are peaceful and meets all its obligations under the nonproliferation treaty. Obama has been prudent in his public warnings about the consequences of an Iranian bomb, but he and others in his Administration have often overstated the available intelligence about Iranian intentions. . . .
The unending political stress between Washington and Tehran has promoted some unconventional thinking. One approach, championed by retired ambassador Thomas Pickering and others, is to accept Iran’s nuclear-power program, but to try to internationalize it, and offer Iran various incentives. Pickering and his associates are convinced that the solution to the nuclear impasse is to turn Iran’s nuclear-enrichment programs into a multinational effort. . . .
Hersh says that the most important finding of the N.I.E., which news accounts failed to convey, was "that nothing significantly new had been learned to suggest that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon." Said one retired senior intelligence official: "nothing substantially new has been learned in the last four years, and none of our efforts--informants, penetrations, planting of sensors--leads to a bomb."

Hersh recounts some inventive steps taken by U.S. intelligence to penetrate Iran's nuclear program: "Street signs were surreptitiously removed in heavily populated areas of Tehran--say, near a university suspected of conducting nuclear enrichment--and replaced with similar-looking signs implanted with radiation sensors. . . .High-powered sensors disguised as stones were spread randomly along roadways in a mountainous area where a suspected underground weapon site was under construction. The stones were capable of transmitting electronic data . . ."

Hersh quotes a senior European diplomat as arguing that Iran is definitely on course to develop a nuclear weapon. Even if there is no direct evidence of weaponization, the "more important questions are: Is Iran behaving in a way that would be rational if they were not developing a nuclear weapon? And the answer on that is very clear--their behavior only makes sense if their goal is to have a bomb. And are they doing the other elements of developing a bomb? And they definitely are. There may or may not be weaponization in Iran today, but I don't think it is an interesting question. It says nothing about their intention." The only evidence the diplomat offered, however, was Iran's decision "to enrich some uranium to a purity level of twenty percent for medical purposes." 

Iran is isolated and needs friends. Thus it is significant that the Turks say the following: "We tell the Iranians all the time that we would not like to see a nuclear bomb in Iran. They know the price of not telling the truth."

Hersh recalls the excellent 2008 piece by Thomas Pickering and associates in the New York Review of Books, which proposed that Iran be conceded the right to enrich uranium on its own soil while "internationalizing" the operation. I will post some extracts from that below. As a negotiating strategy, it has been the road not taken. Instead, Obama bowed to the forces dictating hostility and unremitting opposition to Iran, dooming any prospect of an agreement.

I've excerpted about a third of the February 2008 piece by Thomas R. Pickering, William Luers, and Jim Walsh, "A Solution for the US-Iran Nuclear Standoff," the thrust of which I strongly endorse:
We propose that Iran’s efforts to produce enriched uranium and other related nuclear activities be conducted on a multilateral basis, that is to say jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments. This proposal provides a realistic, workable solution to the US–Iranian nuclear standoff. Turning Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities into a multinational program will reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion not only of our disagreements but of our common interests as well. . . .

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. . . .

Still, the question remains, what should the US propose? Iranian enrichment on Russian soil clearly seems unworkable. Even a disinterested observer would have to concede that the Russians cannot be trusted, as their willingness to cut off natural gas exports for political purposes has vividly demonstrated. Regime change and military strikes are unrealistic, dangerous, and, in any case, unlikely. So what should be done?

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.
A number of Iranian officials—including President Ahmadinejad himself—have already publicly endorsed a multilateral solution. Of course, Iran’s concept of multilateral enrichment is likely to be different from an American or European version, but those differences could, we believe, be resolved in negotiations.
Proposals to bring nuclear programs under multilateral supervision are neither new nor few in number. Several models of multinational uranium enrichment have been successfully used in Europe. Applied to the Iranian case, a multilateral approach would allow Iran to continue to own its existing nuclear facilities and centrifuges; but the management and operation of those facilities would be shared with the other partner governments, and any new facilities and technology would be owned and managed jointly by the consortium. All the multinational partners would contribute financially to the establishment and operation of the program and would also share in any revenues coming from the sale of the fuel. Such an arrangement could take many different forms, but any version of it would likely be subject to the following conditions:
  • 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.
  • Iran would fully implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires member nations to make their nuclear facilities subject to snap inspections, environmental sampling, and more comprehensive reporting requirements. Iran has already offered to go beyond the current safeguards of nuclear processes it adheres to, and it should be held to that offer. Inherent in any multilateral arrangement for Iran’s nuclear program is a requirement for greater transparency, since Iran’s foreign partners will need full access to records and personnel to carry out their management responsibilities.
  • Iran would commit itself to a program only of light water reactors (LWRs), which require uranium fuel enriched only to low levels and which, compared with other types of reactors, produce relatively small amounts of plutonium in the nuclear waste generated. This is a reasonable demand since the LWR is the de facto international standard.
Of course, there are many other issues that would need to be agreed to by the parties, for example, restrictions on the sale or transfer of technology and material used or produced in Iran to other countries.4 Still, the proposal cannot be one-sided. Iran needs to get something out of such a deal. A proposal that is all restrictions and no benefits is unlikely to be appealing or sustainable. Iran would be giving up some degree of control over part of its program and should rightly expect something in return. Certainly the Iranian government will have to be able to show that a multilateral nuclear program is advantageous for Iran.
US negotiators should design a package that would create and encourage constituencies for this consortium approach—such as the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s civilian nuclear program—which have a clear self-interest in the success of a multilateral approach. As it stands, US policy is all about limiting or eliminating the functions of Iran’s nuclear bureaucracy, so an Iranian nuclear agency can be expected to fight tooth-and-nail to resist the US and protect itself.
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.
In order to assure Iran that the multilateral nuclear facility has the full support of the international community, construction and operation of the facility should be authorized by a resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council. The resolution should also include a provision that any future move by Iran to nationalize the facility or withdraw from the NPT would automatically trigger punitive steps against Iran.
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It is not clear if such a proposal, even if offered by the U.S. government, would be accepted by Iran. There is such a larger climate of hostility as to make any formal agreement virtually impossible. To say nothing of the howl certain to be directed against any such negotiating position in the U.S., it would certainly be argued within some Iranian circles that this better offer from the West was still discriminatory against it.

I am made uneasy by the authors' bottom line, which seems to reject any deal whereby enrichment, under Iranian ownership, was permitted on Iranian soil under the international inspections entailed in the Additional Protocol to the NPT. I think that this course was and is the most reasonable arrangement, though politically it is even more vulnerable than their proposal.

How much of this proposal for negotiation, in any case, is itself negotiable? That is not clear to me. Despite such reservations, the proposal by Pickering, Luers, and Walsh is an exemplification of wise and creative statesmanship. Too bad that its prospects today seem other-worldly.

Was it overly optimistic to believe in 2008 that Obama might be attracted by a real offer to negotiate? So it would seem.

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