June may prove to be a critical month in determining the outcome of Iran’s nuclear program and the future of the theocratic regime itself. This week, the IAEA Board of Governors will convene, and on June 14, Iran will hold its presidential election (with a possible runoff one week later).
The lead-up to both events has made clear that the policies pursued to date by the international community, and by the United States in particular, have failed to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear and democratic Iran. Now is the time for a fundamental change in policy.
The findings of the latest IAEA report, published earlier in May, set the state for the board’s meeting. Perhaps most telling is the relative quiet that has accompanied the report’s release. In large part, this is a measure of the success Iran has had in stonewalling the agency’s inspectors. After all, this is the 41st report of its kind, and many of the most disturbing conclusions have become standard features. For example, previous reports, like the current one, have expressed concern about possible “activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile” and have assessed as credible “information available to the Agency” regarding activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” These and other findings made headlines the first time they were reported, but now the shock has worn off.
Yet, the IAEA report documents substantial production increases in enriched uranium at both 5 percent and 20 percent levels, as well as increases in the number of operating cascades and the installation of advanced centrifuges that will produce more fissile material at a much faster pace. To date, Iran has produced at its declared facilities almost 9,000 kilograms of UF-6 (uranium hexafluoride) enriched up to 5 percent and over 300 kilograms of UF-6 enriched up to 20 percent. According to various estimates, with further processing to weapons grade, the 5 percent stockpile could provide enough material for six or seven bombs, with material for the first possibly taking as little as three to four months using existing centrifuges. The more urgent threat comes from the UF-6 enriched up to 20 percent, of which over 180 kg currently remain available for further enrichment. With only 70 more kg of 20 percent–enriched material, Iran could possess sufficient uranium for a weapon in a matter of weeks. At current production rates, Iran could quickly cross the red line set down by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September.
Despite the further advance of Iran’s nuclear program, the June board of governors’ meeting is likely to resemble past sessions — there is little likelihood of concrete results. But with time rapidly running out before Iran has the means to build its first nuclear bomb, the IAEA’s continued failure to act effectively will send a powerful signal. Tehran will likely conclude that its intransigence with the IAEA has little downside and that its strategy of delay in negotiations with the major powers continues to work. Jerusalem, if it hasn’t done so already, will likely conclude that the decade-long policies of engagement and sanctions have not halted Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and that the use of force – even with all of its drawbacks – offers the last opportunity to prevent Iran from going nuclear before the “window of action” closes.
During and after the meeting, Washington will likely repeat its well-known talking points but do little to change Iran’s or Israel’s calculations. If past patterns hold, U.S. policy makers, while expressing concern, will seek to find hope that the presidential elections may provide a new avenue for diplomacy. The assumption, as always, will be that sufficient time remains for negotiations.