The current Iranian election crisis has created more political uncertainty in Iran than any other event since the 1979 revolution. At a minimum, promised U.S. nuclear talks with Tehran have been delayed to avoid the appearance of political “meddling” (i.e., of dealing with an Iranian president whose legitimacy is in dispute). Still, no one in the White House believes the current crisis or its resolution will alter how the U.S. should approach the Iranian nuclear threat. Unfortunately, this hard-nosed political realism is married to an egregiously naive view of what kind of nuclear deal the U.S. should seek.
Foggy Bottom’s best are now quietly insisting that we need to be more “flexible” and “pragmatic” in our proposed nuclear talks with Iran. The Iranians, they note, are only months away from acquiring enough nuclear fuel to make a bomb. Therefore, insisting or building upon the United Nations’s repeated demands that Iran suspend its “civilian” fuel-making operations is a fool’s errand. Instead, the State Department mandarins suggest, America and its key allies should let Iran “save face” — that is, we should allow Tehran to manufacture a small amount of nuclear fuel while demanding increased inspections and multilateral management of its nuclear program. This is a far more modest goal than getting Iran to stop making nuclear fuel, but, they contend, it is the best we can hope for.
But is it really? Could the U.S. and Iran finalize such an agreement in a timely fashion? Some estimate that Iran could acquire its first nuclear bomb in a year or less. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have been negotiating with Tehran for nearly six years merely to get Iran to restrain its nuclear-fuel-making activities. So far, these talks have produced a temporary suspension, followed by an all-out production effort. What makes anyone think the U.S. will do any better?
For that matter, even if we could forge a nuclear pact with Tehran, would such an agreement make it harder or easier for the Iranians to produce a bomb? Many experts fear that Iran’s known uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz is merely a cover for covert military facilities. One way to identify such illicit activities is to detect the uranium hexafluoride gas that is leaked when converting uranium into the material that must be fed into uranium-enrichment plants. But by allowing Iran to operate its declared “civilian” uranium gas-conversion plant at Esfahan, we allow uranium-hexafluoride noise that could effectively mask any evidence of possible covert uranium-conversion activities. This same problem would arise if we were to allow the Iranians to make plutonium fuel, as they plan to do at Arak, by chemically separating it from spent reactor fuel. Under this scenario, the telltale krypton gas that would leak from the declared plutonium-separation plant would heavily mask the leakage that would otherwise announce the operation of a covert plant.
As for allowing Iran to make nuclear fuels under one or another multinational management scheme (which would allow foreigners to oversee Iran’s nuclear-fuel-making activities), this too would complicate efforts to ferret out covert activity. Why? Because the number and types of foreign nuclear experts in Iran would only increase under these schemes, which would make it more difficult to identify those foreign experts who might help the Iranian regime make nuclear bombs. Unclassified news reports have already given us a peek at this problem. Indian experts on the production of tritium (a fuel useful for making smaller, lighter, missile-deliverable warheads) and Russian weapons designers visited Iran to “assist” its nuclear program in 2003 and 2006. Unfortunately, the press and intelligence agencies identified these visitors only after they completed their trips.
Finally, how might these management schemes cap Iran’s nuclear-fuel-making activities? Tehran already has at least three times as much nuclear-fuel-making capacity as Pakistan had when it started producing weapons-grade uranium back in the 1980s. If, as the proponents of these schemes insist, a limited number of uranium-enrichment centrifuges can be safeguarded to prevent military diversions, it might reasonably be asked why the Iranians shouldn’t be permitted to have an even larger program.
The answer, of course, is that the IAEA cannot detect such diversions in a reliable, timely fashion. Iran already has between 5,000 and 7,000 centrifuges up and running at Natanz. Between the low-enriched uranium it already has and is making and the 300 to 400 centrifuges it is adding each month, Iran in a year or less will be able to break out using its declared plant at Natanz to build a bomb in as little as twelve weeks. Since the IAEA visits Natanz irregularly (sometimes once a month, sometimes once every two months), it is already incapable of blocking any Iranian effort to seize the plant or divert a bomb’s worth of material.