Politics & Policy

Nuclear Musical Chairs

Who will be the last standing?

With Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s announcement last Friday that Washington would drop its objections to Iran’s World Trade Organization membership, Washington officially joined the EU-3 (Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) in a diplomatic dance to end Iran’s nuclear-bomb project. The only questions now are: When will the music stop–and who will be left standing?

#ad#The thinking within the Bush administration is that Iran will be the odd man out after the next set of EU-3-Iran talks scheduled for March 23 in Paris. This view rests on three particulars. First, Iranian officials have threatened to resume building their centrifuge enrichment plant at Natanz (a facility whose “peaceful” operation would bring Tehran ineluctably within days of having the bomb) if Iran does not get what it wants in Paris. Second, the EU-3 has so far insisted that the only “objective guarantee” Iran can give that it will stay out of the bomb-making business is to forswear and terminate its enrichment and reprocessing efforts.

Third, Iranian officials seem to be spoiling for a fight. On March 12, Iran’s foreign ministry dismissed Rice’s offers as insignificant. Describing the secretary as “the queen of war and violence,” it demanded Washington “apologize” for suggesting that allowing Iran to enjoy what was already its own by right–WTO membership–was any offer at all.

All these points support the optimistic view that the U.S. can afford to close ranks with the EU-3, offer Iran modest incentives, demand even more intrusive nuclear inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and bank on Tehran bolting first and early for the bomb. This would then open the way to taking it to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions with the EU-3’s solid support. Given this view, it is hardly surprising that U.S. officials have not yet secured a deadline for action from the EU-3 against Iran. The assumption, again, is that Iran will act before any deadline is needed.

Sound too good to be a slam dunk? Well, it should. Any serious strategy, after all, has to be based on more than a hope, particularly if that hope turns out to be wrong. Here’s where other facts that have not generally been focused upon deserve greater attention. First, after 18 years of keeping their entire enrichment program hidden and another two years of relatively fleckless hide-and-seek inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it would be folly to assume we know that Iran has no covert enrichment program. Indeed, if our experience in Iraq has taught us anything, it ought to be that a certain amount of humility is in order when it comes to specifying what nuclear facilities a proliferator may have.

Certainly, the fact that we don’t know that Iran doesn’t have a parallel advanced-centrifuge program hidden is a worry. Recent revelations that Iranian engineers have had detailed plans for years for much more advanced centrifuges than those deployed at Natanz, but claim never to have built them, has even put the IAEA on edge. Then, there is the latest development–Iran’s admitting it is building nuclear-storage tunnels one kilometer deep at its declared enrichment facility. Where else it may be tunneling is anybody’s guess.

What if Iran continues to suspend its declared enrichment activities to receive the benefits of EU-3 and U.S. largesse (which include WTO membership, normalized trade relations, advanced technology commerce, grudging U.S. recognition, etc.), develops a covert bomb capability, and then breaks out? Roughly, this would be a repetition of our self-defeating experience with North Korea and the Clinton administration’s Agreed Framework. The U.S., again, would not only be rewarding a proliferator, but it would be undermining enforcement of the NPT, which Iran has repeatedly violated.

The second concern is that Iran has not yet given up trying to divide the EU-3 from the U.S. and could yet conceivably succeed. In February, Hassan Rohani, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary, met privately with EU-3 officials and tabled a proposal he claimed would allow for intrusive inspections of Iran’s enrichment facilities to assure that they only made usable, non-weapons-grade, lightly enriched uranium. As an alternative, he offered to restrict Iran’s enrichment activities to a pilot project he said would be too small to make enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb. Iran still believes that it can convince the EU-3 to buy off on this offer. We must hope they are wrong.

What, then, does this situation recommend?

First, we should hope for the best but be far more prepared than we are now for the worst. This means President Bush needs to push the EU-3 to agree upon a deadline by which Iran must forswear and terminate their enrichment program or risk being hauled before the U.N. Security Council. To be actionable, this deadline should come before for the next major meeting of the IAEA in June.

Second, the president and the EU-3 need to start leveraging Russia and China in order to secure passage of a sanctions resolution at the UN. This may require holding up France’s reactor sales to China and offering Moscow a cooperative nuclear agreement to temporarily store spent reactor fuel from Europe and Asia (commerce worth $10 billion to $20 billion). Action on this is required immediately.

Third, the U.S. and the EU-3 must start explaining why Iran is wrong when it claims it has a right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich and reprocess nuclear materials. Both activities are uneconomical and unnecessary for Tehran to pursue and could bring it within a screwdriver’s turn of having nuclear weapons. Yet, so far, the only argument the U.S. has been made to contest Iran’s legal claim is that nations that violate the NPT’s strictures about acquiring nuclear weapons and IAEA nuclear safeguards obligations forfeit their right to develop “peaceful” nuclear energy. Iran, though, has not yet been formally found in violation on either count. More important, even if it is tagged as a cheater, do we really want any of its neighbors to conclude that if they declare all of the nuclear undertakings, they can come within days of having an arsenal of their own and, unlike Iran, be legally in the clear?

If not, we need to start hedging our bets now on Iran and all other states that might follow its example by laying down and enforcing rules that would apply to all. Certainly, attempting anything less not only risks losing the game with Iran and our allies, but leaving us in the untenable position of being the only major nation still standing against the spread of nuclear weapons.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and editor of Checking Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions with Patrick Clawson.

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