President Bush recently identified, in the most specific manner yet, what America’s next response to Iran’s continuing nuclear intransigence should be. “We cannot allow the Iranians to have the capacity to enrich,” Bush said during his pre-Christmas press conference. “The next step is to make sure that the world understands that the capacity to enrich uranium for a civilian program would lead to a weapons program.”
The question remains: How should the United States and its European Union allies–Britain, France, and Germany– go about doing this?
The Iranian government is certainly not listening. In August, Iran resumed uranium conversion operations at Ishafan, despite diplomatic calls not to do so from the United States and the European Union. Now, even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is worried. In early December, IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei said that if Iran successfully converts enough uranium, and resumes uranium enrichment operations at Natanz, then it will be only “a few months” away from building nuclear explosives.
In light of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nightmarish rhetoric, most of the world’s political leaders are now rightfully frightened that Iran might get the bomb. But it remains unclear whether or how a nuclear Iran can be avoided.
What is clear, and even more frightening, is the dangerous precedent that Iran’s nuclear misbehavior is setting for other nations, especially those in the Middle East. This precedent–namely, Iran’s continuing assertion that it has an “inalienable right” to pursue uranium enrichment and other nuclear fuel-making activities that would bring it within days of acquiring a bomb–has gone largely unchallenged.
Certainly, at a minimum, the United States and the EU-3 must reject Iran’s assertion that, no matter what, states have an “inalienable right” to nuclear fuel-making. They should start by backing a 2004 French proposal that any nuclear cooperation with other countries must meet certain criteria, including being economically sound and capable of being monitored to prevent military diversion.
Previously, the United States and the IAEA put forth different proposals to stigmatize any nation that would try to acquire the ability to make nuclear fuel. During a February 2004 policy speech, President Bush proposed a moratorium to prevent new nations from acquiring the capability to make nuclear fuel. “The forty nations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group,” Bush said, “should refuse to sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.”
In February 2005, IAEA chief ElBaradei went further, proposing a universal moratorium on new nuclear fuel-making facilities. “There is no compelling reason to build more of these facilities,” ElBaradei wrote in the Financial Times, because “the nuclear industry has more than enough capacity to fuel its power plants and research centers.”
So far, however, neither Bush’s nor ElBaradei’s proposals have gained much traction internationally. Some have objected to such global approaches, arguing that they would restrict government-financed projects to make nuclear fuel in Japan, Brazil, Germany, South Africa, and even the United States. However, because none of these nuclear fuel-making activities are profitable under market conditions, none of them can be sustained with private-sector financing.
These global proposals deserve to be rejoined and refined. More, though, needs to be attempted. Specifically, the United States and the EU-3 need to consider regional-based approaches as well. These approaches should geared not to block Iranian efforts to enrich uranium so much as to brand Iranian and other large-scale nuclear efforts in the Middle East as illicit misbehavior.
Such an approach was recently suggested by a Department of Defense-sponsored study, Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran, published last month by the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, This study proposed that Middle East nations voluntary mothball their existing large nuclear facilities. Here, the idea would be to get states in the Middle East with large nuclear facilities–namely, Algeria, Egypt, and Israel–to unilaterally shut down these facilities. Such restraint in the Middle East would help highlight the outlandish misbehavior of Iran. More importantly, it would provide other Middle Eastern states with an alterative and more sustainable model for nuclear restraint.
Some, of course, have already objected reflexively to this idea, arguing that Israel should not take any steps unless Iran, and other potential adversaries in the Middle East, establish a lasting peace. Others have complained that such an effort will not be effective in disarming Iran These objections, though, miss the point, which is that an alternative model to Iran’s outrageous claims of its nuclear “rights” is needed.
Certainly, if the United States and its allies fail to challenge Iran’s model for acquiring the capability to produce nuclear fuel, the world will soon be faced with the terrifying nightmare of a politically volatile Middle East filled with many more nations–not just Iran but also Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria–that have, or are within months or days of having, nuclear weapons.
It’s that worry that should galvanize attention to Bush’s latest comments. He is dead right in arguing that United States and its allies must “make sure that the world understands that the capacity to enrich uranium for a civilian program would lead to a weapons program.” The only question now is whether the U.S. and its friends will take the point seriously and act on it.
–Robert Zarate is based in Chicago and is currently working on a biography of Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter, two of America’s leading modern strategic thinkers.