Iran emerged as the clear winner at yesterday’s nuclear summit with Russia, China, France, the U.K., the U.S., and Germany. Heading into the Geneva talks, the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) were demanding that Iran suspend all nuclear-fuel-making activities or face sanctions. After seven and a half hours of negotiations, though, the UNSC and Germany blinked, dropped any hint of penalizing Tehran, and let it continue to make nucelar fuel at Natanz.
How did Iran finagle this? First, it agreed to allow a visit to a suspect site in Qom that’s almost certain to be empty when inspectors arrive. Second, it pledged to send roughly one bomb’s worth of low-enriched uranium to Russia and France to be refashioned into more highly enriched fuel for use in one of Iran’s small research reactors.
This last offer is tricky: Assuming Iran continues to make nuclear fuel, Tehran could have enough low-enriched uranium by next fall to make a bomb even if it followed through on its promised transfer. Also, the fuel that France and Russia will send back to Iran will be far more weapons-usable — it will be enriched with 19.75-percent nuclear-weapons-grade uranium — than the 3.5-percent-enriched brew Iran currently has on hand. If Iran were to seize this more enriched fuel, it could make a bomb much more quickly than it could now.
This is a far cry from getting Iran to stop all of its nuclear-fuel-making activities, much less flooding it with hundreds of nuclear inspectors. It’s almost the opposite. Certainly, if we want to keep Iran from getting a bomb, we will have to do better.
We must also consider Iran’s nervous neighbors. Can we tell Jordan, which is now eager to make nuclear fuel, or Egypt, which refuses to forswear such activities, not to proceed if we continue to give Iran a pass? And what of the Middle East’s other states, most of whom are planning “peaceful” nuclear programs of their own? If we wink at Tehran on enrichment and reprocessing, we may see the entire region becomes nuclear-weapons capable.
None of this, however, is inevitable. In fact, just two days ago, the buzz in Washington was that tough economic sanctions against Iran were on their way. As of Thursday evening, that became yesterday’s news. The question now is whether it is too late to reverse course.
– Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and he serves as a member of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.