When it comes to Iran’s nuclear program and the presidential election, neither Obama nor Romney has their facts quite right so far. Team Obama’s error — arguing that Iran doesn’t yet have a weapon to put enriched uranium into — though, is a dangerous mistake, whereas Romney’s slip — that Iran does not yet have enough enriched uranium to produce a weapon — is easily redeemable.
The question now is whether Romney will call out Team Obama’s error, since the Republican candidate has yet to do so. More important, Romney should explain how banning Iranian nuclear-fuel production could serve as a basis for a more effective general nonproliferation policy. One hopes he will make clear why any offer to let Iran continue to make fuel (including the rumored offer the Obama administration may be planning to make after the election) would do just the opposite.
Certainly, Vice President Biden’s arguments in his debate with Representative Ryan are an easy set of targets. “[The Iranians],” Biden argued, “can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don’t have a weapon to put it into . . . there is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know we’ll know if they start the process of building a weapon.”
Really? Iran has been working for years to perfect an implosion device. We also know that Iranian scientists have had help in those efforts from Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan, Russia, North Korea, and even the U.S. (who in a misguided sting operation offered Iran a “defective” weapon design, but through a Russian agent who identified the errors). We also know that U.S. intelligence has repeatedly failed in its attempts to identify the progress of proliferators on their nuclear-weapons design work with the kind of precision Vice President Biden claims we now have. Iraq, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea all surprised us with their weapons work.
#more#Yet, Biden insists, he knows that Iran does not have a weapon. He and the president would like to believe this in order to lend credibility to their efforts on a deal with Iran that will them to enrich uranium but not make weapons-grade materials and a “weapon to put it into.” These desires, however, hardly constitute reliable facts.
Ryan and Romney surely know this when they insist that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess “nuclear-weapons capability.” By this Romney means nuclear-fuel making. “The Iranian regime,” Romney explained in his address to the VFW national convention, “claims the right to enrich nuclear material for supposedly peaceful purposes. This claim is discredited by years of deception. A clear line must be drawn: There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period.”
This does make sense, but there are two problems with it. First, in some sense Iran already has reached nuclear-weapons capability: As Non-Proliferation Education Center’s Greg Jones has detailed repeatedly, and now even his critics concede, Iran could have the uranium for a bomb within eight weeks of a decision to do so.
Second, Iran’s deception may have “discredited” its right to enrich nuclear material, but it has not violated the international law that we view as granting them this right. Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), nations have a right to develop, research, and produce “peaceful nuclear energy.” The U.S. and Iran have interpreted this provision to include the production of nuclaar fuel, even though this activity can bring states within days or weeks of acquiring a bomb. That this activity cannot be sequestered from the possibility of conversion for military purposes is a fact that our diplomats have glossed over.
The Iranians claim that they have followed the letter of the law. Under the rules laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a state remains in compliance with its NPT obligations so long as it declares a nuclear facility (e.g., a reactor or an enrichment plant) 180 days before it inserts special nuclear materials (such as uranium hexaflouride, reactor fuels, etc.) into them. Iran has supposedly done this.
The problem, then, is not that Iran broke the NPT rules but that the rules themselves no longer are read in a sensible way. Rather than assume that states lacking nuclear weapons have the right to get to the very brink of acquiring them, it would make far more sense to view “peaceful nuclear energy” as consisting of activities that are far enough removed from bomb making to make military diversion obvious enough to prevent bombs from being made.
All of this is straightforward enough, but its policy implications are ones Romney’s campaign has yet to exploit. Earlier this year, key Romney security advisers, such as former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, Stephen Hadley, Eric Edelman, Dov Zakheim, Robert Joseph, and Jamie Fly, along with key Republican members of Congress, all signed letters urging President Obama to tighten U.S. nonproliferation standardss. They urged the president to uphold the “gold standard” of nonproliferation conditions with regard to extending U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation to non-weapons states. Under this standard, the state in question must forswear making its own nuclear fuel and open itself up to the most intrusive type of nuclear inspections that the IAEA conducts. This standard enjoys bipartisan support: George W. Bush created the rule when he negotiated the U.S.-UAE nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008, and President Obama approved of it when he pushed Congress to finalize that deal in 2009. Ever since then, however, the Obama administration has been reticent to secure the same conditions in nuclear-cooperation talks with Jordan, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia.
The White House’s reluctance here is something Romney and congressional supporters of the “gold standard” should emphasize. Indeed, Obama’s repeated unwillingness to promote this standard is a sure-fire way to produce more situations like the one we have now with Iran. This is particularly so when the administration’s weakness on standards is such that Obama has drawn his red line with Iran at the point of actually making a nuclear weapon, rather than just making the fuel needed for such a device — a position that all but alerts other nations we will entertain them that far, too.
— Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Va., and is editor of Nuclear Nonproliferation: Moving Beyond Pretense (2012).