- By William TobeyWilliam Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.
According to the New York Times, the International Atomic Energy Agency is ready to report that the Iranian nuclear program continues to expand and to accelerate. Moreover, the Times notes Iran’s emphasis on enriching uranium to 20 percent.
The 20 percent level is more than four times what is necessary for power reactor fuel. As I have noted before, according to Professor Graham Allison, also of Harvard, this is like a football team reaching the ten yard line, where nuclear weapons-usable material is in the end zone. Stocks of uranium enriched to 20 percent materially shorten the time it would take Iran to break out or sneak out of its Treaty obligations and produce a nuclear weapon.
Uranium enriched to 20 percent can also be used to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for medical isotope production, and this Iran claims to be doing. But that explanation is inconsistent with Iran’s research reactor fuel requirements. Iran has already enriched more than enough such material to supply its medical isotope production for many years, and its enrichment to the 20 percent level is not only continuing, it is accelerating, again according to the reported IAEA findings.
How did the Obama Administration react to this unsettling if unsurprising news? It insisted that there is still "time and space" for a diplomatic solution.
This is a self-defeating U.S. response. It effectively tells Tehran, "Go ahead, keep enriching uranium, you are nowhere near provoking anything other than more fruitless meetings." Of course, Tehran will use the "time and space" granted by the Obama Administration to increase its stocks of enriched uranium further and to expand further its production capacity.
The only rational explanation for such an extraordinary statement by the Administration is that the White House places a higher priority on restraining a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities than it does on constraining Tehran’s nuclear production capacity.Reassuring Tehran that it is in no danger fundamentally diminishes incentives on Iran to negotiate seriously, and thereby undermines the most important U.S. policy priority — halting and reversing Tehran’s capacity to make material for nuclear weapons.
The Iranian nuclear program presents a serious and hard problem. There is no easy solution, and no option that does not entail significant risk, including both diplomacy and military action. But the difficulties and the stakes make it all the more important to avoid unforced errors. A self-defeating policy will never succeed, and unfortunately in rushing to insist that there is still "time and space" for diplomacy, the administration has chosen one.