Limited Enrichment for Iran? Not So Fast.

Limited Enrichment for Iran? Not So Fast.

Much of the debate in Washington over the interim nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 has focused on sanctions — their role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, the extent to which they have been relieved as a result of the interim nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1, and when and whether new ones should be imposed.  

Far less attention has been paid to another, arguably more important issue, however:  the decision by the United States and its P5+1 partners to abandon their long-held insistence that Iran suspend, at least temporarily, its uranium enrichment- and reprocessing-related activities, as called for by a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions adopted between 2006 and 2010.  Instead, the text of the interim agreement states that Iran will be permitted "a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs."

This policy shift, long sought by Tehran, has significant implications for stability in the Middle East, the global nonproliferation regime, and, more narrowly, for the decades-long effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapons capability. It means that, even in the best-case scenario, Iran will be left with sufficient residual capabilities to one day resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons, its regional rivals will have a strong incentive to pursue enrichment and other dual-use capabilities of their own, and the West’s efforts to stem the spread of enrichment and reprocessing activities will be severely complicated.  

For these reasons, the United States should begin the debate over Iran’s "practical need" for enrichment and reprocessing with a strong case that Iran, in fact, has no practical need for these activities at all. I make this case in the most recent issue of Arms Control Today. Even if one rejects this case — as then-Senator John Kerry did in 2009 when he stated that a zero-enrichment policy was "ridiculous" and claimed Iran had a right to enrich, contrary to American policy then and now — there are good tactical reasons to defend it.

A zero-enrichment position is not "maximalist," as American negotiators have asserted, even if Iran will not accept it. Rather, it is Iran’s own position that it wants an industrial-scale, indigenously-fueled nuclear power program that is unreasonable. Iran has no need for nuclear power, given its massive fossil fuel resources, and in any event lacks sufficient uranium deposits to achieve anything close to self-sufficiency. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that Iran’s nuclear activities have been pursued with atomic weapons in mind.

By framing zero enrichment as maximalist while taking Iran’s claims seriously, American and European negotiators put themselves unnecessarily on the defensive and allow Tehran to frame to its own advantage perhaps the most important issue in the nuclear talks. Washington should reframe this debate by defending, rather than dismissing, the arguments in favor of zero enrichment.