Stephen M. Walt

Blocking Iran’s bomb?

By Steven Miller Stephen Walt suggested in a recent post that the United States should shift its focus in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Judging that it is too late to stop Tehran’s established and growing uranium enrichment capability, he urges that U.S. policy be directed instead at preventing the emergence of an Iranian nuclear ...

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By Steven Miller

Stephen Walt suggested in a recent post that the United States should shift its focus in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Judging that it is too late to stop Tehran’s established and growing uranium enrichment capability, he urges that U.S. policy be directed instead at preventing the emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Walt emphasizes efforts to diminish Iran’s incentives to build the bomb by reducing the American threat to Iran and by pressing on Tehran an understanding of the costs and risks of acquiring nuclear weapons.

If we need to live with Iran’s enrichment program, then another goal of U.S. diplomacy should be to work out with Tehran as many constraints and transparency measures as possible. Such measures could, at a minimum, provide a clear warning were Iran to move down the path toward weaponization and could, politically, raise stakes of doing so.

What might be done along these lines and, more importantly, what might Iran accept? It turns out that there is a surprising roster of reassuring steps that that have emerged from Iran that, if implemented, would provide some barriers to illicit weapons activities at Iran’s declared nuclear facilities. These include:

  • Iranian officials have said that Iran would probably be willing to ratify the Additional Protocol. This step would give the IAEA additional rights of intrusive inspection and subject Iran to additional obligations to cooperate and to provide information. From the Western perspective, this would be a minimum necessary step. Iran has already signed the additional protocol and permitted its implementation, in advance of ratification, in 2004 and 2005.
  • Iran has expressed a willingness to accept continuous IAEA presence at its nuclear facilities. This would make it difficult for Iran to misuse its facilities or divert nuclear materials without discovery.
  • Iran could work out with the IAEA additional transparency measures to allow wider geographic access to a wider array of facilities. Some such measures were agreed and implemented in 2004 and 2005 but Iran retreated from such cooperation as efforts to sanction it mounted.
  • Iran has claimed that it was willing to negotiate with the IAEA about the scope and timing of its industrial scale enrichment plant.
  • Iran has claimed that it would agree to accept limits on enrichment levels in the production of reactor fuel.
  • Iran has indicated that it would be responsive the negotiation of at least temporary verifiable caps on the production of uranium hexafluoride (the feedstock for enrichment).
  • At various times it has been suggested that Iran would be prepared to welcome western partners holding joint equity positions in Iran’s nuclear industry. This would imply deep outside involvement in Iran’s nuclear sector.
  • Similarly, Iran has said it in willing to consider developing its enrichment complex as part of a multilateral consortium or regional nuclear fuel arrangement.

These ideas can be found in scattered places across the history of the nuclear confrontation with Iran, but a number of them are conveniently summarized in a readily accessible article — “Iran’s Nuclear Program: The Way Out” — in TIME by former Iranian national security advisor, Hassan Rohani.

Past Western policy and diplomacy was focused on the goal of zero enrichment in Iran, so there was no serious interest in exploring ideas aimed at containing and constraining Tehran’s industrial nuclear capabilities. Hence, there is no way of knowing how real these options were or what might have resulted had they been pursued. Furthermore, a number of these ideas were floated in earlier periods — before Ahmadinejad, for example — and may no longer be possibilities. But this list does suggest that there are arrangements potentially acceptable to Iran that would make it quite difficult for Tehran to secretly use its declared nuclear facilities for weapons purposes.

If Iran has a covert weapons program, then all bets are off. Neither diplomacy nor the use of force solves that problem. Nor would these kinds of measures represent an insuperable technical obstacle to obtaining nuclear weapons because Iran would be able to produce weapons usable highly enriched if it chooses to do so and is willing to pay the diplomatic price of doing so. However, intensive international involvement in and extensive inspection of Iran’s known and declared nuclear facilities would provide the international community with more assurance that Iran’s nuclear facilities were being used for peaceful purposes while Tehran would have no reason to be confident that it could engage in illicit activities without detection. If the aim of the game is not zero enrichment but constraining Iran’s weapons option, this is probably as good as it gets.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

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