Stephen M. Walt

What is Iran up to?

The big story this morning, of course, is the revelation that Iran has been building a second nuclear enrichment facility. Here’s what I think it means, with the caveat that the story is about three hours old and I still have lots of unanswered questions. To start, it is not good news for those who ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

The big story this morning, of course, is the revelation that Iran has been building a second nuclear enrichment facility. Here’s what I think it means, with the caveat that the story is about three hours old and I still have lots of unanswered questions.

To start, it is not good news for those who have been hoping for a gradual improvement in Iran’s relations with the outside world, hopes that were already undermined by the repercussions of the fraudulent election this past summer. At a minimum, it is bound to create new doubts about Iranian assurances regarding its nuclear program, although I don’t know anyone who took those assurances at face value. After all, the whole idea behind inspections and other safeguards, and the whole reason that Western intelligence agencies have continued to watch Iran closely, is because we don’t necessarily believe what Iran’s government tells us.

That said, it is not clear from the early press reports exactly how blatant a violation this really is. According to the Washington Post, Iran notified the IAEA on September 21 that it was constructing a new pilot enrichment plant. Assuming that it has not already introduced nuclear material into this facility (and Tehran says it hasn’t), Iran is therefore in compliance with the NPT’s Comprehensive Full Scope Safeguards Agreement, which requires it to notify the IAEA six months before nuclear material is introduced into any new facility. Iran previously withdrew from the more demanding Subsidiary Agreement 3.1, which would have required more detailed and timely notification, in response to the IAEA’s decision to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. So from Tehran’s perspective, this new facility is not a violation at all: they are permitted to enrich under the NPT and they have complied with the Comprehensive Safeguards agreement by notifying the IAEA of the new facility. (Even that rather generous interpretation might not let Tehran entirely off the hook, however, as it seems likely that they informed the IAEA on September 21 because they had discovered that the United States had penetrated the program and they wanted to pre-empt today’s revelation.)

The United States has an obvious response: unilateral withdrawal from Agreement 3.1 is not permissible, and so technically Iran is still in violation of its past commitments, but this legalistic back-and-forth is part of a long pattern. In addition, the U.N. Security Council has passed several resolutions demanding that Iran cease all enrichment, and its refusal to comply provides the main legal basis for sanctions. Iran is hardly the first country to ignore Security Council resolutions, however, and Tehran undoubtedly believes that the construction of a second plant is not a direct violation of its more basic obligations under the NPT.

The bottom line is that we still don’t yet know just how serious the new discovery is. If nuclear material is already present there (despite what Iran now says), then it is a clear violation of the agreements that Iran’s government has repeatedly claimed it is upholding, and thus casts even more doubt on its credibility. If the facility is still under construction and no nuclear material has been introduced, then Iran is technically in compliance of the basic safeguards agreement, and trying to exploit various legal loopholes. (Again, it is defying the SC resolutions, but it was doing that already and so today’s announcement adds nothing new).

The New York Times story also makes it clear that this discovery is not by itself evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. The new facility is an enrichment plant, not a bomb-building factory, and everyone knows that Iran was already producing low-grade enriched uranium.  Accordingly, the new revelation does not contradict earlier intelligence estimates which concluded that Iran was not actively trying to build a bomb.

Of course, this does not mean Iran is not interested in getting nuclear weapons, or at least achieving a “breakout” capability that it would allow it to go nuclear rapidly at some point in the future. As I’ve noted before, there are good reasons why Iran might want a nuclear deterrent of its own, just as there are good reasons why the United States and its allies would prefer that it didn’t. In any case, this new report is bound to reinforce suspicions about Iran’s long-term intentions and hardliners will undoubtedly use this information to press for tougher economic sanctions. This is of course, why the United States, Britain, and France released it, and if I had to guess, I’d bet that stricter sanctions will in fact be imposed.

That’s another puzzle, by the way. The Times’s story says the United States “has been tracking the project for years,” which makes one wonder why its existence was not disclosed previously. Perhaps the United States was trying to protect “sources and methods,” or lacked fully convincing information. In any case, the timing of the release seems to be clearly related to the current push for more stringent sanctions.

Most importantly, this new information does not strengthen the case for using military force against Iran’s nuclear program, although hawks are bound to invoke it for that purpose. Airstrikes can delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but cannot prevent it, and they are likely to strengthen Iran’s resolve to acquire a genuine deterrent as soon as they can. Attacking Iran will rally the population around the regime, and given Iran ample reason to retaliate against the United States or its allies in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the Middle East.

If we want to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to halting its nuclear enrichment activities), we are going to have to convince Iran that it doesn’t need a nuclear deterrent to be safe. That won’t be easy to do, given that Iran has three nuclear neighbors (Pakistan, India, and Israel), and a very bad relationship with the United States, which has given millions of dollars to Iranian opposition groups and formally committed itself to regime change on several past occasions. Persuading Tehran that they don’t need a deterrent requires taking the threat of force, regime change, and the like off the table, instead of ratcheting the threat level up. I’m not saying that this approach will work; I’m saying that threatening preventive war won’t. And actually launching a preventive war is likely to make things much worse.

On this issue, Iran expert Gary Sick has the right idea: “first, do no harm.”  Iran is committed to mastering the full fuel cycle, and probably wants to get a “breakout capability.” Money quote:

The real purpose of negotiations, in my view, is to build a system of monitoring and inspections that will (1) provide maximum early warning of a potential future Iranian decision to “break out;” and (2) insure the maximum possible interval between that moment and the moment where Iran could actually have a bomb. Iran has said on several occasions that it is willing to accept such an enhanced inspection regime, but it will no doubt insist on a price. That, I think, is what the negotiations should be about.”

Ironically, today’s report may make this solution more feasible, by reminding the Iranian government that hiding a nuclear facility isn’t easy — especially when the outside world is suspicious — and that any attempt to renege on a future agreements is likely to be detected. Maybe, just maybe, today’s episode will make a deal easier to reach down the road.  Not that I’d bet on that.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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