Calling Iran’s Bluff: It's Time to Offer Tehran a Civilian Nuclear Program

The ultimate goal of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, the next round of which commences in Moscow on June 18, has always been the same: Determining whether Iran is willing to accept that its nuclear program must be credibly limited in a way that precludes it from being able to turn civil nuclear power into nuclear weapons. The collective approach of the 5+1—the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany— has likewise always been steady: They have pursued an incremental, step-by-step process designed to produce Iranian actions that restore the international community's confidence in the purposes of Iran’s nuclear program.

Rather than trying to see if a broader deal is possible, the 5+1 has thought it more achievable to solicit an interim step of confidence-building measures, absent which there will be no relaxation of financial sanctions. At this stage, however, the step-by-step approach may be more of a trap than a vehicle for success.

The problem is that the 5+1 strategy has necessarily depended on time serving as an ally. The United States and the European members of the 5+1 hope that by ratcheting up economic pressures on Iran, they will eventually convince the Iranian leadership to compromise (ie: accept a face-saving way to preserve their right to have civil nuclear power but without the means to convert it into nuclear weapons.) And the West's economic pressures on Iran do continue to become more acute; they will escalate significantly with the planned European boycott on the purchase of Iranian oil set to begin on July 1. With financial sanctions having already led to a devaluation of the Iranian currency of over 50 percent in recent months, and with U.S. sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank and anyone who does business with it now affecting all those who buy Iranian oil—leading to estimates that Iran is unable to sell close to 40 percent of its normal export total—there is some logic in playing for time.

But, seen another way, time is decidedly not on the 5+1's side. Though Iran has agreed to come to talks, at this point its enrichment and accumulation of low-enriched uranium is continuing. The IAEA, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, reports that the Iranians now have accumulated roughly 6000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. If purified further to weapons grade, that amount of material could be converted into approximately five nuclear bombs. And, that does not count the higher level of enrichment that the Iranians have begun in their Fordow facility—a facility embedded deep inside a mountain near the city of Qom. In that facility, the Iranians are now enriching uranium to 20 percent, ostensibly to provide fuel for a medical research reactor. The problem with enrichment to 20 percent is that it greatly shortens the time needed to purify uranium to weapons grade.

The above article was published in tnr.com on June 15th, 2012 (12:00 p.m.).

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