15
Oct

Six reasons why the United States can’t force Iran’s nuclear hand.

By Colin H. Kahl, Alireza Nader

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Iranian president Hasan Rouhani’s recent charm offensive has raised expectations for a diplomatic breakthrough heading into this week’s nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia (the so-called P5+1) in Geneva. Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, and the Islamic Republic may finally be motivated to take steps to rein in its nuclear program, including accepting limits on uranium enrichment, in exchange for lessening the pressure.

Hawks in Israel and Washington, however, have been quick to describe Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” warning that the Iranian regime may agree to “cosmetic changes” to its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, but ultimately will do little to constrain its quest for the bomb. In particular, they have cautioned the Obama administration against acquiescing to an agreement that allows Iran to continue any domestic uranium enrichment, even at low levels suitable only for civilian nuclear power and under stringent international supervision. In his Oct. 1 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that only a complete dismantling of Iran’s enrichment program could prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. This position has been echoed by conservative think tanks in Washington and by numerous voices on Capitol Hill. Their collective mantra: “a bad deal is worse than no deal.”

Attempting to keep Iran as far away from nuclear weapons as possible by insisting on “zero enrichment” seems sensible. But in reality, the quest for the optimal deal would doom diplomacy with Iran, making the far worse outcomes of unconstrained Iranian nuclearization or a military showdown over Tehran’s nuclear program much more likely.

Uranium enrichment is one pathway to producing bomb-grade explosive material for nuclear weapons, and all else being equal, it is easier to verify the total absence of such activities than different gradations of them. Of course, it would clearly be preferable if Iran ended its uranium enrichment activities altogether. Moreover, most countries with civilian nuclear power plants forgo domestic enrichment, so it seems reasonable to demand the same of Tehran. (Although it is also the case that Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands have domestic enrichment capabilities while remaining compliant with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)

But while a permanent end to Iranian enrichment would be ideal, it is also highly unrealistic. The Iranian regime has invested enormous amounts of political capital and billions of dollars over decades to master the knowledge and centrifuge technology associated with uranium enrichment — and nothing will put that genie back in the bottle. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a single bona fide Iran expert on the planet that believes Tehran would accept a diplomatic deal with the P5+1 that zeroed out enrichment for all time. Read more…

Colin H. Kahl is an associate professor in Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on October 14, 2013.

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