Paul Pillar

Iran, Uranium and the Road Not Taken

U.S. policy regarding Iran’s nuclear program, along with most American discourse about the policy and the program, has been one of the outstanding examples of goal substitution: treating as an ultimate objective something that is not that at all but instead is at most a subsidiary or intermediate objective, and may not even be necessary for attaining one’s true ultimate aim. The goal in question in this case is an end to Iran’s enrichment of uranium. It has come to be treated as a be-all-and-end-all objective that must be achieved—by any means necessary, some would even say. Lost sight of is the fact that Iranian enrichment per se doesn't harm anyone's interests (except possibly the economic interests of alternative suppliers of nuclear fuel). It is nuclear weapons that are the worry, and even they would become a threat only if they could and would be used in certain ways—another subject that has been insufficiently explored, but that is a topic for another day.

Secretary of State Clinton, in an interview with the BBC in December, said that some day it might be acceptable for Iran to enrich uranium. Whether this comment reflected any rethinking of U.S. policy or instead was just an impromptu hypothetical voiced at the end of a long answer to the final question of an interview is unclear. The comment did not make many waves, and U.S. statements since then have not returned explicitly to this possibility but instead have emphasized the theme that Iran has yet to prove that it is trustworthy enough to be permitted its own nuclear program. It is likely that western representatives to the talks now taking place in Istanbul are sticking to similar themes. The western powers have indeed talked about safeguards in the sense of a demand for Iran to sign up to an additional protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but from the Iranian point of view such safeguards are meaningless if their country's nuclear program is not accepted as legitimate anyway.  

Writing off possible solutions to the Iranian nuclear impasse that involve a continued enrichment program run by the Iranians disregards three important realities. One is that although the breadth of public Iranian support for developing nuclear weapons is debatable, there is no question that a peaceful nuclear program, owned and operated by Iran, has wide backing among the Iranian public. Iranians see it as a high-profile component of Iran's weight and prestige. This implies that an agreement between Tehran and the west that does not provide for an autonomous Iranian nuclear program, including enrichment of uranium, probably is politically infeasible. Refusal by the regime in Tehran to settle for something less is not just hardline obstreperousness; the refusal has the support of the population.

A second reality is that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other elements of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, states have the right to a peaceful nuclear program. To deny Iran that right underscores how much the real issue for some is less nuclear proliferation and more a distaste for particular regimes. The denial also accentuates and confirms accusations of double standards regarding proliferation of nuclear weapons. A third reality is that the concept of safeguards, as implemented by the IAEA, does not rest on simple faith that the nations subject to the safeguards are to be trusted to do the right thing and not cheat. To the contrary, the whole idea of safeguards is that such faith is not sufficient. Safeguards are not an act of trust; they are insurance in the face of a lack of trust.

It is often heard that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a severe blow to the international nonproliferation regime.  An irony is that, given those last two realities, current western policy toward Iran constitutes a denial of a couple of the basic tenets of that international regime.

The Iranian leadership has repeatedly expressed a willingness to explore possible safeguards that would meet Western and Iranian needs. Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said last week, “We are ready to adopt any confidence-building measure while preserving our nuclear rights.” The usual Western response is to refer to the record of Iranian duplicity about its program and the evidence that the Iranian regime has, despite its denials, more than a passing interest in building nuclear weapons. That begs the questions of how much the duplicity and concealment stem from the denial of the right to have a nuclear program, and how much the interest in nuclear weapons is sustained by hostility from the west. It also begs the question of what carefully negotiated safeguards could do. No one can say that safeguards could not meet Western as well as Iranian requirements if that avenue has not been explored, which it has not.

The failure to explore this avenue, along with all other avenues, is remarkable given the very high salience that the Iranian nuclear issue has attained. That failure, and the pursuit of a no-enrichment solution even though this pursuit is likely to fail, are further indications of how much that discourse about Iran has become more a matter of fear and fixation than of careful examination of problems and of possible solutions.