The Siren Song of Zero Enrichment

There are other ways to assuage worries about an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The upcoming Iran nuclear talks have sparked debate as to what exactly diplomats should put on the table when they meet in Geneva next week. There exists a broad consensus among experts that the “diplomatic option is the right one” for resolving the dispute. While there are many unexplored ways of “getting to yes” with Iran, there is a tried and true way of getting to no: demanding that it abandon uranium enrichment.

Unfortunately, the idea of Iran giving up enrichment continues to allure political leaders and nonproliferation experts from Washington to Jerusalem. During a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), stressing the importance of being “clear-eyed and realistic” about negotiating goals, said that American negotiators “must demand” that Iran close its enrichment facilities.

Simply stated, there is nothing clear-eyed or realistic about the demand for zero enrichment. Nor is it technically necessary. The right verification measures can ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful.

The most obvious reason to resist the zero-enrichment temptation is also probably the most difficult for some to accept: that insisting on zero enrichment is a proven nonstarter in negotiations. The Bush Administration, habitually overconfident in America’s ability to impose its will in the region, turned its nose up at Iran’s enrichment suspension from 2003 to 2005 and subsequent offers to accept stringent limits on enrichment in the future. Instead, it demanded abandonment, and European-led negotiations soon failed. In the absence of any agreement, Iran’s enrichment capability has since grown considerably beyond the limits it had initially proposed.

While the Bush administration’s reticence to accept a compromise deal was understandable at the time, its abstinence-only preaching on the issue proved counterproductive. The inconvenient truth today is that Iran has enrichment. And so it is misleading to discuss Iranian enrichment as if it is simply a matter of granting permissions. In practice, realizing zero enrichment would entail shutting down several multimillion-dollar facilities. For Iran, it would be not just a relinquishment of its rights as a sovereign state—regardless of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) status, as states outside of the treaty have exercised their “right” to enrich—but also an admission that it cannot be trusted with nuclear technology. For those that insist upon Iran giving up enrichment, it appears that their priority is punishment, not nonproliferation.

Because the truth is that there are other ways of assuring that Iran’s interest in nuclear technology, whatever its past, stays on a peaceful path for the future. Often lost amidst all of the debate about Iran’s nuclear program is the fact that all of its enrichment facilities are under safeguards being applied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and have been since day one of their operation. Preventing Iran from enriching material to weapons-grade levels and diverting it to an explosive device can be done the same way it is has been so far: rigorous inspections.

That is the way it is done in Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands—five countries that do not have nuclear weapons but do enrich uranium. While skeptics in Washington glibly argue that Iran is not “like” these other countries, it is worth remembering that the first three of them pursued nuclear weapons at one time; so Iran may not be so completely different after all. In several cases, successful prevention did not entail the destruction of nuclear facilities; rather, it entailed the construction of better options. The same approach should be taken today.

Are IAEA inspections adequate? This is a legitimate and yet manageable concern. Frequently, discussion about Iran’s potential breakout capability tend to narrowly focus on how fast it could enrich one sufficient quantity of uranium to weapons grade and whether or not IAEA goals for “detection time” provide ample assurance that a diversion of said quantity will be noticed before it is converted into metallic components and placed inside an explosive device. But there are numerous factors that affect how these goals can be met.

Often overlooked is the fact that IAEA goals assume that nonnuclear components of the device have already been “manufactured, assembled, and tested” and that safeguarding procedures have not been adapted to provide something closer to real-time monitoring at facilities of particular concern. But Iran does not have such a device and safeguarding regimens can indeed be adapted. For example, the IAEA has instituted special measures at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Japan to ensure the nondiversion of plutonium. Similar steps can and should be taken at Iran’s enrichment facilities, in particular those locations where it installs more modern centrifuges.

Moreover, from a U.S. policy standpoint, it simply does not make sense that the same Congress that seems so obsessed with making the military option credible also wants the administration to negotiate as if the United States had no such option. If the main purpose of making threats is simply to frighten Iran into giving everything up—as appears to be the case—then eventually Iran may start questioning whether or not there is anything else to them other than bluster. Consequently, staying anchored to hard line positions will actually undercut U.S. leverage at the expense of employing it effectively.

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