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.