Ties on Iran's Nuclear Program Loosen

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

It's a tough pill for Washington and its European allies to swallow, yet the fact that the new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) warrants a considerable revision of Western strategy toward Iran's nuclear program is inescapable and, already, new cracks in the previously rigid US stance on Iran can be discerned.

Case in point, Matthew Bunn, a leading nuclear expert at Harvard University, has maintained that the US's option of "zero centrifuges" is no longer viable, in light of Iran's rapid advances in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, and the US should now probe a range of other options. [1]

According to Bunn, a viable option is an international consortium producing nuclear fuel for Iran, while allowing a limited number (ie one to four) cascades of centrifuges to operate in Iran. Each cascade contains 164 centrifuges. This would be well below the 3,000 centrifuges that Iran has reportedly assembled already, considered a "magic number" because of the potential for diversion to bomb production.

Considering this a "face-saving" option for Iran, which prides itself for making the scientific breakthrough with centrifuge technology, Bunn argues that Iran's limited centrifuges would give Iran a fallback option in case the international guarantees on the delivery of nuclear fuel did not pan out. Per Bunn's proposal, Iran has a medium to high probability of accepting this "package". It would be linked to various incentives, such as a security guarantee. Iran's alternative of rejecting such a package would be continued sanctions and even threats of military action.

Bunn's proposal has certain merits and represents a welcome step forward compared to the rigid and unrealistic White House's demand for a complete halt to Iran's sensitive nuclear activities. As the "Five plus One" diplomats (United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China plus Germany ) continue to confer on the next steps regarding Iran, in light of Iran's defiance of UN Security Council resolutions demanding a full suspension of uranium enrichment activities, Bunn's proposal deserves a healthy pause. This is principally because it turns an absolute position (no centrifuges) into a relative one and, in turn, opens a new space for negotiations.

Iran's main objection would be, of course, on what grounds should it refrain from "industrial scale" centrifuge technology, something enjoyed by other nations, as long as thorough inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are in place. The Iranian experience with outside nuclear contractors is rife with bitter memories of betrayed promises. It's all the more reason why today Iran is unwilling to forego its right to produce nuclear fuel on its own soil, instead of becoming permanently dependent on foreign sources.

Another Iranian objection would be why limit it to a maximum of four cascades, when even by US's own admission, even with 18-20 cascades Iran would still not be in a position to yield sufficient highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. To meet this potential objection, then, the US may need to consider a higher number of Iranian cascades. The qualitative issue of a "threshold" regarding bomb-making capability involves a quantitative haggling over the number of cascades that, theoretically speaking, can be negotiated without preconditions).

Interestingly, a number of other US pundits, including former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, Flynt Levertt, and his wife Hillary Mann, a former Foreign Service officer who participated in the United States' discussions with Iran from 2001 to 2003, have dispensed altogether with the idea of any such set limits on Iran's nuclear program.

In an article in the New York Times they called simply for strict nuclear transparency and full IAEA monitoring of Iran's nuclear program, without directly mentioning the issue of Iran's centrifuges. In comparison, Bunn's proposal at least has the merit of directly addressing the heart of the matter and pointing at a concrete option that may signal the end of the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Yet another problem with any such proposal, however, is that Iran's domestic politics is predisposed against any serious concessions and the combined factional politics intermixed with upcoming parliamentary election's prerogatives and pressures "from below" by nationalistic Iranians actually militate against it.

The premium put on the politicians' ability to reach a compromise is, at the same time, tempered by the increasingly painful result of international sanctions on Iran, hitting the Iranian economy. This, in turn, has led to a growing call by prominent Iranians for greater flexibility and compromise. The question is what level of compromise is politically expedient, beyond which it amounts to political suicide.

In conclusion, there is yet another option that from Iran's vantage point seems more, and not less, probable in the aftermath of the NIE report, that substantially reduces the risks of military confrontation between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue, and that is "zero sanctions, 100% transparency".

After all, the Iranian case against UN sanctions has just been bolstered in the form of the NIE report, putting the West on the defensive (See The case against sanctions on Iran Asia Times Online, May 2, 2006).

The time to end the UN sanctions has arrived, and the US's own sanctions on Iran too are now candidates for reconsideration, particularly if the US heeds President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's call to take further concrete steps to prove its goodwill toward Iran.

1. Constraining Iran's nuclear program. Matthew Bunn, Managing the Atom Project, Harvard University Oak Ridge National Laboratory, November 15, 2007.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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