Defusing Iran's nuclear ambitions

October 14, 2004|By Daryl G. Kimball

WASHINGTON - President Bush and Sen. John Kerry agreed in their first debate that the greatest national security challenge facing the United States is the threat of nuclear proliferation. But there are substantial and important differences between their approaches to solving that problem, including the looming showdown over Iran's ongoing nuclear activities.

The crisis surely will worsen unless Iran exercises greater restraint and stops short of large-scale nuclear material production capability. At the same time, the United States must recalibrate its strategy to complement, not complicate, the European diplomatic initiative to reduce Iran's incentives to acquire the bomb and keep it within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Concerns about Tehran's bomb-making capabilities have been elevated since the world's nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed reports of Iran's extensive and secret nuclear activities more than two years ago. In response, Britain, France and Germany persuaded Iran to agree to temporarily halt its uranium-enrichment program and accept tougher IAEA inspections. The deal created valuable diplomatic breathing space and the opportunity for the IAEA to gather detailed information about the extent and nature of Iran's program.

Since then, Iran grudgingly has permitted the IAEA extensive access and information about its covert projects. But questions remain, including whether Iran already has enriched uranium. In the spring, Iran began to undermine confidence by delaying the entry of inspectors and continuing to manufacture parts for centrifuges for the enrichment process. Uranium enrichment technology is not only for production of low-enriched fuel for power reactors but also for weapons-grade nuclear material.

The leaders of energy-rich Iran insist that these activities are for peaceful purposes and are permitted under the NPT. Last month, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared: "We've made our choice. Yes to peaceful nuclear technology, no to atomic weapons. ... We will continue along our path even if it leads to an end to international supervision of our nuclear activities."

The NPT makes it clear that peaceful nuclear endeavors are a benefit that accrues only to those non-weapons NPT states that credibly fulfill their obligation not to divert nuclear material and technology for weapons. Enriching uranium and ejecting inspectors would all but confirm the existence of a clandestine Iranian weapons program.

Accordingly, the Europeans privately have held out the possibility of greater economic ties and a guaranteed nuclear power fuel supply if Tehran's leaders agree to forgo the capacity to produce nuclear weapons-usable materials. Mr. Kerry has endorsed this approach; Mr. Bush has not. Though this would open the way for much-needed foreign investment and allow Iran to produce nuclear energy, Iran has not yet embraced the idea.

The Bush administration has maintained a hard line, charging that Iran has already violated its safeguards agreements. U.S. and Israeli officials have unsuccessfully called on IAEA states to refer the case to the U.N. Security Council, where they could seek international sanctions against Iran.

This, in turn, has inflamed Iranian nationalism and hardened the government's stance. Shortly after IAEA member states urged it not to do so, Iran announced last month that it will begin processing about 40 tons of uranium into feed material, which, if enriched to weapons grade, would be enough for several bombs.

Some U.S. officials argue that diplomacy at the Vienna-based IAEA has run its course. But referral of the Iranian case to the Security Council may push Iran to eject IAEA inspectors or withdraw from the NPT. Getting the council's approval for sanctions is far from guaranteed and would do little to halt Iran's advanced nuclear program. More drastic action also is not wise. The effect of a U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran's capabilities would be temporary and likely would trigger a wider war in the region involving exchanges of ballistic missiles.

Although difficult, diplomacy remains the best option.

Iran should be careful not to escalate the crisis. The European powers must hold Iran to its earlier pledge to halt all uranium-enrichment work and provide the access and cooperation necessary to resolve outstanding questions about its past activities. Otherwise, the credibility of Iran's claim that it has no weapons ambitions will diminish further.

For its part, the United States - whether under Mr. Bush's or Mr. Kerry's leadership - should tone down its tough talk and work with the Europeans to test Iran's "peaceful" intentions by endorsing the proposal to provide Iran with a guaranteed supply of nuclear fuel. If Iran is interested only in developing a nuclear power capacity and its perceptions of vulnerability are not reinforced, it should eventually agree to such a deal.

Even if Iran complies with its NPT commitments now, it may still choose to follow the nuclear weapons route. Given the stakes, the United States must argue against Iranian hard-liners who wrongly believe that nuclear weapons would enhance Iran's prestige and counter Israel's secret nuclear arsenal. To help do so, Washington should reiterate its long-standing commitment to achieve a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone.

Time is running out. The situation demands a new and more sophisticated U.S. strategy that increases Iran's incentives to halt its dual-purpose nuclear projects and reinforces the view within Iran that it does not need and will not benefit from nuclear weapons.

Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association. A longer version of this article appeared in the October issue of its publication, Arms Control Today.

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