By Arch Roberts* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis
WASHINGTON (IDN | Yale Global) – The new round of talks opened on April 8 marks another step in the race against time to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The powers have given Iran until July 20 to reach comprehensive agreement on denuclearization. But what if Iran believes it has enough nuclear potential and the time has come for a strategic pause in its nuclear program? From a technological standpoint, Iran is in much the same class – in the sense of possessing the technical ability to build nuclear weapons – as Germany, Brazil, Japan, Korea and some 10 other nations. Iran grabbed the golden ring against fierce opposition, with a lot of help from A.Q. Khan of Pakistan, and is hardly likely to relinquish its nuclear gains after investing an estimated $100 billion.
From the narrowest legal perspective, Iran has only violated a safeguards agreement, which it denies and which in turn led to referral to the UN Security Council. The Security Council then passed a series of resolutions critical of Iran based on Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, generally referring to “any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” For the clerics and their increasingly competent lawyers, the legal arguments are on their side. Iran argues that it is in full compliance with safeguards obligations and calls the referral by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board to the Security Council “unjust.” Doubtless the argument has been made in Tehran councils that any acceptance of a Chapter VII resolution would be tantamount to conceding that Iran’s nuclear program is a “threat to the peace.”
Since the first disclosures of clandestine enrichment were made in 2003, Iran’s response has careened from outrage and denial to limited cooperation with the IAEA that led to acceptance of the Agreed Protocol along with more intrusive inspections, to angry rejection of the protocol since 2006. In the ensuing years, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, the “possible military dimensions” file opened another point of contention despite the 2007 US intelligence conclusion that Iran had suspended such activities in 2003. Then Iran disclosed the existence of the enrichment plant Fordow in 2009, under pressure of discovery, affirming expectations and raising questions about whether Iran is trustworthy even with inspections.
During this period Iran continued to work on its centrifuges, introducing new iterations, drastically increasing the number of centrifuges spinning and amassing an enriched-uranium stockpile out of proportion to actual need. Work on the Arak reactor continued, which could open up the plutonium route to a weapon – calling into further doubt Iran’s contention that the nuclear program was “peaceful.”
A new tone of acquiescence
President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, followed recently by Ayatollah Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard leaders, now sound a new tone of acquiescence. It’s possible that a pause in Iran’s nuclear program has become desirable and convenient in the face of the sanctions that undermine the economy and the regime. Tehran may have concluded there’s little downside risk in hitting a reset button with the big powers.
Why would Iran, if determined to build nuclear weapons, accede to the Joint Plan of Action worked out in Geneva, its associated commitments to the IAEA and the expectation of further limits on its nuclear program? The Obama administration argues that sanctions led to this juncture: Economic pain finally wore out a restive public. The mullahs decided they had better cut a deal. US Senators Mark Kirk, Robert Menendez and others have doubled down, introducing a bill adding new sanctions on Iran should it fail to reach or violate the agreement.
But Iran’s government still stands after years of persistent ratcheting up of economic punishment. Its foreign policy fundamentals remain unchanged. The interim agreement is not worthless, but $7 billion in sanctions relief seems like relatively small potatoes in view of Iran’s broader ambition.
The interim agreement is actually strong on its face. An advantage is increased verification and reporting on Iran’s declared program. With better access to Iran’s program comes better opportunity to discover anomalies that may lead to undisclosed activities, including research. This dynamic can be expected to cause many irritants in this nascent process. Iran will resist more intrusive measures. But as a side effect of the process, the IAEA confirms Iran’s own bragging about its nuclear prowess. Membership in the eminent club of 14 or so countries that can enrich uranium is confirmed.
As Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, observed, “Its officials have long held that transparency – rather than reduction of capabilities – is the key to assuring the world that its program is peaceful.” Iran’s rhetoric in defense of its rights to technology not only sets up expected conflict over what capability it may retain in any long-term agreement; it also provides opportunity to build confidence already recognized by its own negotiators through greater transparency.
As a reward for a verified freeze on most current activities, a rollback of others yet to be determined, dilution of its stockpile and more intrusive IAEA inspections, Iran gains greater access to the global financial system and overseas technology in the short term, with perhaps more to follow. It also begets willingness on the part of the international community to consider the nation more “normal” rather than the predictable spoiler it’s been since the 1979 revolution. The multifarious business delegations headed to Tehran and the reputed oil deal with Russia bear this out.
The charges of Iranian nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable missile research cannot be dismissed. But like Iran’s centrifuge expertise, whatever knowhow has been obtained can never be walked back to some earlier state. International experts have developed a healthy respect for Iran’s capabilities. Ali Akbar Salehi, former IAEA ambassador, foreign minister, and current head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, received his PhD in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Many other Iranian scientists have the wherewithal, too, despite assassinations of several predecessors.
Iran’s breakout capability will remain – even with a freeze and possible future reduction in the number of spinning centrifuges, reduction in the enrichment of uranium from the current 20 percent to 5 percent, and slowdown or redesign of the Arak reactor. Analysts continue to provide a time horizon based on fuzzy information. If the agreement succeeds, Iran will still retain the capability to build nuclear weapons, no matter how many centrifuges remain spinning. If this nonproliferation experiment goes awry, the time horizon for a breakout will shorten considerably.
Much time will be spent trying to figure out what breakout scenario is acceptable. Whatever is agreed, Iran becomes another Japan or Brazil, and quite possibly that’s the goal for now. Iran has made its point: fait accompli. Inspectors or others may catch Iran in prohibited activity which would lead to another dustup and another round of recrimination. But as Iran continues to refine its nuclear narrative, especially with a pause or rollback in place, only a drastic downturn in political relations with the big powers will provide timely warning of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Of course, everything is in play during the period of the interim agreement. No one has a crystal ball. But Iran may have hit its nuclear groove for the moment, and if so, can better engage with the rest of the world and turn its attention to more pressing problems, confident that its nuclear position is secure.
*Arch Roberts is a former staff member of the IAEA, elsewhere in the United Nations, and for the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs. His views in no way represent those of the IAEA or any former employer. This article originally appeared in YaleGlobal Online on April 10, 2014 with the headline Reaching Nuclear Threshold, Iran May Be Ready for Pause. [IDN-InDepthNews – April 18, 2014]
Picture: P5+1 and Iranian negotiators meet along with E.U. High Representative Catherine Ashton in Geneva | Credit: Wikimedia
Reprinted with permission of YaleGlobal Online © 2014