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It's Not Too Late to Stop Iran's Bomb

International Herald Tribune, 16 February 2007

No one should be surprised at the European Union's internal assessment, leaked this week, that little can now be done to stop Iran from acquiring the capacity to produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. That writing has been on the wall for at least a year, as Iran has remained internally united in its determination to have that capacity and the rest of the world has been much less than united in its willingness to stop it.

The major players have sent mixed diplomatic signals; the United Nations Security Council has dragged its heels in applying full sanctions; many nonproliferation treaty members, while concerned about Tehran's dissembling, are reluctant to deny Iran the capability of manufacturing nuclear fuel; and there is huge international opposition to any suggestion of a preventive military strike by the United States or Israel aimed at wiping out that capability.

Ideally, Iran would be persuaded, by a mixture of incentives and threatened sanctions, to forgo its fuel- manufacturing ambitions, agreeing to indefinitely relinquish whatever right it has under the nonproliferation treaty to enrich uranium in return for guaranteed supply from a foreign source, along the lines proposed by Russia. This is the approach so far applied but, unhappily, it now shows every sign of failing.

It is time to redraw the red line. What matters is not whether Iran has full enrichment capability, but whether it has nuclear weapons.

What should ultimately concern Israel, Iran's neighbors, and a world deeply anxious to avoid further nuclear breakout, is not whether Iran has the capacity to make weapons-grade uranium, but whether it actually makes it and puts it into deliverable bombs. While it may well be too late to stop Iran acquiring its own fissile material, it is certainly not too late to halt Iran from having the bomb.

To achieve this goal will require a different diplomatic strategy from the one presently supported by the European Union and the United States. It means abandoning the "zero enrichment" goal in favor of a "delayed limited enrichment" plan. The wider international community would explicitly accept that Iran can enrich uranium domestically for peaceful nuclear energy purposes. In return, Iran would agree to phasing in that enrichment program over an extended period of years, with major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime.

Tehran would be disciplined by knowing that if Iran made any move toward building a nuclear weapon through the production of weapons-grade fissile material, or any hardware in which to put it, all hell would break loose. A full range of economic sanctions would take immediate effect, and military options would be on the table.

One advantage of this approach, if the United States and the European Union could swallow their reservations, is that it would allow time for a more moderate political dynamic to take hold in Iran. But this plan's greatest benefit is that it would win genuine universal support, not only from "any peaceful use" enthusiasts, but also Russia and China, which are likely to continue being extremely reluctant Security Council enforcers of the present "zero enrichment" strategy.

The obvious downside from the West's point of view is that "delayed limited enrichment" would permit Tehran to eventually achieve full fuel-manufacturing capability, with the risk of weapons acquisition when that happens. But the reality of Iran having that choice, sooner rather than later, and with minimal inspection and supervision along the way, now stares us in the face.

Nobody wants to see the present impasse slide into a situation where the West's unwillingness to compromise strengthens its opponent's extremists to the point that their country walks away from the nonproliferation treaty, shrugs off any kind of international monitoring, produces a large stock of weapons-grade material and ultimately takes the risk of building a bomb. We have been there and done that with North Korea. Even with this week's major breakthrough in the six-party talks, it will remain nightmarishly difficult to wholly recover the ground that has been lost to Pyongyang through earlier Western obduracy.

If the present diplomatic strategy is going downhill, the only rational response is a new one, which may not be ideal but has attractions for everyone: In extensive discussions with diplomats and others involved in the Iran nuclear issue, our group has found that the concept of "delayed limited enrichment" has extremely wide appeal as a diplomatic fallback. If all diplomacy fails, the alternative course to which at least some in Washington and Tel Aviv remain wedded a preventive military strike, without UN authorization is simply too horrible to contemplate.