It's time once again to deal with the knottiest problem in world politics today: what to do about Iran?
On July 31, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1696, demanding that Iran stop all activities involving the enrichment of uranium (a process that can lead to the production of nuclear weapons) and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect all their nuclear facilities.
The resolution set a deadline of Aug. 31. On that date, the IAEA issued a report to the Security Council, noting that Iran was still enriching uranium (though in small quantities) and still refusing access to certain records and facilities.
Back in July, the members of the Security Council agreed to impose at least some economic sanctions if Iran was found to be in defiance of the resolution. But when the deadline came, Russia, China, and even some of the European nations backed away, saying penalties would be "premature" and might damage the chance of negotiations.
Many had predicted this would happen. The Russians have supplied Iran with a nuclear reactor. The Chinese and some Europeans are dependent on Iranian oil. (The United States receives no oil from Iran.) Sanctions could hurt them as much as the Iranians.
In the meantime, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while calling for broad nuclear talks, insists he will never surrender what he calls the "inalienable right" to enrich uranium.
Is uranium enrichment really an "inalienable right"? Does the Iranian program pose an imminent danger? Are there alternative penalties besides sanctions?
Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—which Iran has signed—does state that the treaty's parties have the "inalienable right … to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination."
However, Article III of the treaty obliges signatories to accept "safeguards," including IAEA inspections at all sites involved in nuclear activities, to verify that materials aren't being diverted for military use. In 1997, an amendment, called the "Additional Protocol," expanded the IAEA's powers by letting its agents inspect not only sites officially declared to be nuclear facilities but also sites that the IAEA suspects might involve clandestine nuclear programs.
In other words, this "inalienable right" is not as permissive as Ahmadinejad suggests. First, there is no explicit right to enrich uranium. (Enrichment can be part of a program to produce peaceful nuclear energy, but it's not a necessary element.) Second, the right is granted, in any case, only to those who comply with safeguards—and, according to the IAEA, Iran is not fully complying.
Here is where comparisons between Iran and prewar Iraq break down. Before the American-led invasion of Iraq, the IAEA and several members of the Security Council contested some of the Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction; when it comes to Iran's program today, there is no dispute about the basic facts. In early 2003, Iraq had no nuclear program of any sort, nor was there direct evidence of one; Iran, on the other hand, indisputably and openly has an enrichment facility, centrifuges, uranium hexafluoride, and so forth.
But having a nuclear program doesn't necessarily mean being anywhere close to a weapon. Last week's IAEA report notes that Iran's facility at Natanz has enriched uranium to a level where U-235 (the isotope that can make bombs) comprises 5 percent. (The rest of it is U-238, which has no use in bomb-making. In "enrichment," a cascade of centrifuges spins and separates the lighter-weight U-235 from the heavier U-238, thus collecting and isolating the "purer" type of uranium.) Weapons-grade uranium requires enrichment to roughly 80 percent U-235. In other words, Iran remains a long ways away—by most estimates, at least three years—from getting the bomb.
In an analysis of the IAEA report, David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security express surprise at how little progress Iran has made. They recall that back in April, the Bush administration and the IAEA expected that by August the Iranians would have a cascade of five machines, each with 164 centrifuges. In fact, they have just three machines, only one of them is up and running, and it's operating at reduced efficiency and output. There are no signs that a fourth or fifth machine is even being installed.
This is a significant shortcoming because, as Albright and Shire write, "To demonstrate proficiency in cascade operations, Iran must run these cascades together for an extended period of time." (Italics added.)
The Iranians also told the IAEA last spring that they'd be installing 3,000 centrifuges in a separate research facility by now. That hasn't happened, either.
Senior IAEA diplomats have told Albright that they're not sure whether the Iranians have slowed down deliberately in the face of (admittedly uneven) diplomacy or whether they're experiencing technical difficulties (as they did a couple of years ago in this field).
Either way, there might—might—be an opening for a bold move. Consider this: Ahmadinejad is insisting on the right to enrich; he hasn't said a word on how much to enrich. Last May, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the chief of Iran's atomic energy organization, said that he planned to enrich uranium to a level of 5 percent U-235 and no more. Where does the enrichment stand now? According to the IAEA, at 5 percent. (Again, this would be enough for nuclear energy but not nearly enough for nuclear weapons.)
There's no reason to trust these statements—there's no reason to trust Iranian statements on anything about their nuclear program—but it might be worthwhile to give them a whirl.
Here is the situation:
—Ahmadinejad has put such a premium on his "right" to enrich, has enmeshed it so tightly with issues of sovereignty, pride, and populist bluster, that foreigners' pressures, even sanctions, are unlikely to budge him and may, in fact, bolster his strength.
—Meaningful, multilateral sanctions seem a dead end at this point, in any case; to continue to push for them, when crucial governments are set against them, only makes the United States and the United Nations look more foolish. (Washington could rally a handful of nations to impose sanctions, but they would have scant effect.)
—Military options, though apparently still favored by some in high places, would be disastrous. We don't have the manpower for an invasion. Airstrikes would, at best, set back Iran's nuclear program by a few years and would, meanwhile, incite every terrorist organization in the world, discredit every moderate Muslim movement, and shore up Iran's unpopular government like no action could.
In short, the West's options are limited; Iran's leverage, especially given its wealth from high oil prices, is considerable. So, here's an alternative diplomatic tack: Let Iran enrich uranium, but to no higher level than 5 percent U-235. In exchange, Iran must grant IAEA inspectors full access to all facilities that they find remotely suspicious. Iran must also drop its plans to install 3,000 centrifuges in one of its research facilities. As a bonus, the West might offer the same economic incentives and security guarantees that have been discussed in the earlier negotiations.
This is a risky proposal. It is easy for foreign inspectors and remote surveillance to distinguish the difference between no enrichment and some enrichment—very difficult to distinguish 5-percent enrichment from 10 percent or 20 percent. Iran's leaders may refuse the degree of intrusive inspections that the deal requires. And if their real goal is nuclear weapons, the idea is doomed from the start.
But there's nothing to be done at the moment anyway, so why not try playing back the Iranians' own words, putting them on the table, and seeing what happens?