War Stories

Iran’s Friendly Nuke Talk

Is it a genuine breakthrough, or is Tehran just stringing us along?

Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili

The Oct. 1 talks in Geneva about Iran’s nuclear program were certainly groundbreaking. The mere fact that Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, made specific commitments—instead of railing on about peace and justice, Iran’s usual MO in these sorts of forums—was remarkable in itself.

The fact that most of these commitments were made during a 45-minute break from the multilateral forum, when Jalili talked one-on-one with Undersecretary of State William Burns—the first high-level contact between the United States and Iran in 30 years—also signals the possibility of further breakthroughs.

But is this good news or bad? Is it the prelude to serious measures that impede Iran from converting its nuclear program to a nuclear-weapons program? Or are the Iranians just stringing us along, making nice but negligible gestures to keep the U.N. Security Council from tightening sanctions while Iran continues to work secretly toward building atomic bombs?

One needn’t be paranoid or a neocon to suspect the latter. The Iranians have lied repeatedly about the scope of their nuclear program. The uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, Iran, which has been the main focus of Western concerns, was covert until 2002, when the anti-Iranian terrorist group MEK revealed its existence, which was in turn confirmed by U.S. intelligence, at which point the Iranians fessed up.

Last week, during the G20 meeting, President Barack Obama publicly announced the existence of yet another covert enrichment facility in Qom, Iran—raising the possibility of a broad network of secret sites. In fact, many analysts believe that the facility is so small, it could serve no function but as one link in a broader network. And the fact of its secrecy suggests that its purpose is not to generate electricity or to power medical research but, rather, to build atomic bombs.

The inference is by no means certain, but the burden of proof now lies with the Iranians, and they know this. The Qom disclosure is almost certainly what spurred them to make nice in Geneva to pre-empt international isolation. It is also what justifies skepticism about their motives.

A little context: To enrich uranium, a cascade of centrifuges—thousands of them—spins and separates the lighter-weight U-235 isotopes (which can make bombs) from the heavier U-238 isotopes (which cannot make bombs), thus isolating and collecting the “purer” uranium. The Iranians have reportedly enriched enough uranium at Natanz to provide the explosive ingredients for one atomic bomb.

At the Geneva talks, Iran made two important pledges. First, it promised to allow officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and continuously monitor the facility in Qom. Second, it agreed to send some of the uranium from Natanz to other countries for further enrichment; those other countries would, in turn, send it back to Iran to use as fuel for electricity or some other purpose other than building bombs.

These pledges are welcome but not entirely assuring. The IAEA inspectors can find out only so much if Qom is but one of several facilities, most of which are hidden. And as for exporting the uranium for enrichment, it is not yet clear how much of it the Iranians intend to send.

Because of these uncertainties, some critics are dismissing the whole venture as fraudulent. They may turn out to be right. But what would they have Obama do? Attacking the sites doesn’t make much sense, even on the narrowest of calculations. If there are other hidden sites (which is the hawkish critics’ premise), an attack would leave much of Iran’s program unscathed. Nor does tightening the sanctions now seem plausible; the Security Council’s members seem more amenable to harsher sanctions after the Qom revelations, but they’d be unlikely to approve them without at least taking up the Iranians’ offer and seeing if they follow through.

If serious talks are to get under way (and the Iranians did agree to meet again later this month), Obama and the leaders of the other negotiating nations—Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany—could make two reasonable demands.

First, Iran should sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran is one of 189 states that have signed the NPT, Article 3 of which obliges signatories to accept “safeguards,” including IAEA inspections at all sites that contain nuclear materials such as uranium or plutonium. Yet recent years have exposed loopholes in these safeguards. They do not, for instance, allow inspections of sites that house other nuclear-related materials, such as centrifuges, or where research and development is going on. Nor does Article 3 let inspectors examine sites where they suspect nuclear work is taking place.

The Additional Protocol was tacked on to the NPT as a way of closing these loopholes. It lets the IAEA inspect all sites related to every part of the nuclear fuel-cycle, including “suspect sites,” and it lets inspectors take samples of the air and the soil, which could reveal covert nuclear activities, anywhere in the country.

Of the 189 signatories to the NPT, 62 have not signed the Additional Protocol. Iran is one of those 62. Given Iran’s record of building covert sites and the suspicion that still more exist, diplomatic ventures won’t amount to much until it does sign on. (The idea is not far-fetched. Iran agreed to abide by the Additional Protocol in 2002 and lived up to its rules but dropped out in 2005.)

Second, Iran should clarify just how much of its low-level enriched uranium it plans to export for further enrichment; the percentage should be close to 100. And it should pledge to export not only all the uranium that it has enriched at Natanz so far but all the uranium that it will enrich at Natanz and elsewhere. This should be a continuing program, not a one-shot gesture.

This elaborated pledge could be phased into an agreement that unfolds over time, step-by-step. In 1994, the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework with North Korea, which halted Pyongyang’s plutonium program. In exchange for North Korea locking up its fuel rods and keeping IAEA inspectors at the reactor, the United States, with financial backing from South Korea and Japan, would supply North Korea with two light-water nuclear reactors for electricity. Upon delivery of the first reactor (the target date for this was 2003), intrusive inspection of “suspect sites” would begin. On delivery of the second reactor, North Korea would dismantle its reprocessing facility and ship the fuel rods out of the country.

In the end, the United States never delivered the reactor, and the Agreed Framework broke down. North Korea resumed reprocessing its fuel rods, then built and tested an atomic bomb. But the point is, this sort of step-by-step agreement does have precedent.

What steps toward political and economic accommodation the United States and its allies might take in exchange for Iranian steps toward denuclearization—whether this sort of diplomatic back-and-forth is even possible or desirable, given the nature of the Iranian regime, especially in the wake of its fraudulent election and hideous crackdown on protesters—is not clear.

Yet two things are worth noting. First, if the Iranian regime imploded tomorrow and reformers took power, they, too, would almost certainly continue to enrich uranium. (Whether they’d take the next step and build A-bombs, who knows? But it’s not entirely clear that the mullahs will take that step, either.) In other words, the world will have to deal with this problem, regardless of who’s in charge in Tehran.

But, second, none of these issues are worth even contemplating unless the Iranians take the first step. Signing the NPT’s Additional Protocol will at least give the rest of the world the means to detect the sorts of transgressions that Iran has been habitually committing.