When faced with a particularly scary, nettlesome problem, there’s a natural tendency in Washington to accentuate the positive and play for time even when the clock has pretty much run out. This is certainly so with Iran’s nuclear program.
In this case, U.S. officials have prepared for talks with Iran, China, Russia, and our key European allies by highlighting Iran’s nuclear difficulties. In specific, they’ve focused on how much Iran’s nuclear capacity to enrich uranium is on cold standby (answer: roughly as much enrichment capacity as Iran is currently operating), how computer viruses may have crippled it, and how another year might be needed just for Iran to bring its existing capacity fully online.
What they and most pundits have ignored, however, are the hard facts that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported and posted November 23. Iran, it turns out, already has more than enough low enriched uranium on hand (some 2,152 kilograms) to make its first bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium in roughly ten weeks. All Tehran would have to do is feed the low enriched uranium it has into the 4,186 centrifuges that it’s currently operating.
Mind you, all of this is possible even if Iran stops producing more low enriched uranium, never makes another centrifuge (it can draw from an additional 4,100 centrifuges at Natanz that are on cold standby), does nothing to increase the efficiency of its operating centrifuges, and stays clear of using any covert enrichment facilities that it might have hidden.
Of course, once Iran has a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium, the worry must be that it might have a crude implosion device on hand that it could quickly insert the nuclear material into to make a bomb. We know Iran has been trying to develop an implosion device for many years now. We also know that it could have had access to several validated designs. The IAEA foolishly posted documents detailing the design of Saddam’s first-generation nuclear weapon several years ago (although it has since taken the documents down). Then, there is the Chinese warhead design that A.Q. Khan shared with Libya and whatever nuclear warhead insights North Korea might have shared with Tehran.
All of this severely deflates whatever extra negotiating time we and our friends might hope we have to limit the Iranian nuclear weapons effort diplomatically. Instead of a year, we must now think about a nuclear negotiating grace period that’s shrunk to zero.
Two other takeaways from this analysis are no less worrisome:
First, the last time the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Iran’s nuclear program, it called on Iran to suspend all of its nuclear fuel-making activities. Given how much Iran’s nuclear program has progressed since then, getting Iran to comply with this resolution is the bare minimum the United States and other like-minded nations should be demanding.
Over the weekend, Tehran announced that it had broken out of its dependence on outside sources of uranium and had domestically developed all of the mining milling and ore processing it required to supply itself. Now, unless we can get Iran to stop enriching, it can simply continue to make more and more bombs’ worth of uranium.
Second, proposals that would have Iran surrender whatever uranium it has enriched in exchange for an equivalent amount of fully fabricated fresh reactor fuel will have to require Iran to give up nearly all of the uranium it has enriched to have any hope of success. Last fall, the United States and its key European allies, China, and Russia asked Iran to give up less than half of what Iran now has amassed in a swap for fresh reactor fuel. At the time, Tehran said no. Presumably, if we and the other negotiating states now ask Iran to give up most or all of its current stash of approximately 2,000 kilograms of low enriched uranium, its answer will be no different.
This poses a terrible dilemma, and it is sure to push the United States and the other negotiating parties down one of two difficult paths: The first would be to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium under more frequent international inspections. The hope here would be to prevent Iran from enriching the uranium it has, which currently is only useful to fuel reactors, up to much higher levels that would only be useful to make bombs.
The reality, however, is that pushing this approach is pointless. Undercutting the Security Council's unanimous demand for a suspension of fuel-making activities and allowing a nuclear violator, such as Iran, to continue to make nuclear fuel would set a frightening precedent for Iran’s neighbors. Several of these states are already spooked by Iran and considering whether to try acquiring bombs by making their own nuclear fuel. If we gave Iran a green light now, it would only make blocking their future efforts much more difficult.
And even more important, the notion that we could get enough warning of a military diversion from Iran's fuel-making facilities to intervene and prevent the first weapon from being forged simply defies all we have learned from bitter experience. We would have only days, which is hardly sufficient time to intercede and block Iran from setting aside enough material for a bomb—and if Iran has covert fuel-making plants, our intense monitoring of their declared plants will be of little value.
What then are we left with to do? First, increase sanctions. Given North Korea’s extremely close ties with Iran, its nuclear-capable missile exports, its demonstrated willingness to trade in dangerous goods with outliers (e.g., with Iran, Burma, and Syria), and its likely continued development of nuclear weapons, it would be useful for America and other like-minded states to inspect all cargoes traveling from North Korea to Iran, and from Iran to North Korea. This might not prevent Iran's nuclear program from progressing, but it would slow the worst of illegitimate trade, help identify and isolate Iran and North Korea as nuclear violators, and serve as a useful example to other would-be bomb makers.
Next, while we may choose to talk with those we dislike, we ought to make it clear, as we did during the Cold War with the Soviets, just how much we dislike who we are talking with. Now that Iran has proceeded to the brink of nuclearization, it's far less likely that we could cut any sort of deal with the Iranian government, and it would be better to treat the Revolutionary Guard as if it is not long for this world. At a minimum, we need to warn ourselves and others that cutting deals with a government that does not trust its own people is highly unlikely to produce an agreement we ourselves can trust.
Being this candid, of course, risks worsening relations with the government of Iran. It could, however, increase our government’s credibility with the Iranian people, who ultimately must decide just how much of threat they want their country to pose against others. If we are serious about reducing the nuclear threat from Iran, we would do well to link arms with Iranian dissidents to encourage a more legitimate, popular government there to emerge. Certainly—in light of what we know technically about the advanced state of Iran’s nuclear program—this may be the most important measure and, at this late date, the only one that might matter.
Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington and Greg S. Jones is an expert on uranium enrichment and nuclear nonproliferation based in Los Angeles.