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Iran: Will U.S. Leave Nuclear Crisis To International Arms-Control Community? (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

As the 31 October deadline approaches for Tehran to answer all questions about its nuclear program, media attention is focusing on the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as the main forum for solving the debate over Iran's suspected efforts at weapons development. But in the United States there is vigorous debate over whether Washington can afford to leave the issue solely in the hands of the international arms-control community. Given the divisiveness of the crisis over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, many U.S. policymakers say "no" -- and the search is on for other multilateral steps. RFE/RL looks at some of the ideas that are emerging in the first part of a two-part series.

Prague, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In many respects, the debate in the U.S. over Iran's suspected nuclear-arms program resembles the one over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction before Washington toppled Saddam Hussein.

Opinions in the domestic debate range from demands Washington carry out air strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, to calls to keep working within the international arms-control system, to suggestions Washington try to engage Tehran in direct tension-reducing talks.

The one thing all positions have in common is a sense that Iran's nuclear activities represent a growing threat to U.S. security and that solutions must be found urgently. The sense of urgency comes as arms-control experts warn that Iran is acquiring nuclear technology and infrastructure rapidly enough to now be able to produce a bomb in seven to 10 years if left undisturbed. Some experts have even said that in a worst-case scenario, Iran might be in a position as early as 2006 to break out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and produce a large arsenal of weapons in a matter of weeks, should it choose to do so.

Given such timelines, some commentators have suggested Washington forcefully cut short Iran's progress in the same way Israel preemptively destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. Reuel Marc Gerecht, of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., wrote earlier this year that "diplomatic efforts to address these issues will only go so far. Indeed, preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities...may be the only way to live up to the Bush administration's axis of evil doctrine."

However, other analysts argue that force cannot solve the Iran nuclear crisis. Fred Wehling, a nuclear weapons expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, said Iran does have a highly visible nuclear target, the reactor being built with Russian assistance near the port city of Bushehr. But he said the reactor -- for which Russia will also provide uranium fuel -- is being designed for the production of electricity and does not significantly contribute to a weapons-development effort, despite some concerns the fuel could be diverted to bomb making.

"Bushehr does not necessarily have to have anything to do with a military program. In fact, that would be the last place I would look for any connection to a military program, because all the fuel coming to Bushehr -- both fresh when it comes in, and spent when it goes out -- is going to be under safeguards and the plant will be subject to [IAEA] inspections," Wehling said.

Instead, many arms experts say that Iran's weapons development may be taking place at sites that are much harder to target, such as the secret uranium-enrichment pilot facility discovered at Natanz two years ago. The fact that the Natanz facility -- which Iran claimed to be building to produce its own commercial reactor fuel -- had functioning equipment suggests that Iran could also have other clandestine sites for testing and developing weapons technology. That means the challenge for the U.S. military could be not just trying to carry out surgical strikes on Iran weapons sites but, first of all, to find them.

Faced with such problems, plus the fact that hitting Tehran -- unlike Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- would mean attacking a state that, internationally, is far from being considered a pariah, most of the policy debate today focuses on finding diplomatic solutions to the crisis. But given that Baghdad was able to endure international arms inspections for 12 years with such uncertain results that Washington considered it easier to occupy Iraq instead, few U.S. policymakers say they are ready to rely solely on IAEA inspections to halt Iran's progress.

Currently, the Bush administration is exerting much effort to convince Russia to cut back its nuclear assistance to Iran because some of it has dual uses applicable for bomb-development programs. Washington has particularly -- but unsuccessfully -- tried to persuade Moscow not to fulfill its lucrative contract to provide uranium fuel for Bushehr. Moscow has responded to U.S. worries that some of the fuel could be diverted to secret uranium-enrichment facilities by saying Iran will have to retun the reactor fuel to Russia after it is used and that will assure it does not go astray.

With U.S. pressure failing to sway Moscow, some analysts are now proposing that Washington look for a very different deal with Russia over Bushehr. Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and Gary Samore of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, have suggested Washington accept Russia's assistance to Iran if Moscow ties that to an Iranian commitment to dismantle its uranium-enrichment facilities or convert them to unambiguously energy-only purposes.

Einhorn described the proposal this way: "One approach would be to say, 'OK, Iran, you can have nuclear power reactors, one or two, perhaps even more, but you have to give up the capability to produce highly enriched uranium or plutonium [the fissile material in nuclear bombs]. You have to dismantle the facilities you are now constructing for those purposes and you should rely on foreign sources of that reactor fuel.'"

He said Russia has a commercial interest in Iran lacking the ability to make its own fuel, as it could purchase fuel from Russia. "[That] would be a very lucrative arrangement," Einhorn said. "So Russia does have incentive for working out that kind of a deal."

Einhorn said that by cooperating with such a proposal, Moscow could also engage in greater nuclear commerce with the West. The new commerce could include the profitable business of storing U.S.-originated reactor fuel that has been used in countries like South Korea and Taiwan -- something now being held up by the U.S.-Russian dispute over Bushehr.

The analyst said such steps would leave Iran with what it officially says it wants, a purely peaceful nuclear energy program. "If Iran was only interested in generating electricity at the lowest possible cost, it would be very interested in this deal because it is clearly more cost-effective for Iran to buy reactors from abroad, build those reactors in Iran, but not to produce [its] own fuel. It is terribly inefficient and costly for Iran to do that."

Einhorn says, "The problem is that Iran is seeking the capability to produce its own fuel not for efficiency reasons -- they are doing it because those are precisely the same capabilities you need to produce nuclear material that can be used to build nuclear weapons."

In addition to new efforts to enlist Moscow in limiting Iran's access to dual-use materials, many U.S. arms control experts also are calling for Washington to continue pressing Islamabad to cut off its suspected transfer of uranium-enrichment technology to Iran. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has said that his government is providing no such aid to Tehran but media reports have suggested government-affiliated institutions or scientists may be doing so on their own behalf.

As the debate in the U.S. grows over how to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, some analysts are even suggesting the crisis may ultimately force Washington to reassess its own foreign policy toward Iran. That policy today is based on a decades-old strategy of trying to economically isolate the Islamic Republic and keep it financially weak, in part to limit Iran's capacity for expensive weapons development programs. But now some policy experts say Washington might do better to try to hold tension-reducing talks with Tehran, with one goal being to convince Iran it does not need nuclear weapons for its security.

The second part of the series on the Iran nuclear crisis will look at those proposals .