The diplomatic standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions has grown more intense since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced publicly on November 29 that his government intends to build 10 new sites to enrich uranium to supply nuclear power plants that will increase the country's annual generating capacity by 20,000 megawatts over the next 20 years.
He explained that in order to achieve this, Iran will need to install 500,000 centrifuges at the planned facilities to produce 250 to 300 tons of nuclear fuel annually.
Ahmadinejad's surprise announcement came two days after an International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) resolution that criticized Iran for defying a UN Security Council ban on uranium enrichment and secretly building an enrichment facility near Qom, the Fardow site. The resolution demanded the immediate suspension of further work at Fardow.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, blamed the West for the decision to build the additional new enrichment facilities. Salehi said it was the IAEA resolution that "prompted the government to approve the plan."
The Iranian government's recalcitrance has given rise to serious concern in the West about Iran's motives and the nature of its nuclear program. "Iran is playing an extremely dangerous game," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said.
Aside from the geopolitical implications of the government decision to expand the nuclear program, there are serious doubts about whether the ambitious new expansion plans are really practical. As noted above, they entail building 10 more facilities similar to that at Natanz, with a total of 500,000 centrifuges.
After a decade of preparatory work and assistance from A. Q. Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, by 2003 Iran had managed to manufacture some 5,000 P-1 centrifuges. Since then, production has gained momentum both qualitatively and quantitatively. According to an IAEA report released last month, Iran has built and installed 8,745 centrifuges to date, but fewer than half of them are operational. The Natanz site alone is intended to house over 50,000 centrifuges.
Although Iran insists that its nuclear industry is completely indigenized and does not require outside help, there are strong indications that most key parts for centrifuges are obtained either overtly or covertly from abroad.
This is becoming increasingly difficult in view of the sanctions imposed on Iran. Over the past six years, since the start of work on the Fardow enrichment facility, Iran has only managed to install the fittings and piping for 3,000 centrifuges, even though the site is scheduled to become operational in 2011.
If one compares Iran's actual capabilities with its stated intention to build 10 sites with 500,000 centrifuges, the plan is a nonstarter. It is utterly unrealistic in terms of both human and nonhuman resources. Moreover, Iran is already running short of indigenously mined and imported feed stock for the centrifuges already operating, let alone for the planned additional 10 enrichment facilities.
The most cogent explanation for announcing such an impractical, yet politically provocative plan is that Iran wants to build nuclear bombs; it is not genuinely interested in a diplomatic solution of its nuclear issue; and it is playing for time.
'Yes, No, Maybe'
Although a majority of Iranian lawmakers have asked the government to scale back its cooperation with the IAEA, Iranian officials have made it clear that the country has no intention of leaving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and that the door remains open for further negotiations.
Parliament speaker Ali Larijani too, in spite of an earlier intemperate statement about the IAEA for criticizing Iran, later said that notwithstanding the latest tension, Iran is still open to diplomacy. He added that if the major powers "adopt other policies, Iran would adopt other policies, as well."
This is not the first time that top Iranian officials have sent such mixed signals, alternating blustery statements with conciliatory gestures. The recent rejection of the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States, plus Germany) proposal to send Iran's low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia in exchange for nuclear fuel for Tehran's research reactor is another example.
The Iranian leadership initially accepted the proposal in principle, triggering a host of arguments and counterarguments that ranged from recommending the total rejection of the proposal, to sending LEU abroad in installments, to the simultaneous exchange of LEU for nuclear fuel inside Iran. Iran finally rejected that proposal after a "yes, no, maybe" answer that left many experts puzzled about Iran's true intentions.
This pattern of behavior by Iran -- providing a convoluted answer and not shutting the door completely -- can be partly attributed to internal political disputes and the multiplicity of decision-making centers, one of which is the Revolutionary Guards.
An alternative explanation is that Iran seeks to assess the seriousness of the major powers' threats of consequences and ward off the harshest measures by playing whatever cards are at its disposal. This explanation assumes that Iran's ultimate aim is the greatest benefit -- meaning rapid breakout capability (the capability to make a bomb if the need arises) -- at the least cost. In other words, to become a virtual nuclear power in the hope of forestalling a foreign attack.
A New Solution
So far, U.S. policy towards Iran has been a mixture of diplomacy and threats in the form of economic sanctions and, implicitly, even a military strike. Although Iranian leaders wish to avoid further economic sanctions, they are already adopting measures intended to cope with them.
As for a military attack, Iranian commanders believe that due to its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will not launch a large-scale attack, and that they could successfully react to limited or random air attacks by resorting to asymmetrical operations in the Persian Gulf and supporting proxy wars and terrorist operations.
In theory, military attacks on nuclear sites could delay Iran's progress towards retaining the deterrence of a rapid breakout capability and becoming a virtual nuclear power (sometimes called the Japan option). But it is doubtful whether bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would deter it in the long term from seeking that capability. On the contrary, in the long term there is not going to be a winner.
The key question is whether it is possible to motivate Iran and the United States to reach an agreement, possibly in the form of a grand bargain, which would be in the interest of both countries.
Hossein Aryan is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Farda