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Understanding Iran's Defiant Nuclear Policy

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's defiant announcement of plans to build more enrichment facilities is just the latest of Iran's mixed diplomatic signals.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's defiant announcement of plans to build more enrichment facilities is just the latest of Iran's mixed diplomatic signals.
By Hossein Aryan
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.

Practically Impossible

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
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Comment Sorting
by: Q Muller from: South Africa
December 01, 2009 18:34
Personally I find nothing sinister in Iran's quest to enrich uranium. I further believe that the USA and Israel are spearheading an imminent attack upon the Iranian facilities. Israel should instead disarm itself and enter into negotiations with the true leadership of the Palestinian people and negotiate how the jews could fit comfortable into an expanded Palestine state which needless to say would include all the areas stolen since 1948.

by: Gloria Arroyo from: Philippines
December 01, 2009 20:50
A regime change in Iran is inevitable to achieve a peaceful and progressive middle east. Iran supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, Yemen rebels and the nuclear bomb ambition justifies that Iran is the axis of all evil. There must be a regime change in Iran. Iranian would love to have a a new government.

by: Jeff Hayward from: Canada
December 01, 2009 21:26
The war machine of the United States & Israel vs. an idiot. Not liking the looks of this outcome.

by: Chris Dowd from: Boston
December 01, 2009 22:21
The goal of US policy has been to so antagonize Iran as to make them leave the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty- which the US violates at will and quite blatantly in its support of India's nuclear program (a rank violation in that non signatories like India cannot by treaty receive aid from other signatories). Likewise- the demand that Iran stop its nuclear program is also a violation of the NPT.

US policy is clearly to isolate Iran and keep them on the back burner as pariah state to justify aggression at a later date (which was US policy toward Iraq in the 90's). US policy could not be more intentional destructive of the NPT inspection regime if it tried. Iran must walk a tightrope. On the on hand its population (the vast majority of whom support the nuclear program whole heartedly regardless of politics or ideology) is increasingly tired of the staggeringly blatant hypocrisy of the US on this matter and is demanding withdrawal from the NPT- but on the other hand this will give the US the propaganda victory it has long sought.

Make no mistake- there is quite literally nothing Iran can do to appease the US. If they were to cave into the illegal and insulting US demands they would only be followed by even more absurd charges and demands and ultimatums. Iran's government can only satisfy the US by resigning en masse- delivering themselves to GITMO for "enhanced interrogation" and inviting US troops in to occupy their country and install a puppet government.

by: Orhan Ertugruloglu from: the Netherlands
December 02, 2009 13:18
There is an imperial design behind Iran's defiant nuclear policy. Apparently her ambitions are ahead of her common sense and bigger than her uranium resources!

by: Bozza from: New Guinnea
December 03, 2009 01:01
I have not always agreed with USA Foreign Policy (particularly when the Bush administrations had power), but Iran has already been proven to support Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organisations in their attacks against Israel and the West. Plus they've been caught out with their recent secret nuclear expansion attempts. So come on people, what more do you want?? All people deserve to live in peace and should not have to fear a nuclear attack. Threats have been made to Israel by Iran's current leadership so that is destroying those rights of comfort and peace for the Israeli people. When a Government's actions instill fear and distrust such as Iran's have, then they have to go and good riddance!!!

by: zahra from: tanzania
December 03, 2009 11:44
it is america who is gving mixed signals~
they say the are going to cange their policies toward iran but in action they are the same!
Iran is clear...let us see the change in yuor policies and then we can talk!!
we dont want words e need ACTION! dint obama say he its time for cange? i cant see any change...
they say they want to have talks with iran concerning the nuclear issue but also say the result must be a stop to it...then whats the use of talking?
we will not give up our right!!! if you so much care about peace in the middle east do something about ISRAEL!!! it is regime built on blood of innocents...are you blind!!!

by: Martin from: Switzerland
December 05, 2009 07:43
I am not scared of Iran but Israel+USA

by: rezvan
December 05, 2009 12:02
Iran is simply mirroring US and its allies attitudes. Actually both sides are posturing which is standard in any negotiating techniques. As citizens of the world we should do what we can to prevent open conflict where lives of innocents are lost. By the way can someone name the country that has 250,000 troops or more with big naval and military bases including nuclear submarines and some of the most lethal weapons in the world and that is in occupation of two of its neighbours and has large bases in almost all the other neighbouring states as well as the ocean surrounding it. This is the only country that has ever nuked another who did not have one. No prizes for the right answer but do wish the person a Merry Christmas and a happier New Year for all the citizens of this earth, our shared home.

by: DILLIGAF from: U.S.A.
December 09, 2009 10:44
Police actions and mopping up terrorists are NOT the same as fighting a war. Iran will find itself involved in a war without any chance of winning. When it's all said and done, the domocratic Iranian opposition groups will need to take control of governmental functions and negotiate for aide (from their aggressors) in rebuilding what's left of their country. This should happen very, very soon. Iran will not fair well in the coming months.

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