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Being realistic about Iran's nuclear program

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May 31, 2012|By Daniel Kadishson
  • In this 2007 file photo, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers south of Tehran.
In this 2007 file photo, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at Iran's… (Hasan Sarbakhshian / Associated…)

The bell has rung on the first round of Iran negotiations with one positive outcome: We're not going to war, yet. 

In his May 23 Times Op-Ed article, Chuck Freilich correctly wrote that the least bad outcome of these negotiations between Iran and world powers would have been allowing the country a minimal level of uranium enrichment in return for better inspections and the removal of higher-enriched uranium. Freilich was overly ambitious to think that such a deal could get done in the first round of negotiations, and wrong to assert that it represents only a stopgap solution and that Iran must eventually stop its uranium enrichment altogether. But he is closer to the mark than most in Congress.

In an ideal world, Iran would consent to a full, permanent suspension of uranium enrichment (zero centrifuges) as well as unrestricted inspections of all nuclear facilities. But the last nine years of Iranian declarations, the factional power struggles within the Iranian government and the political self-interest of Iran’s leaders make it highly unlikely that they will agree to fully suspend enrichment.  

But uranium enrichment need not lead inexorably to nuclear weapons. To ensure Iran does not pursue weaponization, U.S. negotiators should have a free hand to reach an agreement that allows Iran a token number of centrifuges in exchange for closure of the most dangerous facilities and unrestricted inspections in all remaining facilities. To prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, verification is more important than zero centrifuges.

Members of Congress who demand only that Iran agree to a complete, permanent suspension of all uranium enrichment and allow unfettered inspections in all facilities, and are trying to legislate that the U.S. can accept nothing less, are ignoring reality in a way that will likely lead to either an Iranian nuclear weapon or a new war.

Enrichment has become a central symbol of national pride for Iran. All levels of the government, from the supreme leader to the Iranian cabinet, have insisted they will not completely suspend uranium enrichment. Even with sanctions stifling their economy, there is no indication the Iranians are willing to turn 180 degrees.

A complete reversal of Iran's long-standing policy on uranium enrichment would represent such a significant concession that the Islamic Republic would be unlikely to make the more important compromise: allowing the additional inspections needed to verify the suspension and ensure that Iran’s military is not moving forward with missile and explosive testing, which are as important to a nuclear weapon as enriched uranium. 

Iran has mastered uranium enrichment; our demands must adapt to this reality. It is better to let Iran openly have five centrifuges with international inspectors allowed unrestricted access throughout the country than to let Iran claim it has zero centrifuges and no nuclear military program without having the means to verify this.

U.S. negotiators should have bipartisan support from Congress to pursue any agreement that precludes Iran from building a nuclear weapon, but there are general principles that an agreement could follow: A token, face-saving number of centrifuges can be permitted at a facility that is not built under a mountain; all nuclear sites should maintain unlimited access for inspectors or international technicians at the site; uranium should be enriched to only 5% and the existing stockpile of higher-enriched uranium should be removed; and all military sites with suspected nuclear activity should be either shut down or opened to international inspectors immediately. Inspectors would be able to track exactly how much uranium is moved and, most important, keep constant tabs on Iranian scientists.  Under this scenario, it would be almost impossible for Iran to "break out" and sprint for a weapon undetected; the U.S. would still have time to attack if Iran did decide to go for a bomb.

If U.S. politicians want to oppose this type of agreement, they first need to explain how their own proposal is both one that Iranian leaders can accept without becoming pariahs and more workable than one that allows a token enrichment capacity in return for a permanent, robust international inspections presence. On numerous occasions during the Cold War, Democrats and Republicans worked together to prevent countries from developing nuclear weapons; the situation with Iran calls for lawmakers once again to prioritize the nation over politics.

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Daniel Kadishson has served as an energy policy adviser in Congress and as a U.S. Army analyst. The views in this article are his own.

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