Washington’s Iran deal is an exercise in futility.
By Henry Sokolski
Although it’s not widely appreciated, the nuclear deal Washington is currently dangling before Iran to entice it to halt its declared uranium-enrichment program is a cure nearly as awful as the disease. To be sure, Iran’s enrichment effort, if unchecked, could bring Tehran within days of acquiring a bomb. But Washington’s latest overture to Tehran—offering advanced large nuclear reactors, hundreds of tons of lightly enriched uranium, and a pass on Iran’s violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—will only make it tougher to toe a hard line against Iran later this fall. And it could literally blow up in our faces if Iran actually accepts it.
The Bush administration is offering Iran a diplomatic package including cooperation on civil aviation, increased international trade and investment, and agricultural and telecommunications assistance. The package’s most stunning provisions, though, are nuclear. These include building Iran more “state of the art” power and research reactors, assuring a “buffer stock of up to 5 years supply of nuclear fuel,” and suspending “discussion of Iran’s nuclear program at the U.N. Security Council.”
Our diplomats claim that these enticements are designed to force Iran to make a choice: Either enjoy the benefits of peaceful international economic and civilian nuclear cooperation, or else face sanctions and isolation. This “positive incentives” package, along with the July 31 passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Iran stop all enrichment activities by August, is supposed to be enough to deter Iran from continuing its dangerous drive for nuclear weapons.
This pitch sounds impressive. The only problem is that it’s mostly hype.
In fact, to get Moscow and Beijing to agree to a U.N. enrichment-suspension resolution, Washington had to bend over backwards to soften its approach. The end result was a U.N. resolution that is largely toothless: It is thin on enforcement threats and heavy on vague references to taking “appropriate action.” The resolution does not include the word “sanction,” nor does it talk about Iran having violated any legally binding obligation. It was also accompanied by an immediate public statement from Russia denying that the resolution establishes anything approaching “automatic” penalties. What this means is that Iran, which has already rejected numerous demands to stop making nuclear fuel, will do nothing to meet the August 31st deadline. When the U.N. Security Council meets again in September to discuss this, the Russians and Chinese are almost certain to repeat their objections to sanctioning Tehran. Then we will be back to square one.
What will make any significant movement even tougher is the incentive package Washington offered earlier in June, which affirms Iran’s “right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and commits the U.S. to build Iran more large light-water reactors like the one currently being completed at Bushehr. These are major concessions. Consider: Three years ago, the Bush Administration opposed Russia’s completion of Bushehr on the grounds that the light-water reactor itself constituted a proliferation threat. So long as it was unclear if Iran had covert nuclear-fuel-making plants, opening up a large reactor of the type being built at Bushehr would only increase Iran’s access to spent reactor fuels, which it could divert or seize to accelerate a bomb-making program.
A study my center completed two years ago that reassesses the proliferation dangers of light water reactors actually details how Iran could divert spent fuel for the purpose of making weapons. Using relatively crude technology, Iran could build a small, covert reprocessing plant in a matter of months that would be almost impossible to detect until it began reprocessing spent fuel. With this plant ready, Iran could divert enough spent fuel from the reactor site to make its first bomb in less than a matter of two weeks—and an additional bomb for every day it was kept open after that. International inspectors might not even be able to detect the initial diversion. Worse, after only the first year of operation, the reactor would have produced enough near-weapons-grade plutonium to make over 50 nuclear weapons. With numbers this large, Iran might well have an incentive to overtly break out.
To address this problem, Washington urged Russia, Bushehr’s builder, to promise to take back all of the spent fuel from the reactor. There were only two problems: Moscow could only get Iran to agree to allow turn over spent fuel for the first 10 years of the reactor’s operation, and even then there always would be enough spent fuel in or outside of the reactor at any time to make at least 30 or more nuclear weapons. For some reason, this was considered to be good enough.
Yet another way a large light-water reactor could help Iran make bombs is by making fresh, lightly enriched uranium available. Every-light water reactor normally keeps enough lightly enriched uranium fuel outside of the reactor to refuel the machine quickly in the case of a shutdown. Roughly 4 percent of this fuel is weapons-grade uranium. To extract enough of this material to make a workable bomb requires an enrichment plant, but if the feed is lightly enriched uranium (versus natural uranium which only contains .7 percent weapons-usable material) the level of effort to make a bomb is reduced by as much as five-fold. Thus, Iran could divert this material to a covert plant or seize this material and make bombs in its declared facilities and produce its first bomb in a matter of weeks.
All of this suggests why the second part of our nuclear offer—to give Iran a five-year buffer supply of lightly enriched uranium fuel for each light-water reactor we help it build—is a bad idea. This plan would give Iran roughly 75 tons of lightly enriched reactor fuel per reactor. That would contain 3 tons of weapons-usable uranium that could be extracted with an enrichment plant to make as many as 150 bombs. To be fair, the offer speaks about this buffer being made available on a “commercial basis.” But this provision begs the question: Would Iran have this buffer stock on call? If the answer is no, it would hardly constitute much of an “assured supply.”
Perhaps aware of this, the offer’s authors provide that the lightly enriched uranium will be supplied “with participation and under supervision of the IAEA.” This proviso, though, immediately raises the bigger question—is the IAEA ready and able to certify that Iran has no covert enrichment or reprocessing plants and that the declared enrichment plant will remain shut down? The short answers here are no, no, and no.
Just this week, the IAEA made this point all too clear when it announced that of the 70 states it was inspecting under its most intrusive procedures, 46 of them, including Iran, still were being investigated to determine if they were entirely out of the bomb-making business. In Iran’s case, the agency is still worried that it may be engaged in undeclared or covert nuclear-fuel making without the IAEA’s knowledge.
What would the IAEA need to do to ensure Iran is clean? Plenty more than the agency is currently doing. Specifically, the IAEA would have to do a “wide-area surveillance” inspection of Iran. How much would this cost? According to a detailed analysis
by former IAEA and Iraqi UN inspector, Garry Dillon, upwards of $30 million a year—roughly 20 percent of the IAEA’s entire annual nuclear-safeguards budget. He explains how this figure might be scaled back, but the point of his paper is that the IAEA must prepare now if it is to develop, deploy, and maintain the hundreds of air-sampling systems that such an inspection regime would require. Is it doing this preparation or even setting aside the millions of dollars it would need to take on this task? The short answer is no. Instead, in a controversial move, the IAEA’s Director General just removed a key IAEA inspector from Iran because he was criticized by Tehran for being too aggressive in doing his job.
This then brings us to the final problem with the U.N. Resolution and the incentives package. Neither bothers to mention that Iran is in violation of its nuclear safeguards obligations under the nonproliferation treaty. Nor does either suggest any penalties for these violations. Instead, both ask Iran to uphold a voluntary political understanding it reached with Germany, Britain, and France in November 2004 to freeze Iran’s nuclear-fuel-making activities. The incentive package, meanwhile, promises to suspend action by the U.N. Security Council against Iran if it merely resumes complying with this agreement.
Apparently, Iran’s violation of its legal obligations under the nonproliferation treaty is no longer a concern for the U.S. or the world’s major powers. The message this conveys to all other would-be bomb makers, including states near Iran that already must be thinking how to hedge their security bets with nuclear options of their own, is that proliferation of the type Iran has engaged in pays. At a minimum, those states interested in pursuing “peaceful nuclear power” will now ask the U.S. and other major powers for increased nuclear assistance.
As for what will develop if, as is likely, Iran continues its nuclear-fuel-making activities beyond August 31st, look for more back-pedaling by Russia and China, including entertainment of suggestions that Iran ought to be allowed to engage in “experimental scale” enrichment activities if it agrees to allow more inspections and forswears “commercial-scale” enrichment. Also, watch for increased U.S. and allied foot stomping based now, however, on little more than personal outrage. Finally, unless the U.S. advocates a tougher, more sensible legal line against Iran and stops pushing nuclear power in such a mindless fashion, get ready for Tehran and others to exploit our peaceful nuclear confusion as they inch closer to getting the bomb.
— Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, DC and is editor of Taming the Next Set of Strategic Weapons Threats (Strategic Studies Institute, 2006).