Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Nuclear Ambiguity

Avner Cohen, Ha'aretz:
Considering the fact that Israel is the country that invented and bequeathed to the world the concept of nuclear ambiguity, there is more than a smidgen of irony that the Israeli discourse about the Iranian nuclear program is predicated on the assumption that Iran's long-term strategic and technological ambitions are fixed, clear and well-defined.

For some time, Israeli political commentators have been repeatedly quoting "official assessments" that repeat the claim that Iran's nuclear program is only few months away from the "point of no return." READ MORE

According to this discourse, Iran has but one well-defined, strategic goal that is agreed upon by all Iranian decision-makers: to get "the bomb" and then build an arsenal that within a few years would turn it into a nuclear power like, say, India and Pakistan.

According to this view, there is a particular technological point on the curve of Iranian nuclear development, a "point of no return," after which the Iranian bomb should be considered a fait accompli. That point is commonly identified as the moment when the Iranian uranium enrichment program produces a significant amount of highly enriched uranium, enough for one or more bombs. According to a common Israeli assessment, that point of no return is not more than a year away. And at that point, it will be possible to say that international efforts have failed to prevent the Iranian development of a bomb.

As part of that deterministic thinking, Iran is perceived as having one and only one national will. Its nuclear and space programs are described as following a supreme coordinated doctrine subject to a multi-year technological-strategic timetable. According to that scenario, after Iran secretly crosses the point of no return and produces significant amounts of enriched uranium, it will find an excuse that frees it from its commitments to the Europeans.

Iran may continue arguing that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty grants it the right of access to all the elements required for a complete nuclear fuel cycle, including enriched uranium. If at that stage it is decided to discuss it in the UN Security Council, Iran will follow in the footsteps of North Korea and unilaterally abandon the NPT, according to Article 10 in the treaty. Under those circumstances, the Middle East will have gone nuclear, and Israel will have to respond appropriately.

Such a scenario is not impossible. However, a deterministic outlook and discourse based on a technological point of no return is grossly misleading. It is derived from a distorted idea of the dynamics of a national nuclear development program - a process that at the start is unclear, indecisive and highly hedgy. Although there is no doubt among most experts that Iran's goal is to build a nuclear capability with military significance, at this point nobody can predict if, how and to what extent Iran will be able to fulfill its nuclear aspirations.

Will Iran be able to manufacture fissionable material? Will Iran decide to break its commitment to the Europeans? To what extent Iran is bluffing on its threat to resume enrichment? Under what political conditions might Iran declare it is no longer obligated to the NPT and would even undertake a nuclear test?

Nobody has clear answers to these questions, including probably even the heads of the Iranian nuclear program. The answers depend, on the one hand, on the international community's determination in its struggle against a nuclear Iran, and on the other hand on the results of an internal debate within Iran itself about just how worthwhile it would be to develop a nuclear weapon, in light of the possibility of sanctions, or even a military strike against it.

There is a vigorous debate under way in Iran about the concrete goals of the nuclear development. Some aspire to Iran going North Korea's way, abandoning the NPT, conducting nuclear tests and developing an open nuclear arsenal. Others are interested in Iran following Israel's nuclear ambiguity, and some support a nuclear option and an option to enrich uranium, but not necessarily actually going ahead with the enrichment. There are fundamental strategic differences between these three alternatives.

Just as the measure of the determination of the international forces opposed to the nuclearization of Iran has still not faced its final test, neither has the determination of Iran to achieve nuclear capability. Ultimately, the decision is political, not technological, and the struggle over a nuclear Iran will be determined through an ongoing war of attrition, and not by a decisive war.

As of now, the talks with the European troika - Britain, France, Germany - are once again in a crisis, but it will take a long time, perhaps years, until we know how this struggle ends. Even if at the end of the struggle Iran does have a certain level of capability of enrichment, it is far from clear if and how it will turn the ability to manufacture fissionable material into a nuclear capability in the military sense of the term.

The bottom line is that only a strong proliferation prevention regime can guarantee that Iran does not actualize the possibility of developing a nuclear bomb. The problem is that more than ever before, the proliferation prevention regime is weak, divided and leaderless.

The writer is author of "Israel and the Bomb." His new book, "Israel's Last Taboo," will be published next month.