When the Soft Talk Has to Stop
The Economist: Special Report
Now that Iran is crossing a clear red line, what can the world do? READ MORE
On January 10th, Iranian officials removed inspectors' seals and prepared to re-start experiments at the pilot uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. By doing so, they have sabotaged efforts to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions by negotiation rather than confrontation. Iran evidently calculates that it will survive the fallout. For the rest of the world, however, its defiance is a critical test.
Crossing the enrichment threshold will not only bring two years of negotiations with Britain, France and Germany to a halt. By ending the suspension of nuclear activities at Natanz that had sustained these talks, Iran has also brushed aside appeals from two of its semi-friends, Russia and China, ignored calls to desist from the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear guardian, and dismissed pleas from the IAEA's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, to do more to build confidence that its nuclear activities are as peaceful as it claims. For if Iran's intentions are not peaceful, and it manages now to cheat on regardless, the credibility of IAEA safeguards and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) these are designed to uphold will be severely damaged.
Shrugging off all such protests, Iran claims that all it will be doing is resuming modest research and development work, and that all it has ever wanted to do is produce low-enriched (up to 5%) uranium (LEU) so that nuclear power stations can help keep the lights on. Indeed, that is so far all the fast-spinning centrifuge machines it is installing at Natanz are configured for. But there are strong suspicions that its nuclear activities—kept secret for 18 years until disclosed by a dissident group in 2002, and declared last November by the IAEA to be in violation of its safeguards commitments under the NPT—have a more sinister purpose.
Iran has no pressing need to start enrichment work now. Pierre Goldschmidt, formerly in charge of safeguards at the IAEA and now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently pointed out that Russia has guaranteed at least ten years' supply of fuel to Iran's single almost-ready reactor, at Bushehr. No other reactors are yet being built, and the fuel-fabrication plant will not be fully up and running until 2012. Yet by experimenting at Natanz, even enriching only tiny quantities of uranium gas, Iran will be learning skills that can be used just as easily to make the highly enriched (90% and over) uranium (HEU) needed for the fissile core of a bomb.
In other words, once enrichment is fully mastered, the only bar to a military programme is intent. Assuming it does want a bomb, how far is Iran from having one? No one knows. But it could soon have several break-out options.
Looking for clues
According to an assessment by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in September 2005, by feeding the uranium it produces back through the 1,000 centrifuges it plans to run at Natanz, Iran could take three years to produce a bomb's worth (25kg) of HEU. However, the 50,000-centrifuge commercial plant being built nearby would speed things up a lot. And rather than making its intentions so transparent, Iran could also seek to build up stocks of LEU (the harder part of the enrichment process) for later quick conversion to HEU, possibly at an undeclared enrichment plant elsewhere.
Does Iran have a hidden military programme? Inspectors are unsure. Although they have winkled out a lot of information, the gaps are troubling. Unexplained traces of enriched uranium suggest more “experiments” than have been accounted for so far. Questions remain about what Iran really did with plans it bought on the black market for more efficient centrifuge machines (left gathering dust in a cupboard for years, it says), and whether it used designs it was given by these traffickers for shaping uranium metal in ways useful in weapons-making (no, it insists). Iran has refused to allow full inspection of some military sites thought to be connected with nuclear work, including at least one where high-explosive testing of bomb-triggers may have taken place.
Other evidence adds to this disturbing pattern. For more than a year, America's intelligence agencies have been studying a cache of computer files that appear to show design work by Iranian scientists on a missile cone configured in just the way needed to accommodate a nuclear warhead. Administration officials showed some of this evidence late last year to Russia and China in the hope of winning their active support at the IAEA for declaring Iran in non-compliance with its obligations. (In the end, both abstained on the resolution but let it pass.)
Meanwhile, Iran has long collaborated with North Korea on missile development, testing and deploying its own versions of the North's nuclear-capable Nodong missile, with a range of 1,200km, and possibly collaborating on the longer-range Taepodong missile too. In a forthcoming article in Survival, Mark Fitzpatrick of the IISS suggests that such co-operation may recently have extended to nuclear work. Both regimes bought nuclear equipment from the black-market network, run by Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan, which also supplied Libya and others until it was busted. Few other countries would be ready to help Iran with its nuclear projects at present.
The struggle to negotiate
While most governments agree that Iran should not be allowed to build nuclear weapons, if that is indeed its intent (some Iranian officials talk privately of wanting an “option” on a bomb, rather than the bomb itself), it has proved exceedingly difficult to get them to agree on how to stop it. The Europeans first launched their diplomatic initiative in hopes of forestalling more forceful action, either by the United States or by Israel. But the going has been very tough, in part because at first they lacked the full support of some of the bigger players, including America.
That changed early in 2005 when President George Bush decided that, instead of opposing all dealings with Iran, he would throw his weight behind the European effort, albeit without much expectation of success. He also stopped opposing Russia's work on the Bushehr reactor for Iran, having successfully pressured the Russians to insist on return of the spent fuel. The Europeans, now with American and Russian backing, have been offering Iran a package of inducements, including improved trade and political ties and joint work on other less sensitive nuclear projects, if Iran will agree to give up all plans to enrich uranium or make plutonium (another potential bomb ingredient). Given Iran's past lies and evasions, the European three argued, ending all such nuclear work was the only “objective guarantee” that its activities would remain peaceful.
But as America moved to back the European initiative, Iran started to pull away from talks. After the unexpected election of a radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, things got even stickier. Last August, Iran restarted its plant at Isfahan that converts natural uranium ore in stages into a gas called uranium hexafluoride that can later be spun in centrifuges. That was already a first breach of its suspension agreement with the Europeans.
Most recently Iran rejected a Russian-backed compromise that would have allowed conversion work to continue, but with the gas converted to LEU on Russian soil and subsequently returned to Iran for use as nuclear fuel. This would have kept Iran from more dangerous nuclear dabbling and so allowed space for talks to continue. But Iran has suggested it would only accept the idea if some enrichment work were to continue in Iran too, which rather negates the point of the exercise.
Has diplomacy therefore failed? The Europeans say they have managed to delay Iran's enrichment work by at least two years. More important, however, by maintaining a united front among themselves (not always easy), and gaining American and Russian support, they have also managed to focus attention on Iran's obligations under the NPT to observe safeguards commitments and not to seek nuclear weapons, not just the “rights” to fuel-making technologies that Iran claims for itself. And they set out more clearly the lines that Iran (and anyone else with a cloud of suspicion over them) must not cross. But that is why what follows is crucial, now that Iran has chosen to push across one such clear line and restart its enrichment work. Will the Europeans, America, Russia and others call Iran to account, or will they have their own bluff called instead?
A shortlist of options
The first step will be to convene an emergency meeting of the IAEA's board, likely later this month, to receive a formal report about what Iran has been up to. America has long pressed for Iran to be referred to the United Nations Security Council for its actions. Short of an about-face by Iran, the Europeans will now press hard for that outcome. A majority on the IAEA's board already favours referral. But for Iran to take notice, Russia, China and others will have to back the idea too. Both countries have been loth to lean hard on Iran in the past. But both are bitterly disappointed that its regime has upped the ante in this way.
Getting to the council is one thing; getting action from it is another. A presidential statement urging Iran to comply with inspectors' requests, and even assigning the IAEA wider investigative powers, might get through, since the point would be to strengthen the inspectors' hands, not take Iran's case away from them. Beyond that, other steps could include political sanctions, such as denial of visas for sporting teams or for members of Iran's regime (similar actions are thought to have helped in the past in dealing with the recalcitrant Serb government, for example). Unlike the North Koreans, who seem not to mind their isolation, Iranians take pride in their growing contacts around the world and are keen to be accorded the status and respect they feel their ancient civilisation deserves. That said, however, Iran's new president, eager to wipe Israel off the map, seems dangerously unfazed by world opinion.
It would be tougher to win widespread support at the UN for economic sanctions. Several key countries, including Russia (which also recently signed a $1 billion weapons contract with Iran), China, India and Japan have been reluctant to put their oil and gas contracts and their pipeline projects at risk. Yet such targeted sanctions might be the one thing that could get Iran's full attention. Its energy industry is dependent on foreign investment for future expansion and modernisation. Meanwhile, India is an important supplier of refined petrol to Iran.
The Europeans have already hinted that if sanctions are blocked at the UN, they will impose their own. They will also try to get others to join them, rather as America has orchestrated the Proliferation Security Initiative, an informal posse of countries prepared to take tough action to block shipments of illicit goods and materials around the world related to weapons of mass destruction.
The last resort
Might force be the answer? Mr Bush has always said that no option is off the table. Israel says Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and has suggested that, once Iran has mastered enrichment, perhaps as early as a few months from now, its nuclear programme will have passed “the point of no return”. Might either government be tempted to pre-empt the diplomacy with military strikes?
Israel's air force flattened Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981. But Iran has learnt from that episode. It has dispersed, hidden and buried its numerous facilities; some sites, including Natanz, are up to 75 feet underground. Nor is sabotage much of an option. Ploys such as assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists or infecting Iranian computer systems with viruses would cause minimal damage. And yet there are military options, however imperfect and risky.
Only America could hope to demolish Iran's programme. The Iranians are believed to have, in addition to its main sites, at least a score with a role in the programme, and more than 100 sites suspected of having a role. To attack them all, with cruise missiles and fighter-bombers, would require an extended campaign and hundreds of sorties. Corridors would have to be cleared through Iran's air defences and the Iranian air force destroyed. Collateral damage, to Iranian civilians and cities, could be extensive.
A likelier alternative might be to launch an attritional campaign by attacking Natanz and Bushehr, recognising that the resulting damage would at best delay Iran's nuclear progress. This is certainly the most that Israel could contemplate unilaterally. Such an attack would be a declaration of a war which Israel could start but might not be able to finish without American protection. And Israeli fighter-bombers would find it hard to reach Iran without passing through American-controlled airspace.
To attack Iran this way would make sense only if it were thought likely that a friendlier Iranian regime would then emerge. But Iran has no obvious, friendly government-in-waiting. And Iran could strike back—by closing the oil chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz or hitting American or Israeli interests via proxies in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israel is well within range of Iranian missiles. Diplomacy has not stopped Iran so far. But military action is by no means an attractive alternative.