Stopping Iran building a nuclear bomb

By Jonathan Power

There has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states. If Iran does cross the nuclear threshold the same deterrence will apply. No one rational would want to provoke their own incineration. Kenneth Waltz, the distinguished theorist on the conduct of war, has written in “Foreign Affairs” that with Israel possessing over 200 nuclear weapons Iran having a bomb would bring stability.

I don’t think I want to go as far as Waltz does with that last point. The launch of nuclear weapons can always be done by accident or by the action of rogue members of the launch team in a silo. It has nearly happened in the US a number of times.

My question is why doesn’t President Barack Obama put a lot more effort into pressuring Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. This, more than anything, would work to defuse the whole bad situation.

Or, going further, why doesn’t Obama, as Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, explains to me, push through a Middle East Nuclear-Free Zone? This is necessary not just because of Iran but because if Iran goes nuclear so perhaps will Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. But the US torpedoed the latest attempt.

How near are the Iranians to having the ability to make a bomb if they want to – i.e. enriching their stock of uranium from the current 20% to the 90% necessary for making a warhead? Unlike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, senior people in his intelligent services, past and present, don’t think it’s imminent. Neither do much, if not most, of the CIA. Moreover, as two former US National Security Advisors, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have written, a military attack by the US or Israel, as threatened by Netanyahu, “would significantly increase Iran’s motivation to build a bomb”. An attack “would also increase the recruiting ability of radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda and give Muslims even more reason to believe that the US and Israel are at war with Islam.”

It should not be overlooked that it took 25 years for Iran to learn to enrich to 20%. This suggests that to reach the next stage, although likely to be faster, will take quite some time. Moreover, Iran’s authoritarian culture does not lend itself to a fast development. As with other authoritarian governments (China is a special case) bossiness gets in the way of smooth development. When governments interfere with the scientists, often changing the senior ones at will, preferring loyalty rather than ability, as Saddam Hussein did and as the Iranians do, the whole process gets slowed down.

Past predictions have been badly wrong. Most US and Israeli official estimates during the 1990s predicted that Iran would have nuclear weapons by 2000. Then the estimate was bumped up to 2005. Then to 2015. We shouldn’t be surprised if we hear it will be 2020.

At the moment the US does not think Iran is building a nuclear weapon. But it does believe that in certain circumstances it might – but that it would take three years to build a reliable nuclear warhead. Time is on the negotiators’ side. Still it is not a good idea to give the negotiations much time. The present sanctions are hurting the poorer members of Iran most. Similar sanctions used against the Iraq of Saddam Hussein caused over 30,000 child deaths according to UNICEF.

The US and the EU are not consistent. They put the heat on Iran but not on Brazil. Brazil has been enriching for years. It is building submarines that will need enrichment to 90% (if they follow the US submarine model). Moreover, if Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, both of which have enrichment programs, were pressured in the same way, they would resist too.

So where should the next round of negotiations go? The last negotiations collapsed when Iran refused to agree to stop enriching to 20% and to ship the surplus in its stockpile to Russia for safe-keeping.

Too often overlooked is that there is no question that Iran needs some uranium to be enriched to 20% for its Triga reactor. But it could be persuaded it already has enough for that. As for the rest, 4% enrichment would be enough for use in the future in the Busher power reactors presently fed by expensive Russian fuel.

It should be publicly said by the US and the EU that Iran has the right to enrich. It should be said also that 4% is acceptable and that the present 20% enriched uranium set aside for Triga is also OK, but there is no need for more. They should not make the transfer of the stockpile to Russia compulsory but as an Iranian sign of goodwill.

This should be the essence of a deal. A sharp decrease in sanctions would also help the cause.

© Jonathan Power 2013

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