Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The US, Iran, and Nuclear Weapons

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association weighs in on the nuclear crisis in Iran in this months Arms Control Today. The article in question, entitled “Iran: Getting Back on Track,” criticizes US policy on Iran and suggests an approach more in sync with the European model - incentives and negotiations.

Kimball argues that:

The United States must recalibrate its strategy to complement, not complicate, the European diplomatic initiative to reduce Iran’s incentives to acquire the bomb and keep it within the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The problem with this statement is that Iran, like North Korea before it, appears determined to acquire nuclear weapons. For Iran, the development of nuclear weapons is in Iran’s national and strategic interest. The reasons why Iran is determined to develop the bomb are numerous, but some of the most important are:

  1. Pakistan might have developed the “Islamic bomb” first, but Iran would also gain credibility within the Islamic world and power in the Middle East.
  2. Developing nuclear weapons would bolster the case that Iran is a great power and deserves to be treated accordingly.
  3. Nuclear weapons would provide a powerful deterrent to any American, Israeli, or Iraqi actions against Iran.
  4. Nukes, coupled with improve missile technology, would allow Iran to project power beyond what it currently can.
  5. Given the removal of Saddam and the subsequent weakening of Iraq, nuclear weapons would raise the prospect of Iran becoming a regional hegemon in the Middle East.

Given these and other reasons why the bomb makes sense for Iran, it is hardly surprising that Iran has put considerable effort, money, and other resources into acquiring the components and materials necessary to produce nuclear weapons. It is unclear to me why they would willingly give this process up as it nears completion for economic and diplomatic concessions. A short term respite might be purchased, but compliance would be questionable and Iran would eventually end up producing nuclear weapons.

Kimball goes on to say:

Last year, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom persuaded Iran to agree to voluntarily and temporarily halt its uranium-enrichment program and aceept tougher International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The deal created valuable diplomatic breathing space and the opportunity for the IAEA to gather detailed information about the full extent and nature of Iran’s program.

As I mentioned above, it is unlikely that any deal struck to delay Iran achieving nuclear weapon capability would have any long term success. As was the case with the Agreed Framework, it is likely that we might be a couple years. However, it does nothing to solve the problem and address the reasons why Iran wants the bomb.

Kimball is forced to acknowledge the difficulties of such an approach, especially given that Iran is committed to acquiring the bomb:

Iran has grudgingly allowed the IAEA extensive access and information about its covert projects. But several questions remain, including whether Iran has already enriched uranium. And, last spring, Iran began to undermine confidence by delaying the entry of inspectors and by continuing to manufacture parts for centrifuges for the enrichment process.

The leaders of energy-rich Iran insist these activities are for peaceful purposes and are allowed under the NPT. Their assurances are hardly reassuring. Uranium-enrichment technology cannot only be used tro produce low-enriched fuel for power reactors, but also weapons grade nuclear material.

Even after increased inspections have occurred, it is still not clear whether Iran is, in fact, cheating. Will it be possible to conclude with anything approaching 95% confidence that Iran is not developing nukes via these inspections? It seems highly doubtful to me. Iranian attempts to stall inspectors and prevent access to facilities reduce confidence, as Kimball notes. Regardless of the level of Iranian compliance, Kimball and other arms control advocates will continuously push an agenda that consists of inspections and incentives followed by more inspections and incentives. In the case of determined proliferators, this approach simply will not work. If this is ever acknowledged by anyone in the arms control community, it will be a first :)

Arguably, it makes sense for Iran to engage in some diplomatic games to stave off the possibility to major sanctions or preemptive action until nukes have been developed. At that point, sanctions and preemption make far less sense.

Regardless, European – American consensus on sanctions and/or preemptive action will prove near impossible. The likelihood of France, Russia, or China allowing either to occur in the Security Council is slim.

Given the inability of the IAEA to verify compliance, even with increased inspections, it is clear that the NPT can vouchsafe that states are not working on developing nuclear weapons. Again, the regime is in trouble.

Kimball concludes by saying:

Even if Iran complies with NPT commitments now, it may still choose to follow the nuclear weapons route in the future. Given the stakes, the United States must counter arguments from Iranian hard-liners who wrongly believe that nuclear weapons will enhance Iran’s prestige and counter Israel’s nuclear arsenal. To help do so, Washington should reiterate its long-standing commitment to achieve a Middle-East nuclear-weapon-free zone.

Time is running out. The situation demands a new and more sophisticated US strategy that increases Iran’s incentives to halt its dual-purpose nuclear projects and reinforce the view within Iran that it does not need and will not benefit from nuclear weapons.
There is no silver bullet for this issue. Incentives and negotiations only work when you have a partner committed to the process. Iran, due to its own conception of the national interest and its understanding of its strategic environment, is not likely to back down from its decision to acquire nukes. Short of force, Iran will be a nuclear power. All the negotiations, incentives, and diplomatic grandstanding in the world will change this.

It is only a matter of time until Iran joins the nuclear club.