The right way to keep tabs on Iran's nuclear program

A plan that Tehran first floated in 2005 could satisfy all sides.

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How do you say "sorry" in Farsi? That's the question the White House may need to answer in the wake of this week's stunning reversal of official US opinion about Iran's nuclear ambitions. But now that US intelligence believes Iran halted its nuclear arms effort in 2003, Bush administration hawks must do more than wipe the egg off their faces. They must still find a way to resolve the remaining impasse over uranium enrichment.

The bad news? The current course of ratcheted-up sanctions won't work. The good news? There is a practical plan available that all sides could find acceptable.

The surprising source for this plan is Iran. In 2005 and 2006, Tehran called for "international partnerships" and "joint ownership" of fuel-cycle facilities that would allow complete transparency through co-management of enrichment plants. Reluctant to legitimize Tehran's enrichment foothold, the US ignored the overture. But, unable to get support from China and Russia for more economic penalties, Washington today doesn't have any practical alternative.

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Danger persists

Such a plan is critical, because danger persists, despite the headlines from the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. This year's NIE does indeed reverse the NIE's 2005 finding "that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." The new conclusion: Iran's "halt" of its dedicated nuclear weapons program began in fall 2003. The report gives a subtle boost to the Bush administration: Tehran "was halted primarily in response to [undefined] international pressure." Since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) struggled with Iran in 2003 to come clean about its nuclear activities, Washington's invasion of Iraq arguably scared the Mullahs into stopping their weapons work, much as the Iraq war also frightened Libya to give up its bomb making program.

Looking forward, however, the US intelligence community concedes that "we do not know whether it [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." The estimators warn that Tehran will continue to expand the number of enrichment centrifuges. Today, Iran operates 3,000 machines despite "significant technical problems." In time, it proposes to have 50,000 which, un-tethered, will provide it with the option to go nuclear.

Recognizing this, the West spent some five years attempting to induce the Mullahs to end the enterprise. Initially, the European Community offered carrots – access to nuclear reactor assistance, better diplomatic relations, and expanded commerce. Iran toyed with the Europeans, suspending enrichment only to resume arguing that it had the "unalienable" right to peaceful nuclear technology under the nonproliferation treaty. That the enrichment plan made no economic sense – Iran still does not have even one operating nuclear power plant – was beside the point.

So, what can the West do now? The latest intelligence suggests that Iran poses no imminent threat, so the military option to stop the centrifuges is probably off the table. This leaves two traditional alternatives: Accept Tehran's peaceful nuclear claims or exact more onerous economic sanctions. The first approach – acceptance – is not acceptable. Tehran has persistently and wrongly denied that it has violated international safeguards. According to the IAEA's November report, it still fails to provide "credible assurances" that it does not have secret nuclear activities. Because "knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is diminishing," the West has little confidence that it can allow the Mullahs to continue enrichment with its proliferation portent.

Can sanctions bring enrichment to a halt? Not so far, and the NIE will make the challenge to mobilize countries to oppose the program more difficult. The Security Council's December 2006 restraints on international fuel cycle assistance made little difference. Penalties endorsed by the Council in March 2007 – expansion of the list of frozen Iranian assets, a call for "vigilance and restraint" in the sale of heavy weapons to Iran, and avoidance of new grants, financial assistance, or concessional loans – failed again. And new and proposed actions – suspension of bank lending and technology – appear unlikely to move a regime that has broad popular support for civil nuclear energy.

The advantages of tethering

This leaves Tehran's nuclear tethering proposal. Fleshed out, the "international joint ownership" and "international partnerships" Tehran advocated would include co-decisionmaking and facility access that assures Iran's nuclear fuel cycle remains on the straight and narrow to avoid a weapons breakout.

A new door would open to resolve the enrichment impasse if two things happened. First, tethering must be linked to Iran's promised ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol, allowing inspectors unimpeded visits to all suspicious nuclear enterprises. Second, it must be tied further to Security Council adoption of automatic onerous punitive measures to combat cheating – a military blockade of the country, for example.

Those who would oppose this strategy by claiming that it would enhance Iran's weapons breakout capacity ought to acknowledge that today's untethered program poses the greater risk. Tethering offers a practical means to ensure that Iran does not reverse its 2003 decision. In the process, it can assure that the apology Iran demands remains warranted.

Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department during President George H.W. Bush's term. He is the author of three books on international security.

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