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Global Viewpoint

Iran’s limited enrichment plan can work: the West should take it seriously

Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 agent in the Middle East, explains why the West needs to adjust its approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

By Alastair Crooke / September 22, 2010


With the recent activation of the Bushehr nuclear reactor – a fully International Atomic Energy Agency-safeguarded facility – Iran has crossed the line. The Islamic Republic is no longer an aspirant member to the nuclear “club,” but a nuclear state.

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It is therefore no longer realistic for the West to propose to negotiate with Iran while applying coercive sanctions as if it were a pre-nuclear state.

Bushehr’s fuel presently is supplied by the Russians, but this foreign fuel soon will be exchanged for Iranian fuel. And Iran plans many more reactors. No state in such a position – with its domestic industry becoming heavily dependent on nuclear-generated electricity – is likely to continue to allow a foreign state to be the sole supplier of its fuel. That would effectively hold hostage the greater part of its domestic economy, with foreigners able, on a whim, to bring it all to a halt by pulling the plug on further supplies.

Since the context to the nuclear issue has changed, inevitably the substance of negotiation must change as well.

The US arrives at this Bushehr moment in the midst of a long debate about what to do if Iran were to reach nuclear “break-out capability.”

A dilemma for the US

Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued earlier this year that low-enriched uranium (LEU) might covertly be turned the into weapons grade material – thus attaining so-called “break-out capability.” This, he suggested, could occur without US intelligence becoming aware of such a shift and therefore would risk the US being caught unawares. Secretary Gates has argued that the only solution to this dilemma would be for the US to acquire sufficient leverage over Iran to force it to “give up” most of its LEU – thus eliminating the possibility of Iran having sufficient LEU to “break out.”

This argument harkens back to an old US doctrine that there is essentially no substantive difference between peaceful and weapons-oriented enrichment since, the argument goes, the two paths are technically identical. Of course, if this holds true, Iran by definition is bound to reach “break-out” – just as any state such as Japan that is enriching quantities of LEU will have a technical “break-out” capacity. It goes with the territory of nuclear energy.