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.
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.
But when Mr. Gates uses that other loaded word, “leverage,” we are talking something different. “Leverage” over a state already possessing a reactor and a fuel cycle can only mean threatening Iran with war or robust military containment should its fuel stocks not be duly “relinquished.”
So far, President Obama has refused to endorse a “break out” conditionality as hawks such as Gates are urging on him.
Enrichment can be peaceful
For its part, Iran insists that the long-standing US doctrine of indistinguishability in enrichment is a false one. In the Iranian view, the peaceful use of enrichment can indeed be distinguished from a weapons-dedicated process: One can be safeguarded, whereas the other cannot be.
As long ago as 2005, the then-Iranian negotiator on nuclear issues, Ali Larijani, proposed a three-track solution to the Europeans: 1) centrifuges that are incapable of enrichment beyond a low limit, 2) joint ownership with Europe of the enrichment facilities themselves, and 3) additional intrusive surveillance. The European “Three” did not deign to give a response. Under former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s influence they were dead-set on only a permanent end to enrichment.
The West needs a new approach
In this new post-Bushehr reality, it is no longer realistic for the West to be stuck in a “no enrichment,” “no break-out” posture. Now, Iran is signaling a readiness to negotiate its nuclear posture with a proposal for Russia or China, or even others, to jointly participate in an enrichment facility based in Iran. This constitutes a clear pointer in the direction of a safeguarded solution. But can the US and Europe take the hint this time?
With the opening of the Bushehr facility, Iran’s nuclear program cannot be rolled back. The US and the rest of the West should engage this proposal seriously. The only other alternative is a course already gaining momentum – a huge arms buildup in the Sunni Arab states, supplied by Western arms manufacturers, that could well lead one day to a new war in the Middle East that no one wants.