Iran and the Bomb: What’s to Be Done
Presentation by Henry Sokolski
The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
House Briefing on Iran’s Nuclear Program
May 17, 2012
Rayburn House Office Building 2200
I want to thank the committee for inviting me to speak today. You asked me to assess the effectiveness of US and international efforts to neutralize the growing Iranian nuclear threat. I have two observations that might be constructive.
The first is that the strength of any multilateral or international effort ultimately starts at home. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, one can criticize the tardiness of United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency efforts to limit the threat, but one of the key causes of these efforts’ shortcomings has its roots in our own mixed public record spotlighting the threat.
I recently completed a historical analysis for a European think tank entitled “Ten Regrets
.” In it, I note that US itself stayed in the business of exporting dual use nuclear goods to Iran well after our government had credible intelligence that Iran was covertly trying to develop a nuclear weapons option. The US also sat on critical intelligence regarding Iran’s importation of a massive amount of Chinese uranium enrichment feed material and production technology for nearly a decade as we sought to finalize what we convinced ourselves would as a $600 billion US civilian nuclear deal with the PRC. More recently, both the Bush and Obama administrations have been reluctant to detail Russian nuclear assistance to Iran even as they pushed civilian nuclear cooperation with Moscow.
If we are serious about preventing further proliferation in the Middle East, there are several clear lessons to be learned from this history. The most important is that is that it pays to have a clear consistent public policy opposing the further spread nuclear fuel making and to push for much more intrusive nuclear inspections of existing power programs in countries that have expressed an interest in making nuclear weapons.
Yet another take away that is closely related, is that it is not in anyone’s interest for the US or any other party negotiating with Iran to concede that Tehran has a per se right to make nuclear fuel whether it be enriching uranium at 5% or 20% or recycling plutonium from spent reactor fuel.
First, as I explain in a piece in the National Review Online
posted earlier this week, if we allow Iran to do this, it will be impossible to get any other nation – including the UAE, Jordan, Vietnam, South Korea, Saudi Arabia or Malaysia -- to agree to forswear engaging in similar activities.
Second, such a concession will only allow Iran to amass more centrifuges and enrich more material, only making it easier for it to break out and acquire even more nuclear weapons than otherwise would be the case. This point is detailed graphically by the work
of Greg Jones, a senior researcher at my center.
Finally, it is a mistake to assume that the IAEA can effectively detect military diversions in a timely fashion from such fuel making activities. The many bombs worth of weapons usable materials gone unaccounted for in declared civilian nuclear fuel plants in Japan and the UK affords clear evidence of this. Similarly, the agency’s blindness Syria’s covert reactor, Iraq’s covert activities before the first Gulf War, and Iran’s covert construction for 18 years of the Natanz enrichment facility all underline its continued inability to detect illicit undeclared nuclear activities.
Some, of course, will argue, as our State Department and Iran’s Foreign Ministry does that all states have an “inalienable right” to enrich. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), though, only speaks about “peaceful nuclear energy”; it is silent about nucelar fuel making and with cause as this process can bring states within weeks of acquiring bombs.
In raising these points, I realize I am lecturing the lecturer. This committee has done more than any other with its promotion of HR 1280 to drive each of these lessons home legislatively. Certainly, the Gold Standard makes sense to promote not only here but with France, Russia, Korea and Japan. Even the executive is now reconsidering its willingness to promote this standard in US agreements and with other nuclear supplier states. If I had only one recommendation, it would be for you to redouble your efforts.
This brings me to my second observation, which is if one gets a problem wrong or reads it too narrowly, any solution one devises to it is sure to be irrelevant or worse. I think we are in clear danger of doing this in the case of Iran. 22 years after the emergence of Iran’s renewed nuclear effort, we are now arguing over whether to cut some deal that allows it to make nuclear fuel or to bomb it. Neither sounds very appetizing nor all that effective. At best, either approach seems to be a futile attempt to knock off the tip of an iceberg even though we know that a new tip will only rise up shortly thereafter.
I have already explained the perils of getting to yes by diplomatically allowing Iran to make nuclear fuel. As for bombing either by Israel or the US, it is difficult to know just how harmful such military action might be to curbing Iran’s dangerous behavior toward its neighbors (in Iraq, the GCC states, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank) and its own people. Iran, though, is currently posing a set of political, military, economic and diplomatic threats that can only be resolved by having a long-term plan that neutralizes each and that ultimately puts the Mullahs out to pasture. We lack that plan. Without it, bombing is unlikely buy us much but trouble. With it, bombing would be unnecessary. What I am suggesting is roughly a cold war. We did this successfully with the Soviet Union. We can, if we choose, do it with Iran.
One final note. We do need to consider taking military action, a naval and a limit air blockade if Iran leaves the NPT by clearly demonstrating that it has nuclear weapons. This, however, should be part of a larger effort to support President Obama’s own stated desire before the UN Security Council in 2009 to disallow states from withdrawing from the Treaty.