For Now, One Cheer
Some in Washington may feel slightly miffed about the German, French and British going off on their own to cut a deal with Iran about its nuclear program. But on its face, the understanding these countries' foreign ministers reached on Oct. 21 deserves at least one cheer. The agreement, after all, got Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, which, if continued, could according to some estimates make nuclear bomb fuel perhaps in as little as 24 months. It also secured Tehran's pledge to adhere to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and to sign up to tougher IAEA inspections in exchange for no more than a vague promise to easier access to high technology with no mention of nuclear cooperation.
The French (predictably) are congratulating themselves for having achieved a victory of cooperation over confrontation (read, over American toughness). The British, however, are much more circumspect. "It's been an important day's work," explained Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, "but you can only judge its significance in time and through implementation." What is he talking about? Essentially, before the deal can be celebrated, at least six questions need to be answered.
1. What does the suspension cover and how long will it last? The understanding calls on Iran to suspend all "uranium enrichment and processing activities." But what does this include? Will it only freeze the enriching of uranium? What about building additional centrifuges (the stockpiling of which would allow Iran to break through to a full weapons capability more quickly)? Would it cover the further testing, development or improvement of more of these machines? What about Iran's "peaceful" fuel fabrication plants, uranium milling and mining facilities, uranium hexafluoride production plants, and possible plutonium chemical-separation operations, all of which are needed to make nuclear weapons fuels?
So far, no one has any clear answers. Nor is it clear how long the suspension will last. When asked, Iran's Supreme National Security Council chief, Hassan Rohani, explained "We voluntarily chose to do it, which means it could last for one day or one year, it depends on us: As long as Iran thinks this suspension is beneficial it will continue, and whenever we don't want it we will end it." Is this the way we want to leave the agreement?
2. Will the suspension be monitored, and if so how? One option is simply to take Iran at its word. Anything else requires verification. This raises the questions of how and by whom? If it is by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will
the agency have access to sites other than those listed in Iran's safeguards agreement? Also, will the agency's staff be sufficient to ferret out all of Iran's possible covert nuclear facilities? Or will the IAEA have to monitor the suspension merely with what it currently has?
3. Will this understanding accelerate Iran's reactor program, its other possible route to a bomb? The Russians recently announced they were slipping the completion date for the light-water power reactor they are building for Iran at Busheir until after 2005. Although Moscow claimed that technical difficulties forced this move, most see it as a response to the possibility of Iran being found in violation of the NPT. With the Oct. 21 deal, this prospect now seems more distant. Will Russia use it to reverse its announced delay and resume work on Busheir and the other five reactors it has contracted to build for Iran? If so, Iran could have Busheir operating by next spring.
After only 12 to 15 months, the reactor's spent fuel would then contain roughly 60 bombs' worth of near-weapons-grade plutonium. Russia has offered to take the spent fuel away for storage. But what if Iran has other plans? Tehran could easily build a covert plant to chemically strip out the bomb material.
Back in 1977, the U.S. Department of Energy's laboratory at Oak Ridge gave a detailed description of how such a plant could be built undetected in a few months. It would be small, about 30 feet by 40 feet by 130 feet, low cost, and use readily accessible civilian technology. With one of these plants on hand, Iran could announce at any time that it wanted to examine the reactor's spent fuel for "safety" reasons and before anyone could make much of a ruckus -- in about a week -- have its first bomb's worth of plutonium metal, and make a bomb's worth more every day thereafter.
4. Will this agreement clear the way for more nuclear cooperation? The current pledge -- "Iran could expect easier access to modern technology and supplies in a range of areas" -- does not specify nuclear cooperation. Many Iranians, however, are reading it that way and the agreement certainly does not disallow it. If Europeans were to start selling Iran the civilian nuclear technology it wanted, they might simply claim that it all was "proliferation resistant." Sadly, the U.S. would hardly be able to object: It still has not cut off the construction of two "proliferation-resistant" U.S. light-water reactors for Pyongyang, which are nearly identical to the plutonium producers Iran is building.
5. Will the IAEA's authority grow or decline as a result of this agreement? Iran has already admitted to two clear violations of its nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA -- to buying a significant amount of special nuclear material from China and to converting this material into uranium metal without properly alerting the IAEA. It also continues to defy the IAEA Board of Governors' Sept. 12 demand that it sign an additional inspection protocol and clarify its past nuclear
activities before Oct. 31. Mr. Rohani said this week Iran will only sign the additional inspections protocol after the Oct. 31 deadline.
The IAEA's director, meanwhile, has publicly complained that he still does not have the information he needs to find Iran in compliance with the NPT. Under the IAEA's charter, the agency is obligated to report violations to the United Nations Security Council. It was this prospect that prompted Iran to strike the deal with France, Britain and Germany. Will this deal now prompt the IAEA to pull its punches on its own violations reporting procedures? If so, what impact might this have on how Iran interprets and implements the understanding it just reached?
6. Will this agreement dismantle or augment Iran's nuclear-weapons capabilities? Clearly, the jury is still out. Iranian authorities insist that they have no intention of dismantling their uranium-enrichment program, or their large power reactor effort. So long as that is the case, Iran can always breakout with nuclear weapons relatively quickly. The hope must be that it will have a change of heart. If so, the right answers to the questions above should come fairly soon. Certainly if they don't, even one cheer for the current deal will be one cheer too many.