Iran and the effort to halt its nuclear ambitions
"The most recent analysis is that the sanctions have been working, they have made it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambition. Iran's had technological problems that have made it slow down its timetables. So we do see some problems within Iran."
--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jan. 10, 2011
After years of worry about Iran's nuclear ambitions, there has been an apparent ray of hope, as exemplified by Clinton's quote above, made during a tour of the Persian Gulf earlier this month. Clinton warned that pressure on Tehran should not be eased, even though Meir Dagan, the retiring head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, recently told reporters that Iran could not produce a nuclear weapon until 2015, significantly increasing the timeline for diplomacy. (The Israeli government was furious at Dagan's remarks.) Yet over the weekend talks between Iran and major powers collapsed, with little prospect of resuming soon. Why would Tehran balk from talks if it is under so much pressure? As part of our occasional effort to provide context for stories in the news, here is an update on Iran and the international efforts to restrain its nuclear program.
The talks that took place in Istanbul between Iran and six major powers--the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany--are the fourth time the two sides have met in the past three years, to little avail. In the meantime, Iran has continued to enrich uranium in violation of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend enrichment until it answers outstanding questions about its nuclear program.
Iran says it is has a right to enrich uranium, which it claims will be used as fuel for peaceful nuclear reactors. Senior Iranian officials say the country has no interest in building a nuclear device, but that claim has been met with skepticism. In theory, Iran has enough low-enriched (about 3 to 5 percent) uranium to convert into bomb-grade material for at least one nuclear weapon. In the past year, it has begun to enrich some of the low-enriched uranium to a higher level (19.75 percent), which it says is needed to produce fuel for a medical research reactor.
Bomb grade uranium is enriched to above 90 percent, but don't be confused by the numbers. In uranium enrichment, each level is easier than the last, so 19.75 percent is actually more half of the way to 90 percent. The most time consuming step is enriching uranium in the first place. (Click here for a simple chart that describes why this is the case.) At the moment, Iran's known enrichment activities are under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency, so unless Iran has an unknown secret facility, any effort to break out to higher enrichment levels would be quickly discovered.
Meanwhile, as Clinton indicated, there is increasing evidence that Iran's nuclear efforts are facing difficulties. The Stuxnet virus, which many believe is linked to Israeli and/or U.S. intelligence, appears to have crippled a number of centrifuges needed to enrich uranium. International sanctions have made it harder for Iran to obtain raw materials, such carbon fiber, that it is seeking to make advanced, more powerful centrifuges. (Most of Iran's centrifuges are based on a European design nearly a half-century-old.)
David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) recently estimated that Iran has experienced an unusually high failure rate in its basic centrifuges, with about 2,000 centrifuges having broken at the Natanz plant since it started in 2007. ISIS estimated that it would take Iran a year to amass enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb but it warned that "Iran could halve that time to six months with advance preparation, and with somewhat better operation" of its centrifuges.
Another report last week, by Ivanka Barzashka of the Federation of American Scientists, concluded that Iran's enrichment performance has actually improved in the past year. She said it would "take Iran anywhere from five months to almost a year to produce enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a single crude bomb, which does not seem like a viable breakout option." But she added that "we are entering a phase in which Iran's enrichment capacity will no longer be the important rate-limiting step in producing a bomb because breakout time will be in the order of weeks, not months."
These reports provide clues for why Iran has refused to engage in serious diplomacy on the Iranian program. Time continues to be on its side. It took almost six months for European Union officials to set up this round of talks, which began last month in Geneva. Little was accomplished in December except for an agreement to hold a second meeting this month. But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned at the time that the round in Istanbul would be a failure unless the United States and its partners began to ease sanctions. Though Clinton said before the meeting that Iran had to be prepared for "serious discussions," Iranian negotiators held firm over the weekend and the talks became an exercise in diplomatic frustration. Unlike 2009, the chief Iranian delegate would not even meet one-on-one with the U.S. representative, suggesting Iran no longer even sees a need to pretend it might value interaction with the United States.
The Obama administration won kudos for successfully winning Russian and Chinese support for a new round of U.N. sanctions, which were approved last June. But Iran appears to view the negotiations more as an attempt to test the unity of the six powers rather than a venue for serious talks. The six nations held firm in Istanbul. But at this point it is unlikely both China or Russia will approve yet another round of U.N. sanctions--and they may balk at further unilateral efforts by the United States and European nations.
Meanwhile, Iran's regional position has been bolstered with the possibility that Hezbollah, its ally in Lebanon, might build enough support to form the government there--which would be a blow to the United States. The State Department labels Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
The Bottom Line
The situation with Iran remains extraordinarily dangerous. Despite reports of problems with Iran's nuclear program, it continues to build a stockpile of enriched uranium that may some day form the core of a crash effort to build nuclear weapons. Sanctions have not dimmed either its bluster or its regional ambitions. Indeed, the Obama administration repeatedly said that the latest round of sanctions was intended to bring Iran to the negotiating table so a diplomatic solution could be found. But despite a potentially generous offer on the table from the West, offering economic and political benefits in exchange for a deal on uranium enrichment, Iran continues to show little inclination to bargain. Unless that dynamic changes, the options for President Obama could narrow to two very difficult choices--acceptance of Iran's nuclear program or a military attack on its nuclear facilities.
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| January 24, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Iran, Other Foreign Policy, issue context
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