Speaking of obstacles to a nuclear deal…

If this Reuters report is accurate, the two sides are a lot farther apart on the issue of centrifuges than anybody seems to have been thinking:

“We need at least 100,000 IR-1 (first generation) centrifuges to produce enough fuel for each of our (civilian) nuclear (power) plants. We have informed the International Atomic Energy Agency about our plans to build 20 plants,” a senior Iranian official said on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials, however, have made clear for months that the number of centrifuges they are willing to tolerate operating in Iran over the medium term is in the low thousands to ensure that Tehran’s ability to produce a usable amount of bomb-grade uranium, should it go down that road, is severely limited.

Iran, which has demonstrated a readiness to curb higher-level enrichment, says such draconian limitations would be a violation of its right to enrich – an issue Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said is a “red line” for Tehran.

This goes back to something that was mentioned in the US Institute of Peace panel I wrote about a couple of days ago: the Iranians are OK with making modifications to the Arak reactor, and OK with monitoring and verification (at some level, I’m sure they’ll reject whatever amount of monitoring the IAEA and P5+1 propose as being too intrusive), but they really may be taking a hard line on any limitations to their enrichment program. What the P5+1 have been coming around to is the idea that Iran could have a sort of “contingency” enrichment program, meaning that they could have enough enrichment capacity to temporarily sustain a few reactors as a safeguard against the international community reneging on its pledge not to interfere with Iran’s ability to buy and import enriched uranium reactor fuel. But here’s Iran talking about “needing” an enrichment capacity that is already greater than what the International Crisis Group’s recommended agreement would have them operating at 10 years from now. Oh, they’ve “demonstrated a readiness to curb higher-level enrichment,” which is nice, but once you’ve got the capacity in place, enriching uranium from 5% reactor fuel to 95% bomb fuel isn’t really that hard, so a “curb” on that kind of thing isn’t really the firm obstacle to weapons development that the P5+1 are after.

The Reuters report, again if it’s accurate, says that what Iran wants is the capacity to do all its own uranium enrichment and to be able to fuel a whole bunch of new reactors, on top of the ones everybody already knew they wanted to build. They see all this talk about “breakout capacity” (the time it would theoretically take Iran to build a bomb if it decided to do so) as a red herring intended to give the US (and the EU, but mostly the US) justification for continuing to put the squeeze on Iran in general, not just on the nuclear issue. They figure that as long as they comply with IAEA monitoring requirements, then why shouldn’t the US believe them when they say they’re not pursuing nuclear weapons? I mean, Germany gets to have an unchecked civilian nuclear program essentially because it promises not to use it to make any weapons, and if we’re tallying up the evils that countries have committed over the past century or so, Germany has just a few more sins to answer for than Iran does, so why does Germany get the benefit of the doubt but Iran doesn’t? The problem is that the US doesn’t believe Iran when they disavow any military intentions, or at least, if you take the conspiratorial view (and don’t mistake my use of the word “conspiratorial” for “kooky” — this view may very well be the right one), the US won’t believe them because it serves American (and Israeli, of course, in this scenario) interests to keep painting Iran in the worst possible light.

Since the US doesn’t believe Iran’s intentions are peaceful, it can’t accept an Iranian nuclear program that has no caps on enrichment capacity no matter how much monitoring Iran agrees to allow. After all, there’s always the chance that the Iranians are hiding something from inspectors. Hard caps on enrichment capacity mean that anytime Iran purchases equipment that could be used to make centrifuges it will raise red flags and trigger an investigation. It’s another choke point in the system designed to catch Iran in the act of violating its obligations under whatever agreement is ultimately signed (if one ever is signed).

The Iranian position on double standards aside, “breakout capacity” is a pretty lousy way to organize your nuclear negotiations. For one thing, it’s hard to agree on what exactly “breakout capacity” is measuring. Are we talking about how long it will take to construct a working, tested, modern nuclear warhead? Or how long it will take to make a bomb before testing? Or how long it will take to amass enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) to then build a bomb? Each of these potential endpoints is very different from the others, and as you go further along the timeline from “enough uranium” to “untested bomb” to “tested warhead” you add layers upon layers of technical complexity that lengthen the timeframe in a fastest-case scenario, and nothing ever happens according to the fastest-case scenario (the full ICG report talks about this in detail, look around page 29-30). Detonator designs will fail, miniaturization technology will take longer to develop then originally estimated, and any of countless other complications will arise that will lengthen the timeline. Hell, in the time it takes to do all this stuff, governments can fall, and new governments with different priorities rise up to take their place. So it’s still going to take a while for Iran to make a bomb, assuming they actually try to do that.

But because you can’t rely on those things going wrong, even though they inevitably will, security types and politicians only want to deal with the best/worst case, meaning the shortest possible amount of time before, well, something important happens. Western sources usually estimate that Iran is something like “2-3 months away from having a bomb,” and talk about how we’d like them to be “at least a year away from having a bomb,” but what they probably mean is “from having enough HEU to make a bomb,” which is different from “having a bomb.” It’s still an important milestone, because if you take the worst-case scenario the Iranians could always sell that HEU to some terrorist group looking to set off a radiological bomb in a major Western city, but if your concern is an Iranian ballistic missile heading for Tel Aviv or New York, then “having enough HEU to make a bomb” is just one step in that process, and not even the hardest step.

Gareth Porter, whose Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare will open your eyes about the degree to which the US has shaded and manipulated intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program in order to paint its intentions in the worst possible light, has a similarly dim view of “breakout capacity” as the organizing principle for these talks. Not only does it not account for the inevitable complications, but it assumes that Iran will suddenly drop everything and rush toward a bomb (hence the worst/fastest-case scenario). Well, Iran simply can’t do that without kicking out all the IAEA inspectors and letting the whole thing play out for all the world to see, which it would never do even if we assume its intentions are deeply sinister. They’d be inviting a massive military strike against themselves all so they could race toward the goal of completing one step of the process toward having a single nuclear bomb. That’s, well, pretty stupid, and while governments can certainly be stupid, that’s really dumber than you can imagine any government being. It’s far more likely that Iran, if it wants nuclear weapons, will work very slowly, very carefully, and very secretively until it has everything it needs to test several fully developed bombs (and to have built several others in addition), but that will take far longer than whatever its minimum “breakout capacity” might be. It’s not like we don’t have some recent history to guide us in figuring out how such a scenario might play out, you know?

I’m very sympathetic to Porter’s view on this issue, but I feel like it’s almost beside the point when you actually get down to talking about the Vienna negotiations. “Breakout capacity” may be a lousy metric to guide your negotiations — it may even be lousy on purpose, if your goal is to look like you’re trying to negotiate but can’t get the other side to just be reasonable, dammit — but it’s inevitably going to guide the US and P5+1 approach to a comprehensive deal. Even if the Obama foreign policy team were to suddenly have a change of heart and agree that “breakout capacity” is kind of unrealistic and dumb and should be ignored in writing the final agreement, a deal that doesn’t severely reduce and tightly cap Iran’s enrichment program simply won’t make it through Congress, period (and, let’s be honest, one that does include those things could very easily be quashed by domestic Iranian politics). These negotiations aren’t over yet.

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