President Barack Obama arrived in office determined to make a sharp break with George W. Bush's policy on nuclear nonproliferation. Obama and his team believed that the only way they could get allies to support a tough line against countries like Iran or North Korea that were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons was to comply with the United States' own obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce its nuclear stockpile. One of Obama's leading nonproliferation experts admitted to me in the early days of the administration that this sounded very much like "an article of faith" adopted by untested idealists. "These are propositions that have to be demonstrated," he said. "The administration will be going to these countries to say, 'We're doing our part; now you have to do your part.'"
You could read the report on Iran's nuclear program released this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to say, "Proposition refuted." Certainly Obama's critics have. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mitt Romney writes that thanks to "the administration's extraordinary record of failure," Iran is "making rapid headway toward its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons." In fact, the report dwells almost entirely on events that happened long before Obama took office and essentially offers an official imprimatur to the widespread view that Iran has been seeking for years to develop a nuclear warhead and is continuing to do so. Neither Bush nor Obama has stopped Iran from pursuing a goal to which Iranian leaders are single-mindedly dedicated -- nor could they have. But Obama's strategy has thrown a spanner into Iran's nuclear works. On balance, the proposition survives.
Iran is still enriching uranium and is now estimated to have enough to produce four bombs. Enriching uranium to the level required for a weapon is the hardest part of the nuclear process; the advances in hardware uncovered by the IAEA only confirm the belief that Iran is going to the immense trouble of developing an enrichment capacity in order to be able to build a bomb. But according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, the number of centrifuges spinning at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant peaked at 9,000 in November 2009 and has since fallen. What's more, the average productivity of each centrifuge has fallen over the past year. And Iran may no longer be able to build more centrifuges. There are various reasons for these problems: the Stuxnet virus, which crippled Iran's productive capacity; poor centrifuge design; metal fatigue; and the shortage of key materials owing to U.N. sanctions passed in 2010.
Obama doesn't get credit for metal fatigue, but he probably does for Stuxnet, which appears to have been a joint Israeli-American venture. In fact, Obama's Iran policy is less rule-abiding, and more sophisticated, than the administration lets on and its critics allow. But it would be a mistake to think that it's only the dark arts that matter. Obama's initial efforts to engage Iran through diplomacy went nowhere, but allowed U.S. officials to argue inside the United Nations and the IAEA board of governors that they had made a good-faith effort to end the isolation that the Bush administration had imposed on Iran. The president's embrace of nuclear abolitionism and his strong push for an arms-reduction treaty with the Russians countered the argument, common throughout the developing world, that the United States was a nuclear hypocrite -- that it was violating the same international rules that it was insisting that Iran observe. The combination of engagement and NPT-compliance has helped Obama persuade Russia, China, and other states to pass tough sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.