To be sure, this is not an ideal state of affairs. It would certainly be preferable if the NPT had more teeth to prevent the research of nuclear weaponry in member states, or outlawed the collection of excess low-enriched uranium. But the treaty that exists today reflects the political compromises made to win broad international support. Put simply, the NPT -- as enforced by the IAEA via the various safeguards agreements -- is not a very stringent treaty. Even Pierre Goldschmidt, a former deputy director of the IAEA Safeguards Department, admits that the organization "doesn't have the legal authority it needs to fulfill its mandate."
But if Iran has built a fortified, deeply buried bunker outside the holy city of Qom to house some of its enrichment cascades, doesn't this surely mean that it is committed to a secretive weapons program there? Not necessarily -- Iran's perspective on its national security environment is likely much different than the view in Washington or Jerusalem. The Iranians may see this location as a defensive measure to protect its legitimate nuclear program. They have surely heeded the lesson from Israel's bombing of Iraq's civilian Osirak reactor in 1981: There is no guarantee of safety when it comes to nuclear facilities in the Middle East, not even civilian ones. It's a rough neighborhood. What is viewed with suspicion in the West may simply be seen as a defensive no-brainer in Tehran.
This mindset might also be another reason cautious Iranian planners favor stockpiling more 20 percent enriched uranium than they need right now for their research reactor. If their fuel supply is interrupted by a military strike, at least there would be excess stock on hand. Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of Iran's nuclear program, has also been quoted as saying that Iran intends to build four or five more research reactors in the future, and that the excess uranium fuel stock is needed for those.
Another common IAEA complaint is that Iran has blocked its access to several key Iranian scientists working on the nuclear program. But rather than being evidence of a nefarious purpose, Iran's lukewarm attitude toward IAEA inspectors may be related to inspectors' history of entanglement with Western intelligence services. David Kay, the chief U.N. nuclear weapons inspector in charge of monitoring Saddam Hussein's nuclear program in 1991, told PBS that foreign spy agencies were linked to the mission in Iraq. "The intelligence communities of the world had the only expertise that you could use if you were unmasking a clandestine program," he said. "I realize it was always a bargain with the Devil -- spies spying."
Heinonen proposes a fuel swap to resolve the nuclear standoff: Iran would curtail its enrichment in exchange for foreign-supplied 20 percent enriched uranium fuel plates for its research reactor. In fact, in 2010, just such a deal was brokered by Turkey and Brazil but the United States could not take "yes" for an answer. Though Iran has just accepted an offer of new talks brokered by Turkey, new sanctions passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama have made it even more unlikely that the two sides can reach an agreement.
The many rounds of sanctions put in place against Iran over the past several years go far beyond anything related to its nuclear program. To satisfy the conditions that would allow sanctions to be lifted, Iran would not only have to abandon its nuclear program but basically dismantle the current regime. The sanctions legislation passed last year demands that Iran release all political prisoners and detainees, cease violent repression against peaceful Iranian protesters, conduct a transparent investigation into the killings of Iranian protesters, and make progress toward establishing an independent judiciary. Just in case those conditions are insufficiently implausible, the president must certify further that the Iranian government "has ceased supporting acts of international terrorism." Even if Iran miraculously did this, it is unlikely that the president could certify it.
Those are certainly noble goals, but they go far beyond the narrow aim of ensuring that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon. Given these far-reaching provisions, Tehran probably senses that no matter what it does with its nuclear program, the sanctions are here to stay. If it is going to be sanctioned anyway, why cooperate with the IAEA on the nuclear issue?
If the United States and Iran hope to escape these sadly familiar episodes of heightened tension and warmongering, they need to reach a simple grand bargain that will cut through the sanctions' impossible conditions. Perhaps the best way to do so is to offer Iran a simple quid pro quo: If Iran agrees to more intrusive inspections under the IAEA's Additional Protocol, both the unilateral and U.N. Security Council sanctions will be dropped.
Such an agreement has a chance to convince doubters that Iran is not on the reckless path to a nuclear weapon that Heinonen outlines. Only through shifting the conversation from the impossible goal of eliminating Iranian nuclear capability to a focus on better monitoring it can the world prevent another harmful rush to war.