Olli Heinonen is alarmed that Iran has begun producing 20 percent enriched uranium at a new, deeply buried site, and calculates that Iranian scientists could further purify the material to the 90 percent enrichment needed for a bomb in about six months' time. This prediction, however, is based on unsubstantiated assumptions regarding Iranian intentions, and only serves to provide ammunition for hawks in Washington that would rush the United States into another destructive war in the Middle East.
If Tehran enriched uranium to 90 percent, it would be forced to break its four decade-long adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- a momentous step that would likely prompt swift military action from the United States or Israel. Furthermore, Heinonen fails to mention that, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, "All nuclear material in the facility remains under the Agency's containment and surveillance." The IAEA considers 20 percent enriched uranium to be low-enriched uranium and "a fully adequate isotopic barrier" to weaponization.
This isn't the first time that hawks have raised the alarm about Iran's nuclear program, claiming that the sky is falling. Breathless, hypothetical timelines to an Iranian bomb have continued almost unabated since the time of the shah. For instance, in 1992, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that Iran would have nuclear warheads by 1999. By casting the worst-case scenario as a realistic possibility, such timelines invite overly tough policies that may, in turn, actually provoke a hard-line Iranian response -- creating a self-fulfilling cycle of escalation.
In reality, however, Iran is not doing anything that violates its legal right to develop nuclear technology. Under the NPT, it is not illegal for a member state to have a nuclear weapons capability -- or a "nuclear option." If a nation has a fully developed civilian nuclear sector -- which the NPT actually encourages -- it, by default, already has a fairly solid nuclear weapons capability. For example, like Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan also maintain a "nuclear option" -- they, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in a few months, if not less. And like Iran, Argentina and Brazil also do not permit full "Additional Protocol" IAEA inspections.
The real legal red line, specified in the IAEA's "Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements," is the diversion of nuclear materials to a weapons program. However, multiple experts and official reports have affirmed over the years that they have no evidence that any such program exists.
For example Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb. The latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program also backs up this assessment, stating that Iran's research program into nuclear weapons "was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order' instruction issued in late 2003."
Even U.S. officials have conceded that they have no proof that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear bomb. Following the release of the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed in a Senate hearing that he has a "high level of confidence" that Iran "has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program." And earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in: "Are they [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us."
There are many other explanations for Iran's uranium enrichment program other than that the country is embarking on a mad dash for nuclear weapons. The most objective reading of Iran's intention to stockpile more 20 percent enriched uranium than it needs for running its research reactor is that it may be preserving a "breakout" option to weaponize in the future, should it feel under threat. But the important point is that, under the NPT, there is nothing illegal about stockpiling low-enriched uranium. And whatever options and ambitions that Iranians leaders may hold in their heads, however worrying, cannot be illegal.
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.