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Report on Iran Nuclear Program: Situation Not Yet Hopeless

The danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program is heightening incrementally, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mark Fitzpatrick questions the wisdom of a war over a 10% increase in centrifuges. A proportionate response would be to increase the sanctions pressure on Iran, which has so far not made good use of diplomacy.
Iran's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh reacts as he addresses a news conference during a board of governors meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna June 6, 2012. A senior Iranian official expressed hope on Wednesday that his country and the U.N. nuclear watchdog would soon be able to seal a framework agreement to resume a stalled investigation into Tehran's disputed atomic activities.    REUTERS/Herwig Prammer  (AUSTRIA - Tags: POLITICS ENERGY)

As predicted, the latest report on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has contributed to a push in Israel and parts of the US for preventive military action. Since May, Iran has installed more than a thousand new centrifuges in the underground facility at Fordow, doubling the number there since the last IAEA report in May.

In a pre-emptive move of their own, White House officials gave their own spin to the latest developments several days before the IAEA released the report. While not underplaying their concern over Iran’s continued defiance, the Obama team noted that the new numbers are not a "game changer." The new centrifuges are not (yet) being used for enrichment and the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has not grown since May because half of it has been converted to an oxide form for use in fuel plates.

The danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program is heightening incrementally: The numbers grow arithmetically, not by orders of magnitude. In response to those advocating military action, one must ask how it is justifiable to launch a war, with all the predictable costs, over a 10% increase in centrifuge machines.

A proportionate response would be to incrementally increase the sanctions pressure on Iran. The EU, for example, is likely to tighten its sanctions against the Iran Central Bank, which to date have been partial. Additional companies associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines may be subject to an asset freeze. The US also will likely impose sanctions on more Iranian institutions, adding to the designations announced on July 31. 

Why Iran is not operating the newly installed centrifuges is uncertain. Technical difficulties offer one possibility. Iran may also be seeking to calibrate the tempo of its enrichment activity so as not to goad its antagonists. Tehran has proven to be adept at such salami-slicing tactics, gradually increasing the size of its enrichment program to the point where it now has a stockpile of low-enriched uranium sufficient for at least four weapons (some say more than six) if further enriched.

At some point, this calibration may go awry. The proverbial additional load that breaks the camel’s back could well turn out to be an apt analogy; centrifuge machines are even shaped like straws. We are not there yet, though. If Iran sought to make a rush to build nuclear weapons, the combination of IAEA inspections and intense intelligence scrutiny would sound the warning in time.

The activity at Fordow is consistent with Iran’s negotiating position. In the disappointing talks this summer with the E3+3 (Britain, France and Germany plus China, Russia and the US), Iran offered to stop 20% enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. It was an easy offer for Iran to make because it already has enough 20% enriched product to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for ten years, which is the ostensible purpose of the 20% enrichment effort. Iran has no need to rush to put the new centrifuges to use. By contrast, Iran refused to countenance shutting Fordow down. It wants to maintain — indeed, to enhance — the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium in the future, if and when a political decision is made to do so.

Although the White House correctly insists that there is time for diplomacy, that time is being frittered away. No full-fledged talks have been scheduled since the unhappy meeting in Moscow on June 19-20. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was to have continued the process by holding a conversation with Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili at the end of this month. But even that contact, in the form of a telephone call, has been postponed.

If Iran’s negotiators were canny, they might seek to address the three-fold request of the E3+3 to "stop, ship and shut." Iran is asked to stop enriching to 20%, ship out the accumulated stockpile and shut down Fordow. Taking these three steps would relieve the immediate worry about Iran nearing a quick break-out capability and provide the basis for negotiations on all the aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that provoke concern.

Iran’s offer to take only one of the three initial confidence-building measures is too little to warrant the lifting of sanctions that Iran has demanded in return. But since stopping the 20% enrichment would effectively mean stopping all enrichment activity at Fordow, it would not be such a huge step to agree to shut it down for now. Diplomatic hairs could be split on the meaning of "shutting down." As for shipping out the accumulated 20%-enriched product, Iran could argue that converting it to oxide form for fuel accomplishes a similar purpose by putting it out of reach, at least temporarily, of potential weapons use because of the difficulty of re-conversion. 

Making such an offer would give the E3+3 reason to consider whether sanctions relief was in order, and the six powers could find themselves split. So far, however, Iran has not sought to make good use of its diplomatic options. Seventy-three days have now passed since the Moscow meeting and the outlook is becoming increasingly bleak.

Mark Fitzpatrick is the director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. He is the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-Case Outcomes (2008) and the editor of IISS Strategic Dossiers on countries and regions of proliferation concern. He is a 26-year veteran of the US Department of State and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation (acting). Follow him on Twitter at @FitzpatrickIISS

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