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Open a Second Diplomatic Front to Contain Iranian Nuclear Ambitions?

Open a Second Diplomatic Front to Contain Iranian Nuclear Ambitions?

In an editorial this week prompted by renewed saber-rattling by Israel’s leadership, The New York Times argues for giving Iran sanctions time to do their work and for intensified diplomacy. Though the editorial may be slightly confused in matters of detail, not to mention grammar, there is a case to be made not merely for doubling down in the current P5+1 talks but for doubling the diplomatic tracks, by opening a second front.

“Mr. Netanyahu’s government hard-line government has never liked the idea of negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue, and, at times, seems in a rush to end them altogether,” observes the Times. Of course, Israel has not been negotiating with Iran, which I’m sure the Times fully appreciates, and it is the six-power diplomatic process that Israel would like to torpedo, which is what the Times is trying to say. I believe the paper is right about that. Surely the Netanyahu government fears that any true diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue will involve provisions that are arguably not in Israel’s long-term interest.

In some narrow sense, Israel’s leaders may indeed be right, from their point of view. It’s is hard indeed to foresee any solution to the ongoing crisis that doesn’t go well beyond the narrow issues of uranium enrichment and energy supplies, and a solution might involve terms that Israel would find difficult or unpleasant to live with.

Thus, the need to open up and broaden what’s under discussion in the P5+1 talks implies that immediate prospects for success are poor, this being a U.S. presidential election year. The Times fears that Israel will launch a unilateral strike, so as to definitively end the negotiations that are making it nervous, on the assumption that the United States will be dragged along. I’m a little less pessimistic than the Times on this point for two reasons. First, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the Obama administration told the Israeli leadership in no uncertain terms this spring that if they attack Iran, they will be on their own; statements by Israeli leaders about Iran moderated radically following high-level meetings with U.S. officials. Second, the president has a sure touch for the center of gravity in American politics and appreciates full well that the general public does not want to be dragged into another reckless military engagement.

That being said, the Iranian nuclear clock is ticking faster than ever. At the end of June and beginning of July, Iranian officials disclosed or claimed that their country now plans to build a nuclear submarine. The consensus of most experts on the situation is that Iran almost certainly is seeking to develop a rationale for enriching uranium beyond 20 percent, so as to provide fuel for a supposed nuclear submarine, exploiting a loophole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime that allows parties to the treaty to withdraw weapons material from inspections if it destined for a military purpose other than nuclear weapons–such as naval propulsion.

That loophole, deliberately built into the NPT at the behest of non-nuclear-weapons states eying what they saw as the promising future of nuclear propulsion, is enshrined in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s INFCIRC 153, for decades  its model safeguards protocol.

Considering that Iran’s ability to actually build a nuclear submarine is dubious to say the least and that for the last months the country has been sparring with international negotiators over its enriching uranium to the 20 percent level, “the Iranian announcements for naval nuclear reactor fuel were immediately seen as politically motivated,” as Greg Thielmann put it in an Arms Control Association threat assessment brief. “By concocting an additional justification for enriching in excess of the 3-5 percent needed to fuel civilian nuclear power plants, and possibly in excess of the 20 percent required for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor, Iran acquires additional leverage,” observes Thielmann, perhaps a little gently.

To put it more bluntly, having attained 20 percent uranium enrichment and having kept diplomatic negotiations over that enrichment level at an impasse for the better part of a year or more, Iran is now starting to build a legal case for proceeding directly on to the production of high-enriched uranium suitable for use in atomic bombs. By the end of this year, according to former IAEA safeguards chief Olli Heinonen, Iran will have about 300 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium, which it could then further enrich to bomb-grade within a matter of months.

Picking up on an argument that Frank von Hippel and colleagues at Princeton University has been making since the late 1990s, Thielmann suggests that the United States should plan a future in which it will no longer use high-enriched uranium in submarine propulsion and, presumably, should try to persuade the three other nuclear weapons states that use HEU as submarine fuel–the U.K., Russia and India–to do the same.

In the early 1990s, working temporarily as a member of President Clinton’s science advisory staff, von Hippel played a part in getting the U.S. Navy to review use of HEU fuel in submarines, resulting in a 1994 report. Basically, the Navy found that if low-enriched uranium (LEU) were substituted for HEU in existing submarine reactors, they would have to be refueled at intervals rather than having life-time loads. The alternative, which the Navy seemed to clearly prefer, would require reactors to be enlarged and rebuilt to accommodate larger LEU core fuel assemblies, so as to still have lifetime loads.

I heartily agree with the proposal to end use of HEU in naval reactors–and I favor taking the fastest, most expeditious path to accomplishing that phase-out–because that will lay the groundwork for a much stronger safeguards regime in the future. With HEU being phased out worldwide in research reactors, if its use were discontinued in military propulsion as well, there would be no legitimate use for HEU whatsoever. Any detection of HEU anywhere, any time would ipso facto signal a safeguards infraction.

Even if we eventually get to that best of all possible worlds, however, that will not solve the problem immediately at hand. This is because the United States, UK and Russia–even with the best of intentions–cannot possibly transition from use of high-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium fast enough to de-legitimize HEU production and deprive Iran of the legal excuse it is developing to make HEU and remove it from international inspection.

What is needed right now is an all-out diplomatic offensive by the United States to persuade the other NPT parties, starting with Russia and the UK, to amend the NPT to remove the HEU loophole. To build good will to that end, the United States should voluntarily subject its submarine HEU to IAEA safeguards immediately, and it should urge the UK, Russia and India to do the same. It should state its intention to transition from HEU to LEU submarine fuel at earliest opportunity.

To be sure, the U.S. president may never be able to persuade the Pentagon (and its congressional allies)  to give up HEU-fueled nuclear submarines. But even in an election year, he can say he intends to at least try.

Does it make sense to seek NPT amendment, which would be an unprecedented and hugely cumbersome process, obviously, rather than just talk the U.S. Navy into just fueling its naval reactors with LEU? I’m reminded of something I once heard the late Jerome Wiesner, emeritus president of MIT, say about negotiating with Pentagon. When he was working on strategic arms limitation, he said, he and his colleagues always found it a relief, after months of agonizing talks with the U.S. military, to be back in Moscow arguing with relatively reasonable people–the Soviet leaders.




William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.