Foreign Policy Blogs

Managing Iran’s nuclear prowess


Natanz nuclear facility. Photo Credit: Hamed Saber

By Christian H. Cooper

In the 1950s, Binyamin Blumberg took over a small group within the Israeli Defense Ministry, renamed the group the Science Liaison Bureau (LAKAM), and proceeded to build the first secret Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona.

The reactor remained secret until 1960 where, in a meeting with President Kennedy, Defense Secretary Thomas Gates declared bluntly “…the plant [at Dimona] is not for peaceful purposes.”

On Dec. 21, 1960, Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion gave a speech where he characterized Israel’s reactor as “exclusively for peaceful purposes” and called claims that Israel would use the reactor to build a bomb a “deliberate or unwitting untruth.”

Iran’s history of deception around its own nuclear program is seemingly straight out of Israel’s playbook — so why the double standard with Iran?

The justification for our mistrust of Iran is the stuff of legend. In the summer of 2006, French intelligence passed to the West a claim purportedly made by senior Quds operative Hassan Abbassi. He said it was Iran’s intent is for America’s nuclear arsenal to “explode in America” and that Iran had passed verified points of weakness in the nuclear command and control system to “everyone who has a problem with the United States.” Quite a claim if true — and one that earned him a Delta Force-led kidnapping in Irbil, Iraq a few months later.

Clearly, there is a danger in the prospects of a bomb controlled by such Iranian hardliners. However, there are those in the United States who continue to apply a punitive calculus formulated on every perceived lie and outright deception by the Iranian government over the last 30 years — of which there admittedly have been many — as justification to force a no domestic enrichment agreement. This position is wrong, indefensible, and risks diplomatic failure.

Iran is acting as a rising regional power faced with overwhelming military might. The flight time of a U.S. submarine-based Trident I nuclear missile to Tehran is around 20 minutes from the Mediterranean; the eight warheads can deliver 44 Hiroshimas-worth of destructive power during the timeframe of a single television sitcom. Israel has at least five Jericho III nuclear tipped missiles on standby launch capacity at their air force base near Zekharyah with an equally short flight time.

Framing Iranian actions in this way, we remove the simplified notion of an “evil regime” see Iran as a rational regional power — even one that is currently making horrific choices funding terrorism — that makes calculated, strategic choices.

The United States cannot and should not trust anything Iran says, just as they cannot trust us. We can, however, trust what we verify — therein lies the key to breaking the impasse with a deal containing elements agreeable to both sides.

Domestic enrichment in Iran up to the five percent levels with an upper limit of 8,000 IR-1 (prior generation) and 2,000 IR-2 centrifuges with a limit of ballistic technology.

Even if the P5+1 was in a position to get Iran to totally abandon domestic enrichment, this would be such a punitive act to a signatory of the NPT that Iran’s nuclear program would go underground and immediately focus on weaponization. Domestic enrichment, with a significant reduction in the number of centrifuges, would simultaneously reduce animosity and breakout capacity. Enrichment with uniquely robust oversight is key to the ultimate deal.

Extraordinary inspection measures beyond typical NPT requirements for three years and a simultaneous reduction of the production capacity at Arak for five years.

Heavy water reactors, including Iran’s facility at Arak, have few uses beyond the production of plutonium for weaponization. Iran would most likely agree to limits on Arak — specifically a modification to the core fuel arrangement to limit max output — in addition to oversight similar to what is in the additional protocols, with little hesitation. The additional protocols are an important part of the NPT since it affords total access to the entire nuclear supply chain and un-announced visits to facilities.

Nuclear-related sanctions rollback on a three year timeline.

Sanctions rollback is not an overnight process, and Tehran needs to understand it will progress as trust is built. Sanctions not only include almost every department of the U.S. government but EU members as well. This will take time and shouldn’t be misunderstood as foot-dragging.

A 25-year ban on Iranian domestic reprocessing facilities.

Overtime, the uranium in a reactor core gives off less thermal energy. Reprocessing removes depleted uranium and returns a portion back as high grade fuel. The problem is that the by-product of preprocessing is easy to weaponize. Reprocessing reduces fuel costs and extends fuel life, but Iran will have so few new reactors over the next 15 years that fuel cost won’t be an issue.

No more than two new Iranian research reactors built in the next 25 years.

Iran’s current research reactor, a gift of the United States, is claimed to be operating for medical research purposes. Unfortunately, research reactors sometimes require higher levels of enriched uranium which can also be used for weaponization research. Iran should agree to accept higher enriched uranium for research reactors from international sources for at least ten years, limit new research facilities to two, and cap new research reactor capacity at 10 MWt. To sweeten the deal, the U.S. could also agree to offer one year renewable visas to any nuclear scientist teams needing a reactor for medical or research purposes.

Ultimately, history has shown that miscalculation through the compound lens of mistrust is how wars start. Applying punitive demands like zero domestic enrichment has one natural response: the same Germany took after the crushing reparations after World War I.

Diplomatic failure now will undoubtedly push the Iranian offer of a transparent nuclear program underground with certain fatal consequences. The extension of negotiations was a victory for the United States and her allies but we can’t extend forever. We can either agree to a nuclear Iran under conditions of extraordinary oversight or chase the program underground and risk clandestine weaponization – a reality almost too dire to contemplate.

Christian H. Cooper is a fellow of the Truman National Security Project and a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations.



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