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JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 5, No. 11     1 December 2005


Can Diplomacy Still Prevent Iran from Going Nuclear?

Gerald M. Steinberg


  • The decision of the International Atomic Energy Agency on September 24, 2005, to declare Iran in non-compliance with respect to its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a major diplomatic development, opening the door to consideration of Iran's nuclear weapons program by the UN Security Council.

  • The proposal was supported by India, which had been seen by Iran as a key supporter. In addition, two other traditional allies - Russia and China - suddenly stopped their support. Security officials from both countries had quietly stated their concerns regarding the threat that Iranian nuclear weapons would pose in the wider context of Islamic radicalism.

  • The diplomatic option is serious in large part because, unlike North Korea, or Iraq under Saddam, or even Libya, Iran seeks to be part of the international community and not a rogue state or a member of the "axis of evil." Iran is very active in international institutions and arms control frameworks.

  • The Iranian leadership has taken some measures and engaged in negotiations that only make sense when seen as efforts to avoid sanctions. It is also dependent to a degree on foreign technology for its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.

  • Iranian progress toward the development of nuclear weapons will likely trigger regional proliferation involving Egypt, Syria, Libya (again), Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. These countries have maintained biological, chemical, and lower-level nuclear weapons programs, which have become more active lately as Iran has accelerated its efforts.


The decision of the International Atomic Energy Agency on September 24, 2005, to declare Iran in non-compliance with respect to its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a major diplomatic development.1 This decision opens the door to consideration of Iran's nuclear weapons program by the UN Security Council, and reflects unusually close European-American cooperation. India also surprised Iran by voting in favor, while Russia and China abstained, passively supporting the move. While it is still too early to know when the issue will be raised in the Security Council and the outcome, this move is an indication of a toughening response to Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Before focusing on the diplomatic aspects of the Iranian nuclear issue, let us first assess the threat posed by Iran's nuclear development, and then consider the available options.


The Potential Impact of Iranian Nuclear Weapons on Regional Stability

There is no basis for accepting the Iranian claim that it is not seeking nuclear weapons or the assertion that a nuclear Iran is not dangerous. Iran's leaders repeatedly declare the goal of destroying Israel, and in October 2005, Iran's new president Ahmadinejad repeated the threat in a public meeting. A few weeks earlier, the streets of Teheran were filled by missiles on parade, decorated with posters declaring the intention to "wipe Israel off the map." Iranian links with Hizballah and Islamic Jihad are very strong, and with a nuclear umbrella from Iran, Hizballah could miscalculate and escalate attacks on Israel. A situation similar to that of India and Pakistan could develop, where in 1998 and again in 2001, Pakistani insurgents thought they were immune from attack due to the nuclear balance of power, which led to a major crisis that came close to nuclear war. In this case, India and Pakistan have diplomatic relations and direct communications, which helped to avert a wider conflict. Iran and Israel have no such relations. Indeed, Iranian decision-makers lack any contact or understanding with both Israel and also the U.S.2

In addition, Iranian progress toward the development of nuclear weapons will likely trigger regional proliferation involving Egypt, Syria, Libya (again), Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. These countries have maintained lower-level nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, which have become more active lately as Iran has accelerated its efforts.

Technically, the current status of Iran's nuclear program includes the development of a nuclear fuel cycle, under a thin guise of civil applications, but moving towards HEU (highly enriched uranium) production capability that is useful primarily for making bombs. Some formerly secret nuclear installations were detected and made public, including a "pilot" enrichment plant at Natanz. These installations and facilities are in clear violation of IAEA requirements under its reporting, verification, and safeguards agreements.

Iran has also denied access to IAEA inspectors, in violation of the additional protocol and enhanced safeguards agreement which Iran has signed and pledged to abide by, but has not ratified. Iran has been reprimanded in IAEA reports, but the agency had, until now, avoided a clear judgment which would trigger the UN Security Council sanctions process, and perhaps lead to Iranian withdrawal from the NPT.

For these reasons, the case of Iranian nuclear development cannot be compared to that of Iraq in 2003 and the controversy that continues, but rather resembles that of Libya or North Korea. In the Iranian case we have clear and detailed evidence of nuclear weapons efforts, not speculation or extrapolation. IAEA inspectors have samples of enriched uranium and other materials. In addition, Iran's nuclear fuel cycle elements are far more visible than Iraq's small CBW labs.


A Bomb in the Basement

While it is difficult to discern a clear Iranian strategy, a logical assumption is that the goal for now is a "bomb in the basement." This would remove the need for tests or declarations, but rather the world will see a gradual increase in the credibility of Iran's weapons capability rather than its sudden appearance. This pattern would be similar to Pakistan, which was credited with a weapons capability of some kind in the 1980s or early 1990s, but did not test and declare its capability until after the Indian test of 1998.

How long will it take until Iran will be seen as a de facto nuclear weapons state? This depends on definitions, on developments, and on technical assessments. It could take two years, five years, or even ten, particularly if Iran is unable to overcome the technical difficulties that have reportedly arisen.

The commitment to this process is also driven by Iranian domestic politics, and the widely shared view that nuclear weapons would be a major source of national pride. Iranian leaders including Khatami, Rafsanjani, and now Ahmadinejad all invoke the right of Iran to nuclear development as equal to that of other countries, including the U.S., and, of course, the "Zionist occupation regime," to quote Ahmadinejad's September 2005 speech in the United Nations General Assembly.3

There is little evidence of significant domestic opposition to Iran's nuclear policy; indeed, support for the government's policy is growing. The strident and defiant policy citing "Iran's right to nuclear technology" helps to prop up an otherwise relatively unpopular regime.4 As a result, the earlier Western policies that were counting on a change in Iranian domestic politics to produce a change in its nuclear program have apparently reached the end of the line, and may never have been realistic.


The U.S. and EU Try the Diplomatic Route

For Israel, the region, and the world, the implications of these developments are of the highest importance. In the U.S., a recent study by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University concludes that Washington might have to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran,5 but this is far from a foregone conclusion. However, as the study notes, Israeli analysts reach a different conclusion. At the least, Israel's long-standing policy of ambiguous deterrence is likely to be replaced by a second-strike capability (the ability to destroy the enemy after absorbing their first strike), which would probably require testing and a visible presence. In addition, as noted, Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is likely to lead to a greatly expanded regional WMD arms race.

Thus, the primary emphasis on measures - diplomatic and military - to halt Iran's nuclear program before the finish line has been amplified by recent developments. While the focus here is on the diplomatic dimensions, in my view, a realistic military option exists, despite the complexity and the ramifications of a direct confrontation with Iran. (Israel's 1981 attack against the Osiraq reactor prevented the development of Iraqi nuclear weapons, but there is no guarantee that this result would occur in the case of Iran.)

The diplomatic option is serious in large part because, unlike North Korea, or Iraq under Saddam, or even Libya, Iran wants to be part of the international community and not a rogue state or a member of the "axis of evil." Iran is very active in international institutions and arms control frameworks, including the IAEA, NPT Review Conferences, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the UN's 1st Committee that deals with disarmament, etc. The Iranian leadership has taken some measures and engaged in negotiations that only make sense when seen as efforts to avoid sanctions. It is also dependent to a degree on foreign technology for its nuclear weapons and missile development programs. Therefore, Iran has negotiated with the IAEA and the EU-3, as well as indirectly with the U.S., in order to buy some time. Iran's nuclear development is moving more slowly, and they have encountered technical difficulties in their pre-enrichment facilities and operations. But these are efforts to reduce the cost of continuing its nuclear development efforts, and Iran has not shown any interest in giving up these ambitions.


Discovering Iran's Nuclear Program

The negotiations began in 2003, shortly after the Iraqi war, following detailed revelations of illicit Iranian nuclear fuel cycle activities in August 2002. At that time, the National Council of Resistance, an Iranian opposition group, revealed a secret underground enrichment plant at Natanz and the Arak heavy water plant. In December 2002, commercial satellite images obtained by various groups were released showing the location of these facilities and other details.6 An IAEA inspection of Natanz that followed in February 2003, after intense discussions, "found 160 assembled centrifuges and components for 1,000 more," housed in bunkers 75 feet deep, with walls 8 feet thick. This finding showed that Iran had done a great deal of developing and testing without informing the IAEA.7 These reports were accompanied by the exposure of the network headed by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan that was engaged in selling nuclear technology around the world, including to Iran.8

In response to these developments, and following the intense conflict between the U.S. and EU over the Iraq war, the Bush Administration agreed to a European proposal to take the lead in seeking a peaceful resolution of this dispute. This resulted in the formation of the "EU-3" group (Britain, France, and Germany) to negotiate with Iran.

The IAEA began to discuss and report on Iranian activities on a regular basis, providing the background to the EU negotiation efforts. Its June 16, 2003, report to the IAEA Board of Governors provided many more details: an "18-year pattern of noncompliance by Iran with its obligations to report all its nuclear activities, during which time international inspectors could not verify that they were solely for peaceful purposes." The IAEA has since issued a series of quarterly reports - now in their third year - showing a very steady pattern. This has led to some openness on the part of Iran, but there are also numerous examples of refusal or delay in granting IAEA access to suspected sites.


Iran's Strategy: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

In response to the increasing pressure, Iran and its supporters sought to use claims of international law and "talmudic" debates on the terms of the NPT and Iran's claim of the right to operate a fuel cycle. They attempted to argue that the fact that these also produce fissile material for making weapons was not central or even relevant. However, such claims are little more than background music for the diplomatic dance, but do not affect the substance of the issues. Similarly, while Iran continually pointed to the cautiously worded conclusions of IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei, who sought to prevent a confrontation in which Iran would withdraw from the NPT, as it threatens to do periodically, this approach also failed. In September 2005, as noted, the IAEA finally stated the obvious - that Iran was not in compliance with its treaty obligations.

In parallel with these developments, the EU-3's strategy was also focused primarily on engagement with Iran, rather than confrontation. (Critics referred to the strategy as "talk softly and carry a big carrot.") In this spirit, Iran was offered a major high-tech package if it would give up nuclear weapons, similar in spirit to the U.S. attempt to end North Korea's weapons program in 1995 (which failed). In November 2003, the EU announced an agreement - Iran had agreed to freeze enrichment (and plutonium recycling), and in return, the EU (and the U.S.) suspended moves towards taking the issue to the UN Security Council.

One year later, this agreement was extended to include "all tests or production at any uranium-conversion installation." Iran agreed that "sustaining the suspension, while negotiations on a long-term agreement are underway, will be essential for the continuation of the overall process."

However, in August 2005, as the EU-3 was about to present a detailed proposal for a long-term package of economic assistance in exchange for ending its nuclear fuel cycle activities, Iran declared a unilateral resumption of uranium conversion activities in Isfahan. The regime was unwilling to wait to receive the EU proposal, and appeared to pre-empt further discussion on an extension of the freeze.

While Iran's decision-making processes are very difficult to discern from the outside, it is possible that the regime leaders drew some encouragement from various indications of weakness and lack of clarity projected by the EU and the U.S. For example, at the NPT Review Conference in New York in May 2005, differences over Iran were one of the major reasons for the lack of any agreement. Iranian nuclear development was seen as a major example of the decay of NPT effectiveness, although not the only one. Other factors - such as the special status of the five official nuclear weapons states; the Egyptian-led effort regarding universality and demands for measures, particularly against Israel, but also India and Pakistan; and the lack of American or European leadership - all contributed to the outcome.

The weakness of the NPT, American difficulties in Iraq, the EU-3's lack of a firm position, and internal politics all seem to have contributed to the Iranian decision to renew activities. While these debates, negotiations, and occasional threats continue, Iran also continued to build up its weapons manufacturing facilities, so that within a few years its nuclear weapons capability will become a fait accompli. (The claim by some analysts that the Iranian regime is willing to exchange its nuclear programs for recognition by the U.S. government is also without evidence. Iranian leaders have not taken any significant steps to implement such a policy.)

In response, the debate over the viability of the EU-3 diplomatic strategy based on engagement and negotiation has become more intense. In mid-2005, Pierre Goldschmidt's resignation as head of the IAEA's inspection division revealed an internal conflict with Director General ElBaradei. Goldschmidt was far more blunt that ElBaradei, declaring, "The IAEA can only work on the basis of the facts that are presented to it, and there have been many serious omissions by the Iranians. The Iranians are exploiting all the loopholes in the international agreements."9 Goldschmidt, like other analysts, did not give credence to Iranian claims that its activities were legitimate under international law.


The Next Act: Moving to the Security Council?

These developments set the stage for the confrontation at the IAEA meeting in September 2005. Until then, Iran had become accustomed to being slapped on the wrist, at worst, for its activities, but was able to continue without penalty. However, on this occasion, the EU-3 showed that they had lost patience with the process and, in consultation with the U.S., pressed for a clear finding that Iran was not in compliance with IAEA and NPT obligations, thereby setting the stage for a UN Security Council discussion.

After some negotiation and agreement to leave the timing vague, the proposal was supported by India, which had been seen by Iran as a key supporter. In addition, two other traditional allies - Russia and China - suddenly stopped their support. Security officials from both countries had quietly stated their concerns regarding the threat that Iranian nuclear weapons would pose in the wider context of Islamic radicalism. In the past, access to oil, revenues from the sale of nuclear technology, and power struggles with the U.S. had led to opposition to UN sanctions on Iran, but this position changed, clearly surprising the Iranians.

At the same time, the IAEA resolution left the timing of the discussion in the Security Council undefined, and the policies of Russia and China are still uncertain. Moscow's involvement has increased, including proposals to move enrichment activities to Russia, and these were presented prior to the IAEA meeting in November 2005. After gaining U.S. and European agreement to give Iran time to accept such "compromises," if this fails, President Putin has indicated readiness to join in a joint move in the UN.

Much will depend on the Iranian response. To date, however, the Iranian government's actions have only served to heighten the pressures and increase confrontation. Its new nuclear negotiator and the head of the Iranian National Security Council have threatened to suspend cooperation with the IAEA, freezing implementation of the additional protocol.10 The Iranian president's public and repeated calls for Israel's destruction have highlighted the threats, and the IAEA's report of November 18 raised additional discrepancies in Iranian claims.11

In response, Israel has officially maintained its long-standing policy of avoiding public military threats, while endorsing the diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Israel's position was outlined by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Silvan Shalom in his address at the opening of the 60th UN General Assembly: "Israel welcomes the efforts of the international community - in particular France, Britain and Germany, backed by the United States - to deny Iran the ability to terrorize the world with nuclear weapons. The member states of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency are meeting at this very moment in Vienna to discuss this urgent matter. I call on them to stop this evil regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. The security and stability of the entire globe is at stake. This is why it is essential - and urgent - that the Security Council take action."12

The likelihood of a diplomatic solution remains low. However, the September resolution of the Board of Governors of the IAEA, which declared Iran to be in breach of its obligations, marks a significant change. The Iranian threat has united Europe and the U.S., which have gained at least tacit cooperation from Russia and China, whose leaders also recognize the threat of a nuclear Iran.

This action leaves some hope that a diplomatic end to this program is possible. But the window will close if Iran continues and accelerates its fuel cycle activities, or if the UN response is slow and weak. It is up to Iran to present a credible proposal that will demonstrate that twenty years of cheating and non-compliance are over, and that it has relinquished plans to produce fissile material that can be used for making nuclear weapons.

*     *     *

Notes

1. International Atomic Energy Agency, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Resolution Adopted on 24 September 2005," www.IAEA.org
2. Gerald M. Steinberg, "Deterrence Instability: Hizballah's Fuse to Iran's Bomb," Jerusalem Viewpoints #539, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, April 2005; http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp529.htm
3. http://www.un.org/webcast/ga/60/statements/iran050917eng.pdf
4. "Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rohani: 'The World Must Accept Iran's Membership in the World Nuclear Club,'" MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 678, March 11, 2004; http://www.memri.org/bin/opener_latest.cgi?ID=SD67804
5. See, for example, Judith S. Yaphe and Charles D. Lutes, Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran, McNair Paper 69, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, October 2005; http://www.ndu.edu/inss/mcnair/mcnair69/McNairPDF.pdf
6. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, "Iran Building Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities: International Transparency Needed," ISIS Issue Brief, December 12, 2002; http://www.isis-online.org/images/iran/iran_image_index.html
7. Douglas Frantz, "Iran Closes In on Ability to Build a Nuclear Bomb," Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2003.
8. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, "The Centrifuge Connection," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2004; http://www.thebulletin.org/article.php?art_ofn=ma04albright
9. Con Coughlin, "UN Inspectors 'Powerless to Stop Atom Bomb Plans in Iran,'" Sunday Telegraph, September 11, 2005, http://news.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/09/11/wiran11.xml; Pierre Goldschmidt, "Decision Time on Iran," New York Times, September 14, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/14/opinion/14goldschmidt.html
10. Nazila Fathi and David E. Sanger, "Iran Warns Against Referral of Nuclear Issue to the UN," New York Times, September 21, 2005; http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/21/international/middleeast/21iran.html
11. International Atomic Energy Agency, Report by the Director General, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," November 18, 2005; http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2005/gov2005-87.pdf
12. Address by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Silvan Shalom to the United Nations 60th General Assembly; www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Speeches+by+Israeli+leaders/2005/Address+by+FM +Shalom+to+the+UN+General+Assembly+20-Sep-2005.htm

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Professor Gerald M. Steinberg, a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is Director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on September 28, 2005.


Dore Gold, Publisher; Yaakov Amidror, ICA Program Director; Mark Ami-El, Managing Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 5800 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215 USA, Tel. (410) 664-5222; Fax. (410) 664-1228. Website: www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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