Talking With Tehran
Bolstering the notion that Washington has plenty of time to work out a deal, the US intelligence community says Iran is years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. In November 2007 a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program" in 2003 and added that by mid-2007, it had not restarted it. Earlier this year Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair released an estimate by the State Department's intelligence bureau concluding that it is "unlikely that Iran will have the technical ability to produce [bomb-quality] HEU before 2013." And according to Newsweek, this fall US intelligence agencies told the White House that Iran "has not resumed nuclear-weapons development work." Though agencies in Israel and Germany have reportedly concluded that Iran is somewhat closer to development of a bomb, Meir Dagan, the director of Israel's Mossad, admitted that even if Iran faced no technical difficulties, it probably would not be able to develop and deploy a weapon until 2014, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.
The September revelation of Iran's secret enrichment facility sparked a flurry of accusations that Tehran is considering a covert weapons program; perhaps the site--in a hardened bunker on land controlled by the IRGC--is a sign of exactly that. Obama was apparently convinced, saying, "The size and type of the facility is inconsistent with that of a peaceful facility." But by all accounts, it is designed to house perhaps 3,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment, a capability that Iran already has, and it is not a weapons plant. In addition, it is not yet operational and no uranium has been introduced into it. Iran's decision to allow inspectors to visit the site is a sign that it may be willing to accept more stringent IAEA oversight--especially if Tehran concludes that it risks losing the support it gets from key allies and trading partners like Russia and China.
The fact is, Iran possesses only a limited quantity of low-enriched uranium, which is produced by the 8,000 or so centrifuges at its Natanz plant. To build a bomb, Iran would have to further enrich its LEU to bomb-grade HEU, a technically complex task that would require it to divert uranium into a weapons program, somehow evading the gaze of IAEA inspectors. It also needs the know-how to build an explosive device and develop a warhead, as well as the missiles or other vehicles that can carry it. Each of these steps is difficult, leading most observers to conclude that Iran is at least several years away from a military nuclear capability--assuming it wants one.
And there's the rub. Just as Rezaie can't read Obama's mind, the United States doesn't know the intentions of the Iranians. There's little doubt, except among the terminally naïve and a coterie of apologists for Iran, that some in Iran's national security apparatus are determined to make Iran into a nuclear-armed power. For years, Iran has been surrounded by countries with nuclear arsenals, including Israel, Pakistan, India and Russia, along with a heavy US presence in the region and, until recently, Iraq, a hostile neighbor that aspired to have the bomb. But it isn't clear whether Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the IRGC view Iran's nuclear program as the path toward the bomb, as a bargaining chip to trade for other goals that Iran wants to achieve or simply as its legitimate right as a signatory to the NPT. If Iran really wants a bomb--or, alternately, "breakout capability," which would enable it to build one in short order--it's likely to get it. None of the sanctions the United States and its allies can muster have the power to compel Iran to change course. Russia and China are almost certain to oppose draconian sanctions, and in three rounds of sanctions so far, the UN Security Council has imposed only limited and highly targeted ones. And military action, either by the United States or Israel, won't do more than delay Iran's program. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in late September: "The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time.... And the only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened." So if the talks don't succeed, Washington is going to have to think about containing and deterring a nuclear Iran.
If Obama's diplomats offer a proposal that acknowledges Iran's enrichment rights, they would present Iran with a critical choice. If Tehran refuses such a deal, it will be universally accepted around the world--including by Iran's anti-Ahmadinejad opposition--that Iran does indeed see its enrichment program as a steppingstone to the bomb. If Iran accepts it (after the requisite amount of huffing and puffing), not only will it get the current economic sanctions lifted but probably it will get access to a wide range of Western nuclear technology. According to numerous interviews with Iranian analysts and politicians in Tehran in June, that is the preferred outcome for many Iranian conservatives as well as leaders of the reformist-centrist coalition and the business class.
There is, indeed, a broad constituency in Iran's establishment for a deal. According to Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University who helped assemble a group of Khamenei's advisers to analyze Obama's Cairo speech, Khamenei "does not really want the bomb." Instead, Hadian says, the Leader sees the program as something to trade. "It is a bargaining chip, and if so, why not make a deal?" He said that if an accord is reached, Iran would probably voluntarily reduce the number of its centrifuges from 8,000 to fewer than 1,000 and place them under a vigorous international inspection system. Hadian added that several of Ahmadinejad's top aides, such as Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi, his chief adviser, and Hamid Mowlana, have taken part in off-the-record discussions with former US officials like Pickering and William Perry, Bill Clinton's defense secretary and a key Obama adviser. Such talks have taken place over seven years under the umbrella of the United Nations Association of the USA and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.