Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Yesterday was an important step forward but nothing fundamental changed. What has changed is that Iran is not alone in advancing an important proposition about its nuclear program. This proposition is that Iran does not need to remain beneath a one ton threshold of low enriched uranium. In some sense, Turkey and Brazil do not agree with the idea advanced by the US, on Israel's behalf, that Iran must not have a nuclear weapons capability.
Beyond that proposition, the symbol of two Security Council members supporting Iran's efforts to avert sanctions gives the United States space to slow its drive for sanctions, and thereby its program of increasing hostility and non-military confrontation with Iran. This space is important because the US military is well aware of the advisability of avoiding conflict with Iran despite pressure from pro-Israel factions of government to increase such pressure.
The United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates produced a memo in January, and the administration released the memo in March, which said that there are no military or non-military options at the disposal of the United States that can be expected to prevent Iran from becoming a virtual nuclear power. By virtual nuclear power it meant a country, like Japan or Brazil, that has the necessary technology to produce weapons if it was to make that political decision. The effect of the recent deal between Brazil, Turkey and Iran is that it gives the conclusion of the Gates memo several more months to settle in, or to become accepted as a reality that the US would prefer not to be the case, but which is not avoidable.
As far as Iran's stock of uranium, Iran has plenty of uranium for strategic purposes. Westerners estimate that Iran has produced over 500 tons of the uranium compound that is fed into centrifuges for enrichment. The IAEA reports that by late 2009, 21 tons had been processed in Iranian centrifuges which yielded about 1800 kgs of low enriched uranium. If we roughly estimate that 15 tons of unenriched uranium in that form can yield an amount of low enriched uranium that could be further processed to make one weapon, then Iran has enough uranium that can be fed to centrifuges for over 30 weapons. There really is not a significant issue of Iran running out of uranium for strategic purposes.
There also is not a very pressing time issue right now. The United States is deterred from launching a military attack by the US position especially in Afghanistan. The US will not have removed its vulnerability in Afghanistan for several years in which time other vulnerabilities are likely to develop or increase in importance. In the five years we can guess it will take, at a minimum, for the US to be reasonably secure in its positions in countries neighboring Iran, Iran can, at its present rate (which can increase if Iran decides) produce enough more low enriched uranium that further enrichment could make six or so weapons. Iran does not have to race to build its stock before any particular foreseeable cut-off.
Exporting or not exporting what overall is a small amount of low enriched uranium is not in itself important to Iran. What is important is that Iran must not handcuff future generations of Iranian leadership. Iran must not allow a precedent to be set that limits the options available to Iran decades from now. To suspend enrichment as George Bush demanded would have been a step toward accepting a permanent US veto over enrichment. To export uranium to a maintain a domestic level of less than one ton as Barack Obama demands carries the danger that this one ton limit will be extended indefinitely.
Iran has been beneath one ton in its domestic stock before. Iran was willing, temporarily, to go beneath one ton again as a gesture that would have allowed Obama to save face. The problem was that there is no confidence that if Iran made that gesture, that the US would accept it as a voluntary gesture instead of as a submission to US pressure and thereby an opportunity to set a permanent limit.
The United States has not, and cannot apply enough pressure on Iran that Iran's current leadership will constrain the options of Iran's future leaders. The Gates memo shows that there is some understanding in the US government that the amount of pressure that would be needed is just not available to the United States. When this understanding becomes more universal, the United States may be able to accept Iran's capabilities and define its relationship with Iran in a manner that prevents unnecessary damage to the interests of both parties.
As far as nuclear generation of electricity, Westerners point out that Iran's enrichment program is not extensive enough for that. They are right and this is a problem that Iran will solve in the future as options become available. Iran has at least the knowledge necessary to make fuel for power generators from raw uranium mined anywhere in the world. The United States has succeeded in blocking Iran from importing uranium from many of these sources. The current US position is that Iran will be blocked from importing more uranium until it agrees to US-set limits on its weapons capability. Years from now maybe the US position will change, or maybe the US will be less relevant, less able to enforce the prohibition it enforces now.
Iran signed an agreement that Russia would provide fuel for the reactor at Natanz. Very few countries can provide enriched fuel and Iran is paying the price for that. Later Iranian reactors eventually are very likely to be fueled by unenriched uranium imported from one of many places in the global south and enriched in Iran. Iran also long into the future will have the option of providing nuclear power to developing countries without the limitations the US seeks to impose.
The sanctions had never been, in themselves, a major problem for Iran. The problem with sanctions is that they represented a tangible US declaration that, after the de-escalation of tensions that began in 2007, it is moving back to a posture of open confrontation with Iran. Yesterdays agreement delays sanctions and more importantly delays that declaration. It gives the US time to calculate that if it cannot stop Iran from becoming nuclear capable anyway, it does not really benefit from Iran reaching that status in an environment of hostility instead of cooperation.
Posted by Arnold Evans at 8:51 AM