Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the ebbs and flows of diplomacy with Iran once more fixate official Washington, a subtle shift is emerging in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear calculus. Officials in Tehran increasingly sense that it may be easier to get the bomb through an agreement than by pursuing it outside the parameters of a deal. But for this strategy to succeed, Iran has to get the right kind of an accord, one in which it trades size for transparency. Namely, the deal must allow Iran to construct an elaborate nuclear infrastructure in exchange for conceding to intrusive inspections. With the next round of talks looming, the challenge at hand is not just to negotiate an agreement with a disciplined adversary but to avoid the pitfalls of a flawed deal.
Iran’s current path to the bomb is perilous. Its incremental nuclear gains come at the price of debilitating sanctions that may erode the regime’s ability to sustain its patronage networks and thus its power. In the meantime, the Islamic Republic is exposed to the possibility of military action. It is often suggested that strikes against Iran will cause a resurgence of nationalism that will refurbish the legitimacy that the Islamist state lost during the fraudulent presidential election of 2009. It is, however, entirely possible that the Iranian population may blame their leaders for reckless diplomacy that caused such an intervention, further imperiling the theocracy’s fortunes. Either way, Iran’s current path of defiance, which is tempered by tantalizing but elusive promises, cannot forever shield it from either more sanctions or possible military retribution.
To an extent that Iranian officials even contemplate a nuclear deal, they stress that it has to be predicated on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In Iran’s telling, the treaty grants it the right to construct an extensive nuclear apparatus featuring a vast enrichment capacity. In exchange for such a presumption, Tehran is willing to concede to inspection of its facilities. On the surface such a bargain has much to offer, as it reaffirms the treaty while avoiding war. Iran’s craving for nuclear science would be satiated while the West gains an ability to closely monitor its activities. The problem is that such an agreement may yet prove Iran’s most suitable path to the bomb.
As Iran’s nuclear facilities grow in scope and sophistication, the possibility of diverting material from them increases regardless of the parameters of an inspection regime. Any large-scale nuclear facility involves moving hundreds of containers of uranium from various stations every day. No monitoring measure can account for every container. Moreover, under the auspices of an agreement Iran will have access to nuclear technologies such as advanced centrifuge models. Should Iran perfect centrifuges that operate with efficiency at high velocity, then it will require only a limited number of such machines to quickly enrich weapon-grade uranium. Such cascades can easily be concealed in small-scale, surreptitious installations that may avoid detection.
Hovering over all this is the fact that once a deal is concluded between Iran and the international community, the existing sanctions will quickly collapse. Tehran’s technical violations of its treaty obligations are unlikely to be met by reconstitution of the sanctions regime or the use of military force, as most international actors such as Russia and China will press for endless mediation. International reactions to past instances of proliferation suggest that arms-control violations are not met with strenuous responses. The reaction to North Korean and Soviet violations of their arms-control agreements prove that once a treaty is signed the international community becomes so invested in its perpetuation, and so fearful of the consequences of failure, that it will focus on preservation at any cost.
Iranian officials’ persistent claim that the treaty has to guide the ongoing nuclear diplomacy stems from their appreciation that the treaty offers them ambiguities and capabilities that can be misappropriated for military purposes. As early as April 2007, Hussein Shariatmadari, one of Khamenei’s confidants and editor of his mouthpiece newspaper Keyhan, mused, “A country that has attained the knowledge of uranium enrichment is only one step away from producing nuclear weapons. This additional step is not scientific or technical step, but a matter of political decision.”
All this is not to suggest that it is implausible that diplomacy could resolve the nuclear conundrum regarding Iran. But as part of any realistic agreement, the United States and its allies must impose serious curbs on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This implies that Iran cannot maintain enriched uranium and must export all of its accumulated stock for reprocessing abroad. There must similarly be significant restriction on not just the number but also the type of centrifuges that Iran operates. In essence, Iran cannot be permitted to upgrade its centrifuges beyond its IR-1 machines, which are primitive by today’s standards. As a price for such an accord, Iran has to abide by all U.N. Security Council resolutions and come clean about all its weaponization activities.
Given that he seems disinclined to adjust his objective of nuclear empowerment, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is confident of his strategy: In the past decade he has managed to cross successive Western “red lines.” Through similar persistence and patience, he perceives that he can once more obtain the deal that he wants — a deal that is a prelude to the bomb.