Keeping Iran From Going Nuclear

Joseph Cirincione
Joe Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project, reveals how Iran could potentially set off an arms race in the Middle East that would make the Cold War look like a picnic:

The goal in Iran is to prevent that country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. An Iranian nuclear program could soon be matched by similar programs in other Middle Eastern states, possibly including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya; and Israel would almost certainly accelerate the modernization of its nuclear deterrent. A new, even regional, nuclear arms race would cripple nuclear commerce globally and shatter the non-proliferation regime from within, forcing dozens of states to question the value and future of the agreement that has helped keep the number of nuclear-weapon states down to single digits.

 "An Iranian nuclear program could soon be matched by similar programs in other Middle Eastern states, possibly including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya."

Iran’s clear violations of its international nuclear obligations mean that in the future Tehran must not be permitted the capabilities to produce weapons-usable uranium or plutonium. Otherwise, such assets would give Iran the ability at some point in the future to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and deploy nuclear weapons. In order to obtain Iranian acceptance of these restrictions, which go well beyond Tehran’s existing commitments, the United States and its allies should be willing to offer Iran appropriate alternatives. In particular, offering Iran a commercially viable method of acquiring fresh fuel for its nuclear reactors and removing and disposing of the spent fuel would be a powerful lure. Russia’s plans to supply fresh fuel for Iran’s soon to be completed Bushehr nuclear power reactor as long as Tehran guarantees that it will return any spent fuel, is an appropriate example. In exchange, Iran should be required to verifiably and legally abandon its rights to develop and operate facilities to enrich uranium and produce and separate plutonium.

Still, in order to enhance confidence that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, the United States, Europe, and Russia must press Tehran to abandon all uranium-enrichment activities, including operation and construction of pilot or commercial facilities; uranium conversion; and research, development, and construction of centrifuges and other enrichment methods. In addition, Iran must give up plans to build a proliferation-sensitive heavy-water reactor and other plutonium-production and extraction facilities. The initiative undertaken by the European foreign ministers is a promising step in this direction. In that accord, Iran pledged to sign agreements to make it easier for the agency to carry out wide-ranging inspections on its territory. Tehran also agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Still, it is clear that the nuclear question is only one part of the long-standing problems between the United States and Iran. Historical issues aside, Tehran’s human rights record, its continued support for terrorist groups, and its opposition to the Middle East peace process make improvements in direct ties difficult. Moreover, the process of political reform in Iran and the special role that policies toward the United States play in Iranian politics complicates any broad efforts to improve the relationship. Oddly, it appears that the nuclear issue — among the most sensitive imaginable — holds out the prospects for near-term progress that could allow the two sides to build something broader in the near future.

Joseph Cirincione is the author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (Carnegie Endowment, 2002) and a Senior Associate and Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He is a frequent commentator on proliferation and security issues in the media, and teaches at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Foreign Service.