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How to Deal with Iran’: Two Exchanges

Note: The exchange below, included here as part of the Review‘s March 12, 2009 issue, appears only online.

In response to:

How to Deal with Iran from the February 12, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

In their excellent advisory, “How to Deal with Iran” [NYR , February 12], Bill Luers, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh omit discussion of one critical issue, which could have considerable leverage in discussions between this country and Iran. In several fora, President Obama has already committed himself to the cause of total nuclear disarmament. What better way to persuade Iran’s leaders to give up any lingering wish to obtain nuclear arms than to approach the negotiations after having launched an international discussion of a universal agreement to begin getting rid of existing atomic arsenals? If it were evident that the major nuclear powers, led by the United States, are at long last serious about living up to their [Nuclear Non-Proliferation] treaty obligations and are discussing actual disarmament, they would be in a stronger position to dissuade any others from trying to join a dissolving club.

Robert R. Holt
Professor Emeritus and
Former Director
Program on Peace and Global Policy Studies
New York University
Truro, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Bill Luers, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh propose to restrict Iran’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for bombs by involving Iran’s centrifuge enrichment plant in a multinational arrangement. The idea is that participation of foreign owners and managers would ensure that the output of Iran’s plant did not exceed, say, the 5 percent enrichment that is sufficient for nuclear power reactors (bomb-grade uranium is enriched to about 90 percent), and would also prevent Iranians from secretly enriching elsewhere. The authors say that given Iran’s technical achievement and its paranoia about the West it is too late to keep Iran from enriching altogether, and even too late to talk of Iranian participation in a multinational plant outside Iran as an alternative. As you read their arguments why this is so, it is difficult not to conclude that they also invalidate the authors’ proposal.

There are other reasons why a multinational arrangement of this sort wouldn’t work. The idea sounds good in an arms control seminar but it doesn’t meet practical requirements. Uranium enrichment is a business and it doesn’t work to have it run by arms controllers. The notion of protecting the dangerous parts of the nuclear fuel cycle (those closest to bombs) through international ownership and management has been around since the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal Report, but even though it is the “no brainer” answer in the academies and foreign ministries it has never gotten past the talking stage.

The authors also overestimate the usefulness of such an arrangement for limiting the possibility of clandestine facilities. True, by being involved one would know more about the activities of Iranian scientists. But from a technical point of view, emissions from a small clandestine enrichment plant—and it only takes a small plant to be militarily significant—would be barely detectable, and would be masked entirely if a commercial enrichment plant were operating. It may be counterintuitive but, depending how an “upgrading” plant is configured, uranium enriched to 5 percent can be something like four-fifths of the way to bomb-grade. So such a clandestine centrifuge plant for bomb material could be very small.

The authors overestimate the effectiveness of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors (“detection of diversion is the IAEA’s technological strong suit”). The agency has done good detective work in places, including Iran, but it is not so effective in real time, and that is key. Effective detection of diversion has to work reliably in time to do something about it—in time to prevent the material from ending up in a bomb—and that is more problematic, in part because the weapon steps can be carried out rapidly.

The ultimate sanction, and deterrent, the authors envisage against illicit diversion is “military action by Israel.” But would Israel attack a quickly armed nuclear Iran? And if it did, what would be the consequences? This hair-curling prospect brings me to a proposal the authors have not considered, I suppose for obvious reasons as it means reaching for the third rail of American politics.

They make the point that in negotiating with Iran everything should be on the table. What about putting Israel’s nuclear weapons on the negotiating table? An immediate objection is that Israel hasn’t even said it has them and, anyhow, who are we to put Israel’s nuclear weapons on the table? But it is silly to continue with Israel’s pretense, and the reality is that if we put them on the negotiating table, they are on the table. There are of course lots of other objections including Israeli intransigence, though once involved in negotiations they may see their security interests differently. Ultimately, is there any realistic alternative to nuclear weapons spread in the Middle East, not only to Iran but to Arab countries, other than a nuclear-free Middle East?

Victor Gilinsky
Former Commissioner
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Santa Monica, California

Bill Luers, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh reply:

We welcome the useful comments offered by Professor Robert Holt and Dr. Victor Gilinsky, both accomplished and experienced observers of nuclear affairs.

Professor Holt urges us to integrate our proposal within a broader discussion of nuclear disarmament, including the obligations that the nuclear weapons states have under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Professor Holt is not tilting at windmills, but proposing a shrewd political strategy. President Obama has already said he hopes to reduce the size of America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, and plans to do so when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is due to expire later this year. Putting American proposals to Iran in the context of global action to reduce the dangers of nuclear weapons makes agreement more politically palatable to the Iranian side. For Iran, it is easier to accept new obligations on its nuclear program if they are part of a broader effort involving other countries.

Since the US plans to reduce its nuclear stockpile anyway, it makes sense to leverage the most political value by using the reduction to help resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute. Years of consultations with Iranian officials and colleagues has led us to the conclusion that this would be an effective way to approach Iran.

While Professor Holt pushes us to go further, Dr. Gilinsky believes we have gone too far. He notes that proposals for the internationalization of uranium enrichment have been around since 1946 but have yet to be adopted. That is true, but we are not calling for the internationalization of all enrichment activities. Our far more limited objective applies only to the current program in Iran.

Dr. Gilinsky raises the specter of a potential clandestine or parallel program in Iran that could operate alongside the legitimate multinational program. He maintains that, from a technical point of view, such programs are “barely detectable” and that with a multinational program as cover, they will be “masked entirely.” There are several problems with this argument. First, if we do nothing and continue with the current policy, Iran will build a large enrichment capacity anyway, be it open or secret. The multinational option does no worse than the current alternative in that regard. Second, it seems like a rather small point to say that the downside of multinational enrichment is that a clandestine program goes from “barely detectable” to “entirely masked.” If it is already “barely detectable,” then by definition the additional risk is relatively small.

Third, Dr. Gilinsky’s technical frame does not fully appreciate how verification actually works and has worked through the nuclear age. Verification is not simply machines and monitors. It is dependent on knowledge—knowledge that comes from having people on the ground, knowledge that comes from operating and managing the facility, from knowing the personnel. Our proposal provides greater confidence about Iran’s nuclear activities compared to the status quo, because it provides greater transparency about the workings of Iran’s program.

Moreover, history shows that the presence of inspectors deters states from pursuing their nuclear ambitions. Consider the case of Iraq. In 2004 the Iraq Survey Group concluded that Saddam Hussein had ambitions for WMD programs but ended those programs in anticipation of international inspection. He feared getting caught. The empirical record shows that governments are generally loathe to pursue clandestine programs when international personnel are on their territory.

Under our proposal, such international personnel would be on site 24/7/365. Dr. Gilinsky also fails to mention that the Additional Protocol provides the IAEA with enhanced abilities to detect clandestine programs and that under our program we envision Iran following through on its offer of providing “objective guarantees,” that is, going beyond current verification arrangements in favor of enhanced safeguards such as more generalized and regular use of environmental sampling techniques and greater access to nuclear personnel.

Dr. Gilinsky also suggests that we overestimate the effectiveness of the IAEA, and that the real problem is not that the agency will fail to detect a problem but will fail to do so quickly enough. In the trade, this is called the issue of “timely warning.” As it stands, the IAEA carries out inspections almost monthly; with international staff on the ground, timely warning would presumably improve. Moreover, the purpose of safeguards verification is to deter violations. The concept is that governments will not violate their safeguards if they think there is a decent chance they will get caught (see Iraq case above). As regards Iran, we believe that there would be timely warning, and that they would be deterred in any case, but even if this were incorrect, it is hard to imagine that Iran would be pleased with untimely warning—i.e., if it emerged under such an arrangement that Iran had failed to disclose a program to build a bomb—for surely the consequences would be severe.

In our view, all these concerns are modest compared to the issues raised by Dr. Gilinsky’s alternative—that the US put Israel’s nuclear weapons program on the negotiating table. While we agree that Israel’s nuclear arsenal cannot continue to be ignored, this particular tactic seems unrealistic. It is unlikely that Israel is going to let the US negotiate away its nuclear weapons, and in any case, such negotiations would probably need to be done in the context of a regional approach that includes the participation of leading Arab countries such as Egypt. With new centrifuges being constructed in Iran every day, we believe that our proposal is superior to the status quo but realistic enough to make a difference in the near-term, before the nuclear issue becomes a casus belli.

Despite our disagreements, it should be emphasized that Dr. Gilinsky raises important points that deserve a deeper response than is possible here. We have benefited from both Professor Holt’s and Dr. Gilinsky’s comments and hope that we have the opportunity to learn from them in the future.

To the Editors:

How to Deal with Iran,” by Bill Luers, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh [NYR, February 12], is welcome for its emphasis on the urgent need to begin talks with the Iranian government. However, it does not discuss at length the current obstacles that must be overcome for negotiations to succeed.

For example, it is now known that Israel asked for permission to cross US-controlled airspace to bomb Iran and was denied by the Bush administration, but that the US has been undertaking secret operations to undermine the Iranian government, including efforts to plant nuclear detection devices inside Iran and to sabotage nuclear components being shipped to Iran. While such operations may slightly slow Iran’s nuclear program, they also increase Iran’s suspicions of the US, and make negotiations more difficult.

It has also long been reported that the US has been involved in cross-border secret actions, including acts of violence involving Iran’s border minorities—Arabs, Baluchis, Kurds, and Azerbaijanis. Such acts have no chance of undermining Iran’s government, and knowledge of them encourages Iran to charge medical and human rights workers with spying, as occurred in January with two leading Iranian AIDS doctors and two others, who were sentenced to prison for allegedly taking part in activities aimed at bringing down the Islamic regime.

Many of Iran’s rulers are convinced that we are determined to overthrow them. Congressional resolutions supporting and giving aid to Iranian oppositional activities have predictably backfired and opened reformers to the charge of being US and Zionist agents. In addition to renewing the pledge made in the 1981 Algiers Accords not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, as the authors of the article suggest, the Obama administration should explicitly renounce the kind of covert activities that the Bush team embraced. The long-term success of any negotiations may depend on such a change in policies. By lessening tensions it should also help indigenous reformers, as should opening a variety of diplomatic and informal contacts and travel, which could precede formal negotiations.

President Obama’s early appeal to friendship with Muslim peoples, in his talk on al-Arabiya television, and his emphasis on “respect” are welcome signs that US policies may be changing. Today many in Israel and in AIPAC, and some US conservatives and evangelicals, as well as many Iranian exiles, don’t want the US to reach an agreement with Iran. As your article shows, such an agreement, though no doubt difficult and slow, is clearly in our long-term interest, and our new government should continue to pursue it, which means abandoning policies that make agreement impossible.

Nikki Keddie
Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian History
UCLA
Santa Monica, California

Bill Luers, Tom Pickering, and Jim Walsh reply:

We welcome the observation from Dr. Keddie, a distinguished and longtime scholar of Iran, that US covert operations against Iran, including in minority areas, against Iran’s enrichment program, or through internal efforts at subversion are obstacles to moving forward with our proposals. We called in the article for an early reaffirmation by the US of its commitment to the 1981 Algiers Accords, which included provisions that the US would not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, in order to build confidence in a new US policy that would move beyond these obstacles.

Dr. Keddie is also right to emphasize that the Iranian assumption of widespread US covert operations to overthrow their government increases the difficulties faced by the US in moving toward a different frame for discussion and a more open relationship with the Iranian nation. We should possibly have dedicated some time to discussing the problems presented by these operations.

We have written elsewhere about the catastrophic consequences of a military strike against Iran, and we reiterated those concerns when we wrote in the article that the “potential for disastrous conflict [is] sufficiently strong” that there is reason to find common ground with the Iranian government. We thank Dr. Keddie for her wise addenda to our article and agree fully with the thrust of her concerns.

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