The recent National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion that Tehran stopped its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003, together with the significant drop in Iranian activity in Iraq, has created favorable conditions for the US to hold direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program. The Bush administration should act on this opportunity, if for no other reason than that its current position is growing weaker, and without such an initiative, Iran will continue its efforts to produce nuclear fuel that might, in the future, be used to build nuclear weapons.
Currently, Iran has approximately three thousand centrifuges, which it has used to produce small test batches of uranium that has been enriched to a low level (which cannot be used for nuclear weapons). Until now, Iranian engineers have not successfully operated a centrifuge cascade (a collection of centrifuges working together) at full capacity—which, as a practical matter, would be needed to enrich nuclear fuel to the level necessary either to establish an effective nuclear energy program or to manufacture nuclear weapons. But the Iranian government has declared its ambition to build more than 50,000 centrifuges, and recent reports also suggest that Tehran is testing a modified “P-2” centrifuge, a more advanced version of its existing centrifuge technology, which can produce a larger volume of enriched uranium.
We propose that Iran’s efforts to produce enriched uranium and other related nuclear activities be conducted on a multilateral basis, that is to say jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments. This proposal provides a realistic, workable solution to the US–Iranian nuclear standoff. Turning Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities into a multinational program will reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion not only of our disagreements but of our common interests as well.
New Opportunities in the US–Iranian Relationship
Over the last several months, two important developments have created new possibilities for relations between the United States and Iran. First, in December, the US intelligence community issued its new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for Iran. The report concluded that in 2003, Iran’s government halted development of nuclear weapons. Second, it appears that the direct talks on Iraq between the US and Iran have led to a significant reduction in the flow of improvised explosive devices and foreign fighters coming from or through Iran into Iraq. Notwithstanding the continuing harsh rhetoric between the Bush administration and the Iranian government, these events have created the political space for new thinking about the US–Iranian relationship, and they demonstrate that negotiations with the Islamic Republic can produce tangible results.1
For over five years, a group of former American diplomats and regional experts, including the authors of this article, have been meeting directly and privately with a group of Iranian academics and policy advisers.2 Some of the American members of this group believe that there is now an opportunity for discussions on the single most important issue in the US–Iran relationship: Iran’s nuclear…
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