Commentary Magazine


Time to Acquiesce?

This morning Emanuele Ottolenghi discussed Ray Takeyh’s suggestion, in yesterday’s Washington Post, to accept Iran’s program to enrich uranium. Ottolenghi identifies the critical problem with this proposal: it rewards Tehran’s past violations of its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations. Let’s look at another drawback with Takeyh’s suggestion: it simply will not work.

Takeyh first (correctly) argues that Tehran will not peacefully give up its nuclear program-there is a broad consensus to continue it among regime leaders. The Council on Foreign Relations scholar then suggests “it is time to discard the formula of ‘suspension for incentives’ for one that trades ‘enrichment for transparency.’ ”

Takeyh, in other words, believes we should try to put an especially rigorous verification system in place to prevent the mullahs from using their new expertise to build bombs. He also thinks we should attempt to get Iran to limit its stockpile of fissile material. And should the Iranians fail to accept these measures, he hopes Russia and China will drop their support for Iran.

Takeyh’s suggestions have the advantage of putting Tehran–as well as Moscow and Beijing–to the test. Iran’s rejection of them–or Russian and Chinese continued support for Iranian nuclear efforts–would make it easier for the West to come together to stop the theocracy. On a theoretical level, this sounds great.

So why are Takeyh’s proposals misconceived? Let’s think how Tehran’s leaders will respond. If I were a mullah, the first thing I would do, to appear conciliatory, is agree to limit my declared stockpile of enriched uranium as Takeyh suggests. Then I would refuse to permit the intrusive measures that Takeyh has in mind, such as constant surveillance, continual environmental sampling, and no-notice inspections. Without these safeguards, I know I could run a parallel bomb program in secret. It does not take too much imagination to see how I could create intense pressure on Washington to keep the peace and accept a system of inadequate supervision. After all, as a mullah I know that the Great Satan’s State Department always caves in at critical moments.

Well, I’m not a mullah, and I am against dangerous compromises. The Iranian regime has already shown itself to be an untrustworthy custodian of nuclear technology. The regime, after all, hid whole facilities from U.N. inspectors for almost two decades in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Since the outing of secret facilities in 2002 by a dissident group, Iranian officials have stalled inspectors, lied to them, and changed their story when it became clear they had fibbed. They have told the truth only when there has been no alternative. Now, they are enriching uranium in defiance of a Security Council resolution and three sets of U.N. sanctions-as well as building missiles suitable only for nuclear warheads.

Takeyh is right that the Iranians cannot be persuaded to give up their enrichment program. Yet he is most certainly wrong when he writes this: “It is impossible to turn back the clock.” The United States, should it so choose, can reverse time, at least as far as Iran’s possession of enrichment technology is concerned. In the end we may decide not to use force, but the option does indeed exist.