Commentary Magazine


Re: Ultimate Ultimatum

Writing yesterday about Iran’s nuclear program, Gordon correctly raised an eyebrow on the virtues of dialogue. Of course, it is a matter of speculation what it means that Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb if and when it reprocesses it. The fissile material in question is low enriched uranium, and Iran would need to feed it back into its centrifuges to enrich it to weapons-grade. As Gordon notes,

The milestone is merely virtual because Iranian technicians have produced only lowly enriched material with their centrifuges. They would need to reconfigure this equipment and operate it for several months to produce the highly enriched metal needed for the core of a truly destructive bomb.

The question then: how long would this take them? A partial answer comes from the IAEA latest report on Iran, which was leaked two days ago on David Albright’s ISIS website. In the report, IAEA Director General Mohammad ElBaradei writes that, “to date, the results of the environmental samples taken at FEP and PFEP, and the operating records for FEP3, indicate that the plants have been operating as declared (i.e. less than 5.0% U-235 enrichment).” In a footnote, ElBaradei indicates that enrichment levels at the Fuel Enrichment Plant “show enrichment levels … of up to 4.9% U-235.” 5.0% enrichment levels are a critical benchmark. Break that barrier, and covering the remaining ground to reach the 90% enrichment level needed for a nuclear bomb is relatively simple.

Clearly, the report indicates significant progress for Iran’s nuclear scientists and their efforts to cross the threshold of 5 percent. They have enriched “up to 4.9%,” which means they are not very far. How long then before it’s too late? Easter?  Iran’s presidential election in June? The September elections in Germany? How much time do the advocates of engagement have before Iran will put them before a fait accompli?

What will Iran do in the next few months on this front is, of course, anyone’s guess. Once Iran has crossed the 5 percent benchmark, it might leave everyone guessing–or it could increase enrichment levels to, say, 20% and then stop. This would not be, technically speaking, in breach of NPT obligations (though in Iran’s case it is, as five UN Resolutions clearly indicate). It would signal to the world that Iran has the nuclear know how to enrich to weapons-grade, but it does not clarify Iran’s intentions. It would not matter, of course, because the ability to build a weapon alone would be a “game changer,” as President-elect Barack Obama has defined it. Of course, Iran could choose to provoke some more and decide to withdraw from the NPT–a gesture that would leave us guessing even more, because such a move would block any further IAEA inspections. Knowing that Iran has reached a critical threshold and not knowing of any further progress in its program would be even more of a game changer. But it would offer a pretext to the international community to inflict harsher measures on Iran. Finally, Iran could test a weapon–and that would put all matters to rest.

Which is why the notion of engagement at this point is just as virtual as the milestone on which Gordon was commenting. Theoretically, one could make sense of the argument for engagement with Iran. If it succeeded, that would be great; and if it failed, it would provide a better case for the next U.S. administration to call for tougher international efforts against Iran. The problem is that while the US and its allies ‘engage’ Iranian centrifuges continue to spin and enrich. And given the state of progress with Iran’s program, Iran might as well play the role and let us talk until all talk is futile. Only an engagement that rests on a prior Iranian commitment–one that is verifiable–to freeze all enrichment activities can stop the nuclear clock from running in Tehran. And given how Tehran has played its hand so far, nobody can seriously believe this option is in the cards.

The problem with engagement is not its intrinsic weakness – it can sometimes work. The problem with engagement, in Iran’s case at this historic juncture is that there is no time left to try.