Questioning Recent Iran Policy Prescriptions

Any reader of my last piece on this site will be unsurprised that I was disappointed by the Iran chapter of “US Non-Proliferation Strategy for the Middle East” — a policy paper produced by five self-proclaimed “non-partisan specialists”. (Jim Lobe has written about it here.)

The authors assume that denying certain states dual-use nuclear technologies is the West’s only option for keeping the number of nuclear-armed states down to four. The supply-under-safeguards provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) should be ignored, they imply, whenever expedient. The US objective should be to induce Iran to “permanently circumscribe” its nuclear programme.

But that is not my chief objection to this paper.

As a young diplomat I was taught that policy papers should be balanced; they should take into consideration every aspect of a problem and weigh all options for resolving it. This is not the approach favoured by these five “non-partisan specialists”. They are only interested in worst-case speculations about Iranian intentions. They ignore less alarming possibilities, for example, that Iran’s leaders have only ever sought a threshold capability to produce weapons if threatened by a nuclear-armed state (vide Article X of the NPT), or that the uncovering of clandestine nuclear research activities in 2003 led these leaders to realise that advancing beyond the threshold would be unwise.

From worst-case assumptions the authors argue that the US has only one policy option: to apply sufficient pressure through sanctions to dissuade Iran from seeking a “critical capability”, or a capability to produce, undetected, enough material for at least one bomb in a secret enrichment plant, which could not be destroyed because its location would be unknown.

This scenario merits certain observations.

The authors envisage Iran diverting partially enriched uranium to the secret plant from a safeguarded plant but appear to discount the possibility of “timely detection” of this diversion. They overlook the fact that, thanks to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the odds are that detection would occur shortly after the occurrence of diversion.

Once it has learnt of diversion, the US would have more options at its disposal than the authors imply when they lament that a secret plant would be invulnerable to US attack. The most obvious move would be to convene the UN Security Council.  Diversion of declared nuclear material is the gravest sin that NPT parties can commit.  All five veto-wielding members of the Council would be determined to apply diplomatic pressure on Iran to account for the diversion, and they could count on the support of all but a small handful of NPT Non-Nuclear Weapon States. Iran, a state which aspires to being a respected emerging power, like Turkey or Brazil or South Africa – not an outcast like North Korea or Israel – would come under such intense pressure, including the threat of a military operation authorised by the Security Council, that almost certainly it would back down.

It is uncertain whether the authors are right to suggest that Iran could produce a weapon within days of acquiring the necessary fissile material, and that Iran could be confident in such a weapon functioning satisfactorily. It is equally uncertain whether Iran could configure a device to fit into the nose-cone of one of its medium-range missiles. The authors skirt round this question by suggesting that a weapon could be transported to its target by truck. Perhaps they’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies.

A similar determination to convince readers that Armageddon is approaching emerges from random details:

– the authors describe a building at Iran’s Parchin site as a “weaponisation facility”. For the IAEA, it is merely a building suspected of housing or having housed a chamber for high explosive testing;

– they describe Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing plants as “hidden”, but they are simply outside the scope of IAEA safeguards. (When the West was negotiating seriously with Iran, however, between 2003 and 2005, Iran allowed the IAEA access to these plants as a confidence-building measure.)

– they state that there is considerable debate regarding the stage at which timely detection would no longer be possible, but then go on to describe the position of only one (alarmist) voice in this debate: that of Israel’s Prime Minister.

An underlying problem is the authors’ apparent lack of awareness of the full range of motives that can determine the decision-making of a participant in the international state system. Iran is portrayed as a one-dimensional villain, hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons quickly so as to inflict pain on Israel and the southeastern zone of NATO, and only tractable through sanctions and force.

Fortunately, the world I inhabited as a diplomat is much richer than that. States have complex, multi-dimensional personalities, and can be influenced in many ways. Diplomats thrive when politicians finally get round to asking them for solutions to problems.

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Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.


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