Why the new round of nuclear talks is doomed to failure.
After years of failed talks, the international community has come up with a familiar strategy to halt Iran’s rapidly growing nuclear program: more talks.
On April 14, UN Security Council members Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, along with Germany, will hold the latest round of talks with Tehran over its nuclear program. As in previous versions of these negotiations, the goal will be to convince Iran to scale back its uranium enrichment program, and with it its drive for a nuclear weapon. As in the past, too, there is little evidence that Iran has come to the negotiating table in good faith.
The last time that the so-called P5+1 powers held talks with Iran, in January 2011, the talks collapsed in an impasse. Despite a warning from President Obama that the upcoming talks represent "perhaps the last chance" for diplomacy to succeed, early signs suggest that this outcome is likely to be repeated. Not only did Iran reject “preconditions” for the talks, but it could barely bring itself to agree on a venue for holding them.
Substantively, too, Iran is offering little in the way of compromise. Iran’s nuclear chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, recently announced that Iran could eventually stop its enrichment of uranium to the 20-percent level, the highest level acknowledged by Iran, even as it would continue to enrich uranium to lower levels of about 3.5 percent for the purpose of generating power. On the surface at least, this is supposed to address international concerns that Iran could continue to increase its enrichment toward the more than 90-percent level required for a nuclear warhead.
Yet there is less to this concession than meets the eye. Iran’s insistence on keeping some level of enriched uranium is already a hardening of its negotiating stance from 2009, when it agreed “in principle” to export most of its low-enriched uranium in exchange for foreign-made fuel rods. Today, Iran has reneged on that position, refusing to transfer enriched uranium out of the country. Not only that but last month it made a defiant display of inserting its first domestically made fuel rod into a research reactor in northern Tehran. The point was to show that Iran is fully capable of carrying out the cycle of nuclear production on its own and in the face of international pressure and sanctions.
Iran has also spurned demands that it shutter its underground enrichment facilities. Just this week, Iran announced that it would not close its heavily fortified Fordo nuclear site. The site is built in tunnels deep inside a mountain located about 20 miles from the city of Qom, thus making it less vulnerable to destruction from bomb strikes. Recent revelations that Iran has begun enriching uranium at Fordo have further heightened concern that, left unchecked, it could become the birthplace of Iran’s nuclear bomb.
That concern is particularly grave given Iran’s recent announcement that it has powerful new centrifuges that allow it to enrich uranium even faster, a move that could see Iran complete a nuclear bomb in a matter of months. The news comes just as the annual CIA report to Congress makes clear that Iran in the past year has expanded its nuclear program, building new infrastructure and forging ahead with uranium enrichment. The CIA’s conclusion is in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency's February report that Iran is rapidly expanding its enrichment efforts. In its Natanz uranium enrichment facility alone, according to the IAEA, Iran increased the number of nuclear centrifuges from 6,000 last fall to 9,000 today.
All the available evidence suggests that Iran has not been deterred from pursuing its nuclear project. Given that reality, Israeli officials have pushed for a more aggressive response to Iran’s nuclear activities than the talks that have failed in the past. In Israel's assessment, Iran is nearing a “zone of immunity” that could see Iran complete its nuclear program inside bunkered facilities beyond the reach of Israeli bombs, rendering any Israeli response in vain. At that point, there would be no stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration’s view is that point has not yet been reached. The administration claims that U.S. intelligence will clearly signal when Iran has decided to move from the enrichment phase toward a full-fledged nuclear weapon. Considering the track record of U.S. intelligence in recent years, that confidence seems excessive at best. Nonetheless, the administration this week is championing what it calls an "intelligence surge" inside Iran, part of a continuing effort to expand surveillance and intelligence gathering inside Iran. But however worthwhile, such intelligence is not faultless. Many intelligence experts caution that Iran has become increasingly skillful at hiding its nuclear program, particularly now that it has more powerful centrifuges that can enrich uranium in smaller facilities.
Ultimately, the major problem with this week’s talks is not that they are unlikely to be successful, although that seems almost certain. Rather, it is that, as in the past, they will afford Iran more time to make continued progress with a nuclear program that it has no intention of stopping. Absent the credible prospect of a military response, Iran will have little reason to think that the latest "last chance" of diplomacy will really be the last.
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