On the eve of international talks in Geneva about its nuclear program, Iran upped the ante once again on Sunday, declaring that it is now self-sufficient throughout the entire nuclear fuel cycle. “Today, we witnessed the shipment of the first domestically produced yellowcake … from Gachin mine to the Isfahan nuclear facility,” Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said on state television on Sunday. Yellowcake is a uranium concentrate, the raw material that represents step one in a complex refining process in which fissionable U-235 is separated and concentrated from the more common, non-fissionable U-238. The ability to produce yellowcake internally means that Iran is no longer dependent on outside sources for any part of its nuclear production program. Thus the rogue Islamic state now has the infrastructure in place to produce low-grade refined uranium used in nuclear reactors and the high-grade (90%+ U-235) refined uranium used in weapons of mass destruction. Western nations hoped that Iran was running low on yellowcake, a claim Iran has denied, but this announcement would appear to make the issue moot. Most of Iran’s previous stock of yellowcake was obtained from South Africa by the Shah in pre-revolutionary Iran, although Western sources strongly suspect that China supplemented that inventory to some extent.
Clearly, the timing of this announcement is no coincidence. Iranian representatives will meet with delegations representing the so-called P5+1 nations today and tomorrow. The P5+1 nations are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was once again hopeful that the talks would bear fruit. “This is an opportunity for Iran to come to the table and discuss the matters that are of concern to the international community — first and foremost, their nuclear program,” she said. From the West’s perspective, this is an opportunity to wring some concessions and safeguards out of Iran before pushing for sanctions that could, if enforced, result in severe repercussions for Iran’s economy. For its part, in addition to the opportunity to engage in the usual saber-rattling of which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is so fond, the yellowcake announcement strengthened the Iranian hand as it prepared for this latest round of talks. Iran thus appears to be following the North Korean model of dealing with the West: threaten as much as you can, for the more that’s on the table, the less you have to give away – and besides, you know that you’ll be able to do whatever you want at the end of the day, anyway.
The ideal way to end the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions without resorting to a military strike is to continue to obstruct and delay the program, as the West works to destabilize the nation’s current regime at the same time. As former President George W. Bush has said, solving the Iran problem in a peaceful way is essentially a two track issue. On the one track, you have Iran’s timetable to build useable warheads, and on the other track, you have a timetable for regime change. The more you do to stretch out the former and accelerate the latter, the better chance you have to avoid a military confrontation.
As pathetically ineffective as the West’s history of imposing and sticking with meaningful sanctions to influence rogue regimes is, there is real opportunity in Iran. There are two areas in which Iran appears especially vulnerable: crude oil production and gasoline refining capacity. A detailed study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released earlier this year summarizes Iran’s weaknesses in these two areas.
While Iran has a huge amount of crude oil reserves in its rich fields, its ability to tap those reserves is steadily declining. According to CSIS, Iran is losing between 400,000 barrels per day to 700,000 barrels per day in crude production as its oil fields mature. There’s still plenty of oil down there, but Iran lacks the technology to engage in the sort of enhanced oil recovery practices that more advanced nations use to coax stubborn crude out of the ground. Absent the assistance of the West, Russia or China, oil export revenues could soon disappear. According to the CSIS report:
A 2007 National Academy of Sciences study reports that if decline rates are allowed to continue, Iran’s exports, which in 2007 averaged 2.4 million bbl/d could decrease to zero by 2015. To offset natural decline rates, Iran’s oil fields require structural upgrades including enhanced oil recovery (EOR) efforts such as natural gas injection.
Gasoline is Iran’s other Achilles’ heel. The Islamic Republic is desperately trying to increase its internal refining capacity, with good reason: Iran is much too heavily dependent on outside sources to supply the gas needed to keep its economy stumbling along. From the CSIS report:
Iran’s oil consumption was approximately 1.7 million bbl/d in 2007. Iran has limited refinery capacity for the production of light fuels, and consequently imports much of its gasoline supply. Iranian domestic oil demand is mainly for gasoline and diesel. Tehran imports about 40 percent of its gasoline.
Thus, if the civilized powers – and especially Europe – were to cut off Iran’s access to Western technology and to refined products, the regime in Tehran would be in real trouble. The combination of a loss in oil revenues and a transportation crisis would throw the already troubled Iranian economy into chaos. It might be enough to tip the balance in favor of the millions of Iranians who are already unhappy with the theocratic, reactionary regime ruling their nation. Sanctions could make a real difference in Iran, if the West somehow could find the will and the self-discipline to impose them in earnest.
If it all comes down to the military option, and it seems that the Iranian problem inevitably must come down to that, then there are only two nations in the world with the power and the will to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Israel could do it, but the political price it would have to pay to do so would be tremendously expensive. An Israeli strike would anger its neighbors, depending on the route it choose, potentially including erstwhile friends – or at least political acquaintances – like Jordan and Turkey. Iran would certainly unleash Hezbollah and Hamas into full insurrection mode and – at best – the stability of the Middle East would continue to erode for many years to come.
That leaves the United States. The United States alone has the capability to penetrate Iranian airspace at will at minimal political cost to deliver wave upon wave of precision-guided bunker-busting munitions that would reduce critical elements of Iran’s nuclear program to smoking holes in the ground. B-2 bombers staged out of Diego Garcia need not violate the airspace of any sovereign nation other than Iran, thus avoiding the public-relations quagmire that Israel would face if it staged the raids. Our erstwhile allies in the region, nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, wouldn’t have to lift a finger to cooperate with us, nor would they have to express outrage, because we would not need to trample their lawns. They could instead quietly breathe a sigh of relief because Uncle Sam would have once again eliminated a grave threat infesting their portion of the globe.
The mission of the P5+1 nations in Geneva is clear: to convince Iran in no uncertain terms the that mullahs will face economic hell if they refuse to comply with the West’s demands. And, as important, it must be made abundantly clear that even if sanctions should fail, the United States has the ability and the will to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions once and for all. It is unfortunately doubtful whether the current dithering president of the United States has the backbone to draw such a line in the stand. Still, there is hope. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron appear to be made of sterner stuff. Perhaps they can fill the vacuum and provide the kind of leadership that Barack Obama is unwilling or unable to supply.