Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Slowing the Pace

The New York Times is reporting that Iran's uranium enrichment efforts have slowed a bit over the past month, suggesting that Tehran has encountered technical problems with the process, or may be trying to avoid a nuclear confrontation with the U.S.

Much of the information in the Times' account is based on conversations with European diplomats, who have reviewed the results of recent inspections in Iran. According to the inspectors, Iranian engineers stopped pouring UF6 gas into their centrifuges only six days after the process began--even as crowds in Tehran and other cities celebrated the achievement. One official interviewed by the Times described Tehran's pace as "more diplomatic than technical," suggesting that the slowing pace may provide an opening for negotiations.

To its credit, the paper notes that the Europeans have a motive in circulating this theory. As we observed over the weekend, the Europeans desperately want the U.S. to join the diplomatic process, and enage in direct talks with Iran. Getting the U.S. involved would serve serve a number of purposes, including (A) adding legitimacy to their own diplomatic efforts, (B) forestalling potential U.S. and/or Israeli military strikes and (C) avoiding tough decisions over Iran in the UNSC, and in talks with the U.S.

For the Europeans, the process is paramount, even if prospects for a negotiated solution are dim, at best. While the Times acknowledges the Europeans' ulterior motive, they still offer plenty of "evidence," that suggests the time for diplomacy may be at hand.

"Even peering through the keyhole, the International Atomic Energy Agency's findings and Tehran's own statements have combined to raise questions about its claims of irreversible breakthroughs in developing indigenous nuclear technology."

"For instance, the inspectors found that Iran in the first enrichment campaign used not only its own raw uranium but material it had imported from China. Its domestic supplies are reportedly laced with impurities that can reduce the efficiency of delicate centrifuges or cut their lives short."

But there may be other explanations for the Iranian slow-down, which receive less prominence in the Times account. An anonmyous administration official (here we go again) observed that "it could simply mean that we're not looking in the right places," a reference to a suspected secret nuclear program that Iran may be operating. We've written extensively about that possibility in the past, along with Tehran's dual-track development efforts. If Iran's enrichment efforts are thwarted (for whatever reason), then its heavy water plant at Khondab could yield a plutonium-based bomb in less than a decade.

Officially, the Bush Administration is resisting efforts to join the diplomatic circus, although the idea of talks with Iran is apparently being debated within the State Department. Tehran's sudden slow-down in its enrichment efforts is not, in our view, sufficient reason to open direct talks with Iran. And even the Times acknowledges, there may be multiple reasons for the changing pace of Iran's nuclear efforts--chief among them, problems with centrifuge designs and arrays. As we noted previously, technical delays provide a powerful motivation for negotiation, to give Iran's nuclear engineers enough time to overcome their problems, with less worry about a preemptive U.S. or Israeli attack.

Tehran has clearly followed the example of North Korea, and discovered that fraudulent diplomacy can achieve impressive results. Pyongyang had no intention of keeping its 1994 agreement with the U.S. and South Korea, but it maintained the charade for more than seven years, achieving its nuclear ambitions and obtaining badly needed shipment of oil from the United States. At last report, European negotiators were said to be working on a package of incentives for Tehran, in hopes of achieving some sort of deal on the Iranian nuclear program.

More disturbingly, there seems to be a willingness in some European circles to tolerate " a certain degree" of nuclear activity within Iran. Buried in the Times article is this gem, from a German diplomat:

"...German officials have begun to argue that allowing a low level of Iranian enrichment activity— essentially, allowing the Iranians to maintain their current activity — is harmless. "They've cracked the code," one senior German official said last week. "We're kidding ourselves if we think we are going to deny them the knowledge" of how to produce nuclear fuel."

If it were only that simple. The real issue here is Iran's ability to produce large quantities of highly-enriched uranium, necessary for the production of nuclear weapons. Tehran has already achieved a toe-hold in that area (as evidenced by recent efforts), and they will likely continue efforts to improve the quality of their output, as well as their volume. The comments from that German official suggest that some Europeans are quite prepared to let Iran move further along the nuclear path (afterall, the current activity is "harmless"), presumably while the diplomatic efforts continue.

The obvious contradiction in that approach should be enough to keep the U.S. off the diplomatic track, at least for now. Left unchecked, the current level of "harmless activity" will eventually grow into a full-scale uranium enrichment program and produce a nuclear weapon. The idea that Iran won't overcome its technical hurdles is ludicrous, as is the notion that Tehran will someone contain its enrichment efforts at current levels. But when the diplomatic "process" becomes your overriding concern, such matters are trivial, details to be discussed somewhere down the road, about the time Iran actually joins the nuclear club.

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