The Five-Percent Non-Solution
Elements of the chattering class--namely, David Ignatius of the Washington Post--were positively atwitter in recent days, over a supposed "breakthrough" in nuclear talks with Iran. Supposedly, Tehran has agreed to limit future uranium enrichment efforts to no more than five percent purity; that's adequate for medical purposes and basic research, but hardly sufficient for weapons development. In return, President Obama has agreed to let the Iranians continue low-level enrichment activity. From Mr. Ignatius's perspective, this could lead to some sort of broader agreement on Iran's nuclear program:
"... A compelling framework for future talks has been prepared by analysts from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The authors are George Perkovich, a leading U.S. scholar on proliferation issues, and Ariel Levite, a former deputy director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. In preparing the plan, the Carnegie team has had quiet discussions with U.S. and Iranian experts.
The basic idea of the Carnegie proposal is to create a “firewall” between Iran’s civilian nuclear program, which it could pursue, and a military bomb-making program, which it couldn’t. Along with separating permissible from impermissible, the Carnegie authors propose special procedures for dual-use technologies that are near the dividing line."
Backers of the plan believe it has potential (in part) because of a recent statement by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. In a televised statement made last February, Khamenei claimed that Tehran would never pursue nuclear weapons because such efforts are considered a "sin." American officials--including Mr. Obama--saw that as something of a breakthrough, and sent feelers to Iran that Khamenei's statement might provide the foundation for some sort of eventual settlement.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama's five-percent solution has some rather serious problems. Writing at National Review.com, Henry Sokolski of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center observes that U.S. officials are pinning too much hope on the International Atomic Energy Agency and its "ability" to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions:
"..What’s wrong with this argument? First, there is no mention of nuclear-fuel making in the NPT’s text, much less an inalienable right to this activity. All that is defended in the treaty is the right to develop and produce “peaceful nuclear energy.” Getting within weeks of acquiring a bomb by making nuclear fuel — especially when doing so is uneconomical and is not technically required in order to produce nuclear power — ought not to qualify.
Second, even though the IAEA claims it can safeguard nuclear-fuel making against military diversion, it can’t. This is hardly news. After all, if the IAEA could safeguard nuclear-fuel making, there wouldn’t be much of a bone to pick with Iran. Maybe Tehran cheated in the past, but if IAEA safeguards could prevent it from making a bomb now, all we’d have to do is let the IAEA work its magic.
Unfortunately, this is one nuclear rabbit the IAEA can’t pull out of its hat. Indeed, after failing over the last two decades to account for scores of bombs’ worth of weapons-useable fuels at Japanese and British civilian nuclear plants, the IAEA clearly can’t reliably detect diversions from declared nuclear-fuel-making facilities.
As for detecting covert nuclear activities, Syria’s covert nuclear reactor, Iran’s covert construction of its Natanz enrichment plant — which went undetected for 18 years — and Iraq’s covert nuclear activities all suggest how unreliable IAEA nuclear inspections can be.."
Beyond that, there's the little matter of trusting Iranian leaders. Saying they've been less-than-candid about their nuclear ambitions is being charitable. In fact, Tehran has continued its march towards a nuclear weapons capability while engaging in endless rounds of talks and bluster with the rest. Readers will recall that the Bush Administration gave some of its EU partners (England, France and Germany) permission to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear matter. The dialogue dragged on for five years--with no progress whatsoever--until it became expedient for Iran to drop the matter altogether. We can only guess how much progress was made by Iranian scientists and engineers during that interlude.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Iran's friend on the international stage, North Korea, has pursued similar policies over the past 20 years, with an exceptional degree of success. Not only did Pyongyang successfully develop nuclear weapons, it has tested them more than once. In return, the U.S. and its partners could only muster the usual sanctions and diplomatic bromides.
Simply stated, Iran wouldn't spend decades--and billions of dollars--on a development program that would give them a nuclear weapon (and even more power in the region) only to stop short of the finish line. On the other hand, Tehran has every reason to deceive and cheat, particularly if those efforts will buy it more time.
As for the Obama Administration, this is the latest exercise in kicking the Iranian nuclear can further down the road--the same tactic practiced by past administration. There's little doubt the president's political advisers see a "deal" (or talks aimed at making a deal) as a convenient mechanism for removing Iran from the list of campaign issues. During a second term, the logic goes, Mr. Obama would have more flexibility on the issue, and conclude an arrangement that could be even more favorable to Iran.
Meanwhile, Israel has quietly unified behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the IAF has been involved in rather intensive drills, and a number of Israeli military reservists have been called to active duty. The last time we saw this sort of alignment was during the summer of 1967. And we know what followed... .