Tuesday, May 15, 2007

About Those Centrifuges

Today's New York Times report on apparent progress in Iran's uranium enrichment program is disturbing, in several respects. First, Iranian President Ahmadinejad's claims that his country was moving toward "industrial" production of enriched uranium appear to be more than an idle boast; IAEA inspectors report that Iran's current array of 1,300 centrifuges appears to be operating smoothly, paving the way for an expanded operation of 3,000 centrifuges by next month, and possibly, 8,000 by the end of the year. And while it is true that the centrifuges are producing highly enriched uranium of relatively low-quality (about 5% purity), Iran may be able to improve its efficiency in that area as well, attaining the 90% purity needed for nuclear weapons in a matter of months.

Secondly, the "official" reaction to this news have been equally disturbing. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Times that the Bush Administration remains committed to diplomacy, although the military option remains officially "on the table:"

“We’re proceeding under the assumption that there is still time for diplomacy to work,” he said, although he added that if the Iranians did not agree to suspend production by the time the leaders of the Group of 8 industrial nations meet next month, “we will move ahead toward a third set of sanctions.”

Mr. Burns didn't specify what the new set of sanctions might include. However, there are no indications that those measures would bring Iran into compliance. In fact, Tehran has openly bragged about its defiance of previous sanctions, which include travel restrictions on officials associated with its nuclear program.

As for the IAEA--the organization whose inspectors discovered the latest Iranian advances--it's pushing for a face-saving way to resolve the dispute. IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei believes that calls for Iran to suspend its nuclear activities are meaningless; he believes the focus should be on preventing Tehran from going to industrial-scale production, through a "full-court-press" inspection process.

The approaches outlined by Mr. Burns and Mr. ElBaradei might be described as wishful thinking, at best. Tehran has used on-going diplomatic efforts to stage its own version of the "nuclear rope-a-dope," first perfected by North Korea. While Iran engaged diplomats from the EU-3, its nuclear engineers continued their work, laying the groundwork for its current enrichment efforts.

At the same time, the IAEA's inspections haven't been particularly useful, either. Iran has used the inspection process to showcase its advances, while ignoring many of the critical questions forwarded by the agency. The Times report notes that Iran has yet to answer queries about its relationship with Pakistan nuclear proliferator A.Q. Kahn, posed by the IAEA more than a year ago. Suffice it to say that the Iranians aren't exactly quaking in their boots at the prospect of expanded inspections. We're guessing that Iran has probably taken a page out of Saddam's playbook and maintains extensive surveillance of IAEA personnel in the country, shadowing their movements, monitoring phone calls and e-mails and rifling through hotel rooms. It's a fair bet that the Iranians knew about Sunday's "snap" inspection in advance, and were more than prepared to display their progress.

How can the international community bring Iran into line? Personally, we'd prefer a sustained bombing campaign, aimed at setting back the nuclear program by at least a decade. But the IAEA and the U.N. will never go along with that. An intermediate step should focus on sanctions with real teeth, including some of the financial levers that were successfully employed against North Korea. By targeting banks, accounts and assets used by senior officials, the U.S. was able to bring pressure on Pyongyang--and force an agreement--although (predictably) compliance by North Korea remains problematic.

In Iran, a number of the ruling clerics and their offspring have grown rich off the Islamic Revolution. Targeting their considerable overseas assets could bring pressure on the regime. So would a cessation of commercial air service between Tehran and Frankfurt, where most Iranian officials connect on their international travels. Computer network attacks against the oil terminal at Kharg Island represent another option; much of Iran's oil exports move through that facility, and even a temporary shutdown would have a devastating effect on the economy. And, of course, the military option should remain an active consideration, provided that these tougher sanctions don't produce the desired results.

Unfortunately, no one seems willing to contemplate those actions, let alone the use of military force. Ahmadinejad views the west as hopelessly divided on the issue of Iran's nuclear program; his friends in Russia are opposed to tougher sanctions and military strikes; other European countries might go along with sanctions, but they're afraid to antagonize Tehran and lose an important source of crude oil. Meanwhile the U.S. is pre-occupied with the war in Iraq, and hesitant to act on its own against Iran. Similar thoughts prevail in Israel, where Prime Minister Olmert's approval ratings are even lower than those of President Bush.

It's the sort of geopolitical environment ideally suited for Iran to fulfill its nuclear ambitions. That's why the centrifuges at Natanz will keep spinning, as Ahmadinejad's nuclear engineers work to solve the quantity and purity problems that stand between Iran and its first nuclear weapon. As we've noted before, there is still a window of opportunity for Israel or a U.S.-led coalition to strike a serious blow against the centrifuge complex, and other key components in Iran's nuclear program. But striking such a blow requires political will and moral courage, qualities that remain in short supply in some western capitals.

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