WASHINGTON, April 3, 2015 — The nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran have settled some key parameters of a framework for a June 30 deal, according to Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
That announcement resulted in street celebrations last night in Tehran. The mood in Washington and Jerusalem is much less celebratory. Congress is divided on a deal, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is aghast.
He announced that his cabinet is unanimous in its opposition to the emerging framework, and he demanded that any final agreement include Tehran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, while Western critics of the negotiations insist that it is not. This begs an important question: Can Iran be prevented from getting nuclear weapons if its leaders want them?
The short answer to that is no. Nuclear technology is not modern high-tech. The first nuclear bomb was detonated 70 years ago this summer. The principles behind the construction of the bomb are well known and widely disseminated. Nuclear weapons are your grandfather’s top-secret, high technology. Today, any university with solid physics and engineering programs can produce graduates capable of designing bombs.
Iran is blessed with a number of excellent physicists and engineers, many trained at some of the best schools in America.
The hurdle to building a bomb hasn’t been the design of the weapon, not for decades. Designing small, compact devices that can fit in the nosecones of a MIRVed missile may be a technical challenge, but the design of a larger device that can be thrown at Tel Aviv or Rome is within the prowess of nuclear scientists from dozens of countries, including even North Korea.
The hurdle has been the industrial and technical base to produce the enriched uranium, plutonium and other components of a bomb. There are still dozens of countries that could do it. Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Chile, Mexico, the Netherlands and South Africa (a former possessor of nuclear weapons) could all go nuclear in short order if they wanted to. Fortunately for the world, they have all decided until now that building nuclear weapons is not in their best interests.
The astounding thing about nuclear weapons isn’t that Pakistan, India and North Korea have them, but that many other countries don’t.
Iran has the industrial and technical base. Its engineers have designed and built centrifuges capable of enriching uranium to weapons grade. It can produce the triggers, it can build missiles to deliver the weapons to a target.
Iran also has the uranium, tons of it. That is one of the issues that has been discussed in the negotiations. The West wants Iran to send all but a few hundred pounds of that uranium out of the country. Iran has refused.
The hurdles Iran faces that the West wants to keep high are the amount of enriched uranium in Iranian hands and the rate at which it can enrich it further – that is, the number of centrifuges it can run.
Enrichment capacity is measured in “separative work units,” or SWU. First-generation Iranian centrifuges have a capacity of less than one SWU per year. Its newer designs are capable of five or more SWU per year.
It takes 227 SWU to enrich one ton of natural uranium—which contains less than 1 percent of the fissile isotope U235—into 5.6 kilograms of weapons grade—enriched to 90 percent U235—uranium, enough for a bomb.
The paradox of the Western position is that it wishes to hold Iran to just 5,000 centrifuges, while Iranian leaders want 19,000 or more. A large number of centrifuges would be necessary to run a civilian nuclear power program, which requires tons of enriched—3 or 4 percent U235—uranium. The number of centrifuges the West wants for Iran’s upper boundary isn’t enough for that kind of program, but it is more than adequate to produce nuclear weapons.
The details of how many centrifuges Iran can have and the pace at which it can build a new generation of centrifuges have a bearing on how quickly Iran can build a bomb. The goal has been to ensure that, if Iran pulls out of an agreement, it will take at least a year to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. Not just one bomb, of course. The bombs would need to be tested, and then an arsenal would need to be built. The goal is to keep Iran from breaking out as a nuclear power in less than a year.
That goal may be possible in the near term, but it won’t take that long for Iran to perfect its new centrifuges and to begin enriching uranium for a nuclear arsenal quickly, if that is what its leaders want to do.
The options open to the west are limited and mostly unpalatable. A military strike could set back Iran’s nuclear program, but what then? Iran would be implacably hostile to the West after that. Some might argue that it already is, but after a military strike, its hostility would flare. And we’d have to strike again and again to keep it from rebuilding its nuclear facilities. In the end, Iran would get its weapon, and no discussion would be possible.
An alternative is war. Iran is larger, more powerful, and more unified than Iraq was. After American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the odds of selling a war with Iran to Congress or the public are vanishingly small.
Economic sanctions won’t stop Iran from getting a weapon. North Korea, far smaller, far poorer, far less capable and economically even more isolated than Iran, managed to do it. And if North Korea had Chinese help, Iran could probably count on Russia’s President Putin for some material support. Putin has already made clear his desire to be a friend to Iran.
Our only hope to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons is to ensure that it is not in Iranian interests. In that light, talks with Iran with the goal of an agreement make sense. At issue isn’t whether we should talk, but what we should reasonably expect from Iran in exchange for the end of sanctions. An agreement that doesn’t include strong monitoring provisions, for instance, would be a disaster, especially given Iran’s history of concealing its nuclear efforts.
We make no claim to know what inducements would keep Iran’s leaders honest and engaged with the West, but only that it is essential that both things happen. It is hugely important that we negotiate with Iran, but if Secretary of State John Kerry comes up with an agreement that doesn’t bind Iran to tight and specific standards, then no agreement at all would be a better outcome, or at least more honest.
Iran must have a reasonable expectation that economic sanctions will end without requiring it to abandon its nuclear program. After that, it must find its interests sufficiently aligned with ours that it not seek a nuclear arsenal, or it will inevitably seek and get one.
The question isn’t whether Iran will have the means to build a nuclear arsenal, but when. The trick is to ensure that, like Brazil, Spain, Sweden and the other easy entrants to the nuclear club, that it not want to build it when it can.
Otherwise, Iran will be only the second regional nuclear power in the Middle East, not the last. That would really be a disaster.