Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Iran: The Time Has Come (INSS Insight No. 158, January 25, 2010)

If its domestic situation were not so serious, Iran's government could be
very happy indeed. Iran managed to gain another crucial year in its quest
for a nuclear weapons capability, and every passing day brings it closer to
its ultimate goal: having the potential to produce deliverable nuclear
weapons in short order, if it so decides. It successfully delayed the West
from pursuing a more severe sanctions regime, and the West is behaving as if
it has all the time in the world. It does not.

How did this come about? Several factors combined to achieve the net result,
most of them not of Iran's doing: the election of a new US president who
believed in engagement as the sole way to resolve conflicts (and may still
want to believe this); the unwillingness, for years, of the IAEA to
acknowledge Iran's ultimate goal; the (unclassified) 2007 US National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that raised the possibility that Iran abandoned
its quest for nuclear weapons; the reluctance of the US to assume the lead
role in confronting Iran, and letting the EU-3 deal, albeit ineffectively,
with the situation; the contrary attitude of Russia and China, which are
watching the West struggle to find a solution while throwing it a bone from
time to time in supporting some sanctions resolutions that are not achieving
their aim; and the exceptional spanner in the works embedded in the quite
unproductive suggestion to transfer some of Iran's low enriched uranium
(LEU) outside the country and return it as medium enriched uranium fuel for
its Tehran Research Reactor. This last statement needs some explanation.

On October 1, 2009, the P5 +1 (the five permanent Security Council members
plus Germany) and Iran began talks in Geneva that were supposed to deal with
a host of issues, including the suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment
activities. Meantime, the US proposed the said uranium transfer idea. The
rationale was, apparently, to remove the major portion of the LEU from Iran,
thus delaying Iran's potential to produce the core of its first nuclear
explosive device. The talks were then postponed for more than a month, the
IAEA produced a text of an agreement accepted by the Russian, US, and
Iranian delegations, and the Iranians went home to obtain the approval of
the agreement by their government. The government probably never had any
intention of approving this. The deadline for an Iranian reply came and went
and nothing happened. Meanwhile, Iran continued to enrich uranium.

Evaluating the proposal objectively, little would have been achieved, even
if the Iranians had agreed to it. The LEU stockpile would have been reduced,
and its quantity would be below what is needed for a complete nuclear weapon
core, but this would remain so for a short time only, since enrichment would
continue. Thus, the uranium transfer proposal bought precious time for the
Iranians, and no uranium enrichment suspension was even discussed.

Meanwhile, the end of the 2009 deadline set by the US for resolving the
Iranian nuclear issue also came and went, and nothing happened. The Iranians
are enriching, the US is hesitating, and the East seems to be quite happy
with the situation. The US year's end deadline proved to be devoid of
substance. The US administration apparently had no fallback plan to deal
with such a situation, and if it had, it did not execute it. Although Iran
formally rejected the above plan, the IAEA director general was quoted as
saying that the plan was still on the table. One wonders what this would
achieve if it were now accepted by the Iranians, except for a further delay
of a comprehensive solution to the issue and a continuing enrichment of
uranium by Iran. Time is running short, and action is needed if Iran's
almost inevitable achievement is to be thwarted.

The main solution, agreed to by almost all involved, is to level strong
sanctions. However, there is a lack of consensus on what these should be and
how to apply them. Recently, the idea has been floated that sanctions should
be applied mainly on those who are involved in Iran's nuclear project - the
Revolutionary Guards. It is a worthy notion, but almost impossible to
implement. It is worthy, because it would not affect the man in the street,
who is anyway oppressed by the regime. It is impossible to implement,
because it is quite difficult to think of any effective sanctions that would
target only the Revolutionary Guards.

The only sanctions that make sense that could influence the Iranian regime
to cave in and at least suspend the uranium enrichment program and agree to
institute the inspections according to the Additional Protocol are the
Iraqi-type sanctions. These should limit imports into Iran of anything but
foodstuffs, medicines, and other humanitarian aid, if and when necessary. No
other imports including oil distillates or technical equipment would be
supplied to Iran until it agrees to the above conditions. It is a mistake to
assume that any less severe sanctions would do the trick. Iran would go on
and continue enriching without giving much thought to the outside pressure.
If this is not undertaken by the Security Council, the US should implement
it with all the friends it can muster.

What would happen if this is not done? The one remaining way to prevent Iran
from becoming a nuclear power is military action against Iran's nuclear
installations. This is a route fraught with dangers and uncertainties.
Depending on how successful the attack would be, the Iranian program could
suffer a severe setback. However, there is a high probability that Iran
would attempt to retaliate. Moreover, the Iranians would be able to
reestablish their facilities within a few years and the vicious cycle would
recommence. If both suggested routes of action are not applied or they fail
to achieve the expected results, then within a few years a nuclear Iran will
likely emerge and begin activating its plans for regional hegemony. This
would cause a major upset of power distribution in the region, possible new
wars, and possibly the complete loss of American hegemony in the Gulf
region. On a global scale, the nuclear non-proliferation regime would
suffer, perhaps beyond repair.

Unfortunately, it is the latter possibility that seems to be in the offing.
Unless the US - which for all its rhetoric seems resigned to this outcome -
takes strong sanctions action now, this is probably what will happen. Iran
should not be given the time to accomplish this.



The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

Conceiving of security studies as a dynamic interdisciplinary field that involves military, intellectual, economic, and social resources, the Institute strives to reflect that diversity and complexity through research and policy recommendations of the highest standard. Complementing the traditional areas of defense, security doctrine, and politics, INSS has expanded its focus to include the “softer” components of national security, such as domestic trends and social processes.

The Institute is non-partisan, independent, and autonomous in its fields of research and expressed opinions. As an external institute of Tel Aviv University, it maintains a strong association with the academic environment. In addition, it has a strong association with the political and military establishment.

Ephraim Asculai worked at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) for over 40 years, mainly on issues of nuclear and environmental safety. In 1986, he went to work at the IAEA in Vienna on issues of radiation protection of the public. During 1990-1991 he was the Scientific Secretary of the International Chernobyl Project.
In 1992, Dr. Asculai returned to Israel and became heavily involved in the deliberations leading to the conclusion of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). In his final period at the IAEC he served as the Director of External Relations. During his sabbatical at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C. he authored Verification Revisited: The Nuclear Case, published by the ISIS Press.

Dr. Asculai retired from the civil service in 2001. In 2002 he joined the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (now incorporated into the Institute for National Security Studies). He has since published several papers dealing with WMD non-proliferation in general, and Middle East issues in particular, including the monograph Rethinking the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime in 2004.
He received his Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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