By Barry Blechman – Iran just can’t stay out of the news. Throughout May, President Ahmadinijad and Iran’s so-called Supreme Leader, Khamenei, fought publicly over whose men would run the Oil and Intelligence ministries. When Ahmadinijad learned just what “Supreme” meant, and lost both battles, he sulked for more than a week, refusing to attend meetings or to talk to Khamenei’s favored-ministers. The whole affair constituted the most public evidence of long-standing conflicts among Iran’s ruling elites.
This month, Iran’s nuclear program is in the news. First, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued one of the periodic reports that result from its monitoring of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities. The report chronicled the continuing accumulation of low enriched uranium stocks, uranium enriched to a level useful in power reactors but far short of that necessary for nuclear weapons. It also chronicled continuing growth of Iran’s smaller stock of uranium enriched to 20 percent – a higher level that sharply reduces the time to go to weapons-grade.
Moreover, the IAEA raised again its concerns about nuclear-related activities by military organizations in Iran, listing seven specific experiments that could be associated with weapon technologies. In response, Iran initially dismissed the charges, repeating again its mantra that it’s enriching solely for peaceful purposes. On June 7, however, the new head of Iran’s atomic energy agency announced that Iran would increase its production of 20 percent uranium, would move that production to its previously unused and heavily fortified facility at Fordow, and would soon deploy more advanced centrifuges – machines that would make accelerated enrichment possible.
These are disturbing developments. The IAEA’s reports and Iran’s own statements make clear that Tehran is at least developing the technologies necessary to acquire nuclear weapons, even if the Supreme Leader hasn’t yet decided whether or not to do so. Moreover, the deepening struggles among Iran’s ruling elites make difficult any negotiation on the nuclear program, at least in the near term. The only good news is that there is time for the policies being pursued to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – a combination of economic sanctions, covert operations, and diplomacy – to work.
In January, the US Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper, projected that Iran would not be able to acquire a nuclear weapon for at least three to five years. His statement echoed an earlier comment by the outgoing head of Israeli Intelligence, Meir Dagan, who cited 2015 as the earliest year that Iran could have a nuclear weapon.
Since his retirement, Dagan also has warned repeatedly against trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program through military strikes. This conclusion is shared by a group of 40 American political/military and Iran experts that I co-chaired last year. The “Iran Study Group,” organized by the Stimson Center and the US Institute for Peace, reported that any such attack would have to be large, constituting thousands of air strikes over a period of weeks, and aim not only to destroy Iran’s substantial nuclear infrastructure, but also to limit Iran’s ability to retaliate for the attack by destroying as much of Iran’s military establishment as possible. Even so, the Group cautioned, an attack would unite Iranians as never before, and likely would trigger wide-spread conflict in the Middle East, with unknowable, but negative political, economic, and military consequences for the United States.
Instead, the Group concluded, the US and its allies should continue through sanctions and covert operations to put pressure on Iran to negotiate limitations and safeguards on its nuclear activities. Such an agreement would permit Iran to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, as is its right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also impose conditions that could assure the rest of the world that those activities could not quickly be transformed into nuclear weapons. To induce Iran to negotiate seriously, moreover, the Group recommended that the US and its allies embolden its diplomacy:
- Signaling their acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes;
- Establishing a separate bilateral negotiating forum, in which US and Iranian representatives could discuss issues of common concern, beginning with such topics as stopping drug trafficking and guaranteeing free access to international waterways; and
- Holding out the promise, once the nuclear issue and broader sources of conflict are resolved, not only of lifting the sanctions now in place, but of using Western technology and investment to help Iran develop its oil and gas resources – a step which could both enable Iran to finally develop economically and ease global pressures for continuing increases in the prices of these commodities.
The US and Iran have a long history of legitimate grievances that will not be untangled quickly. Still, a more forthcoming approach on the diplomatic side – combined with the building pressures on the regime resulting from sanctions – could swing the balance in Tehran to the point where negotiated resolution of the nuclear issue becomes feasible.