Iran: The Nuclear Partnership Option

I’ve been meaning to flag this James Acton post at Arms Control Wonk, a site that is always fascinating but that becomes essential reading in the days after any IAEA Iran report. Acton discusses the discrepancy between the amount of enriched uranium estimated over the course of the year by Iran and what the IAEA actually found in its annual measurement verification. Some have interpreted the estimates, which were about a third lower than what the IAEA measured, as evidence of Iranian deviousness. But Acton makes it clear that it could, in fact, be something worse:

The fact that Iran failed to spot its own error suggests that itisn’t doing any of this standard housekeeping. And, I think, this givesus a glimpse into a programme that in its rush to get started and churnout LEU has forsaken normal operating practices.

It ties in with the fact that Iran has stated its maximum enrichment level is higher than the IAEAmeasured, and also with a story I heard from one of the firstinspectors to go to the conversion facility at Esfahan once it hadstarted operating. This person said that the Iranian technicians werevery keen to learn basic safety techniques from the inspectors,including how to deal with UF6 leaks. Health and safety has not been a major concern for the Iranian nuclear programme either.

To be clear: none of this sloppiness is illegal — it’s just bad practice. And, it makes the IAEA’s job harder.

It also, however, might present an opening for a Western consortium to become involved in the Iranian program. That, you’ll remember, is one of the proposed compromises for resolving the impasse between the West’s desire for transparency and Iran’s desire to enrich uranium on its territory. Clearly, the safety of the Esfahan facility is in everyone’s interests, and it could become the selling point that allows the Iranians to accept the consortium without losing face.

To date, American policy has been weakened by an internal inconsistency. Its explicit goal is Iranian compliance with the NPT, which essentially means increased transparency. But it is implicitly driven by concern over Iranian weaponization plans. So far, all of the coercive measures meant to force Iran to comply with its transparency obligations have failed, in part because they have been conditioned on an enrichment freeze.

The Obama administration, in reviewing Iran strategy with an eye towards possible engagement, will need to decide which, if any, of the Bush administration’s tools it is going to keep in the kit. It’s unlikely Obama is going to go to the sanctions well this early in the game. I’m not sure there’s any water left in it, anyway. The military option, despite declarations to the contrary, is for all intents and purposes off the table. Coercion, in other words, seems to have led us down a dead end.

The nuclear partnership, on the other hand, would create transparency, defuse the confrontational nature of the standoff (which Iran is now winning) and, by reassuring the neighbors, might slow the nuclear stampede that is gathering steam in the region. The fact that it could help prevent a potentially serious radioactive leak is icing on the cake.