Taking Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Aspirations Seriously

Three weeks ago, the IAEA’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program included an oblique but very noticeable reference to the involvement of “foreign expertise” in the program’s currently shuttered weaponization component. Here’s what I said at the time:

No mention yet of where that foreign expertise originated from, but look for that as the next front in the campaign of intelligence leaks on past Iranian weaponization efforts.

Sure enough, today the NY Times (via Friday Lunch Club) reports that European and American officials have leaked the source of that foreign expertise — a Russian nuclear scientist apparently acting on his own initiative as an advisor — as well as the source of the intelligence — a detailed and lengthy Farsi document:

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is under way, said that the document appeared authentic, without explaining why, but they made it clear that they did not think the scientist was working on behalf of the Russian government.

Now there’s a risk that this will simply be dismissed as part of the ongoing media campaign to shape public opinion. Because, unfortunately the debate over how to deal with Iran in general, and Iran’s nuclear program in particular, has been reduced to a referendum on the Bush administration’s competence and trustworthiness. And while it would be dumb to trust in the former, and dumber to trust in the latter, it is dumbest to subscribe to the idea (prevalent in the aftermath of last December’s Iran NIE) that because Iran has frozen the weaponization component of its program, there is no longer any reason to consider weaponization as part of the threat.

Because while this leak obviously is part of the ongoing media campaign to shape public opinion, it isn’t only that. I’ve argued since last December that the NIE was grossly misinterpreted, both in what it said about the Iranian threat and what it said about the U.S. intelligence community’s perception of the Iranian threat. That was corroborated in passing, although it went unnoticed, during a Congressional intelligence briefing in April on the Syrian “box on the Euphrates.”

For anyone unwilling to trust the Bush administration (justifiably so) or the American intelligence community (less justifiably so), notice that every major NY Times piece on the Iran nuclear program has for some time passed through Elaine Sciolino at the Paris desk. That’s not a coincidence, as is borne out by my own contacts here. France, which for all its supposed realignment under Nicolas Sarkozy has demonstrably defended its independent line (see Syria), is also convinced that Iran has not renounced its weapons intentions, as is the tech side of the IAEA (ie. the inspectors on the ground as opposed to the politicians in Vienna).

There’s no easy solution to the Iran standoff, because Iran (rightly) believes time is on its side, and has been negotiating with one eye on the clock. But contrary to what is often portrayed, the range of options for reinvigorating the diplomatic process are fairly wide:

1) Bilateral engagement on single-issue negotiations. These have worked in the past, most notably in post-invasion Afghanistan, but the lack of significant followup on a broader accomodation has led Iran to signal its unwillingness to pursue such an option. That could change, though, if the talks were structured as a series of gradual steps towards a pre-determined bilateral recognition.

2) Broad regional accomodation of Iran, the so-called Grand Bargain. This has tempted like an oasis in the desert for years, but has so far proven to be a mirage.

3) Creative proposals for resolving the uranium enrichment standoff, such as guaranteed third-party sources of nuclear fuel, or the guaranteed and verifiable purchase of Iran’s enriched uranium for export.

On the other hand, the options for hardening the coercitive measures designed to get Iran to renounce its nuclear aspirations are also fairly wide:

1) Strengthening economic sanctions. These are difficult to generate, given Russia’s interest in using the issue as leverage, and have limited impact given the difficulty of isolating any country in the globalized economy and the atomized geopolitical environment.

2) Naval blockades. These are increasingly being proposed as a way to put some muscle into economic sanctions while stopping short of fullscale military action. The problem is that a naval blockade is already an act of war, de facto if not de jure, and it comes with a high risk of provoking conflict.

3) Airstrikes. These could at best postpone the Iranian nuclear program, and would almost certainly harden Iran’s will to obtain enrichment capacity, at least, and quite possibly a weapons capacity. They also come with the very high risk of Iranian ripostes, most likely in the form asymmetric attacks in Iraq, but possibly widening the conflict to Israel and the Persian Gulf shipping lanes, as well as acts of terrorism in Western countries.

None of these options, whether diplomatic or coercive, come with any guarantee of success. That’s to be expected in the real world, of course, and the burden is on us to choose which one we feel balances our best chances for a positive outcome while minimizing the costs in the case of failure. The most compelling argument for beginning with a reinvigoration of the diplomatic process is that it does nothing to limit our subsequent military options.

The reverse, on the other hand, doesn’t hold, which is why I argue for a combination of 1&3 on the diplomatic end, while dangling the threat of 1 on the coercive end. (It goes without saying that any ultimate agreement would be predicated on a fully transparent Iranian nuclear program under the NPT’s Additional Protocol.) But above all, I’d argue for taking Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations seriously. Because so long as we don’t, the choices will become increasingly limited to the coercive end.