Why is Iran stepping up uranium enrichment?

The Iran nuclear program continues unabated. Readers of this blog may recall my assessment of Iran’s nuclear motives. The original reason Iran decided to go nuclear was Saddam Hussein.

Iran and Iraq, after their bloody, costly, and inconclusive hot war in the 1980s, had their own cold war—complete with a nuclear arms race—during the 1990s. Both pursued the uranium enrichment route to the bomb. Both dealt, to varying degrees, with A.Q. Khan, the centrifuge salesman and father of Pakistan’s bomb.

But ultimately only Iran was successful. Saddam had stunned the world by ramping up a secret industrial-scale uranium enrichment operation; this was discovered literally by accident following his expulsion from Kuwait in 1991. (Hans Blix, who led UN weapons inspections under the armistice, never fails to emphasize how astonished he and his colleagues were when they stumbled upon evidence of this program.)

But after that discovery, Saddam was under too much scrutiny to do much more than keep his nuclear scientists and engineers well fed and ready to resume their work if and when the time was right.

Of course, that time never came. The U.S., which had barely tolerated Saddam’s existence through the 1990s, lost even that little tolerance after September 11, 2001. The internal debate over whether Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program had intensified when Saddam expelled weapons inspectors in 1998. After September 11, the debate went to fever pitch. Saddam kept trying to game the system even after UN Security Council Resolution 1441 warned, in November 2002, that he faced “serious consequences” if he continued to violate his obligations under the Kuwait armistice. Saddam’s main obligation under that armistice was that he allow UN weapons inspectors to look for nuclear evidence wherever in Iraq they wanted to look, at any time, without notice. That was the birth of the IAEA Additional Protocol to nuclear safeguards agreements.

It took a full-scale military invasion before the world learned that, beyond keeping his nuclear workforce well fed, Saddam had actually not reconstituted his nuclear program. Incredibly though, Saddam appears to have wanted the world to think he had reconstituted his program. And besides Iraq, Saddam’s world included one country above all: Iran. It is a huge irony of modern history that Saddam, through his effort to cow Iran, handed George W. Bush the casus belli that brought about Saddam’s downfall.

Iran’s serious nuclear intention became publicly known in the summer of 2002, just as Bush was assembling that casus belli. An opposition group in exile spilled the beans, forcing Iran to come clean and declare it was operating a centrifuge cascade. How had it acquired the highly specialized equipment required for centrifuges? It had bought equipment and designs from A.Q. Khan in the mid-1990s—just as the world was learning, courtesy of the Kuwait armistice, the breathtaking extent of Saddam’s own uranium enrichment program.

Then, in April 2003, less than one year after its blockbuster admission, Iran’s nuclear weapons program was suddenly deprived of its organizing principle. Saddam’s bluff had worked, but only too well. The wrong country had taken him too seriously. Bush’s Coalition of the Willing invaded Iraq. Saddam was gone.

Suddenly Iran had to explain its array of centrifuges; it is after all a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). It could no longer point to an arms race with Saddam; that race was over. So why had it secretly bought stolen centrifuge designs on the black market?

Iran’s explanation was that it requires self sufficiency in the light water power reactor fuel cycle. Iran is rich because it sells oil and gas to other countries. It would undercut its own economy if it made electricity with those resources. Hence it had to adopt nuclear energy.

Or at least that is Iran’s story.

Some people scoff at that, and point to the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Iran’s president as proof that a nuclear Iran would immediately threaten Israel. This argument has merit. Beyond its anti-Semitic rhetoric, Iran provides financial and material support to Islamic fanatics in Lebanon, who are actively hostile to Israel. A nuclear armed Iran would not be good for Israel.

But diplomacy is about compromise and saving face. No matter how rabid Iran’s leaders look, they do not like the economic sanctions they have to live under. They do not like having to buy their gasoline from Brazil because they cannot hire enough petroleum engineers to run refineries in Iran. They do not like being gouged by the few western companies that will do business with them.

Many in the west seem resigned to the fact of an Iranian enrichment capability. The whole question is how to get Iran to agree to sufficiently robust IAEA oversight to guarantee that no Iranian uranium is enriched beyond 19.75 percent U-235.

If I am right about the origin and impetus for Iran’s nuclear weapons program, then I might also be right that that program now desperately seeks either another enemy or another purpose. And if Iran can be persuaded that another purpose is better than another enemy, perhaps there is room for a diplomatic breakthrough.

Or at least that is what I thought back in early March of this year. When the west decided, apparently on flimsy reasoning made in haste, to depose Col. Ghadafi in Libya, it actually threw away the possibility of persuading Iran to repurpose its uranium enrichment equipment. Ghadafi was persuaded in 2003 to physically give up his own enrichment equipment (also bought from A.Q. Khan). The west’s offer to Ghadafi was twofold: (1) we will lift sanctions, and (2) we won’t do to you what we did to Saddam.

With the current NATO action in Libya, the west has proved to Iran that its offer was bogus. Why should Iran believe anything the west says?

Iran’s current stated intention to increase enrichment capacity might well indicate it has drawn a lesson from Libya: when negotiating with the west over nuclear weapons, it’s best to already have a weapon.

If western diplomats can get around that, then maybe Iran’s extra enrichment capacity can be bargained down to what exists today.

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