The road forward for American-Iranian diplomacy
Fighting fire with fire will push Iran to more dangerous extremes
When U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearm agents decided to sell guns to Mexican drug cartels as part of some inscrutable scheme to battle the drug trade, it’s unlikely they were acting as conspirators in some grand Machiavellian plan to restrict U.S. gun rights or achieve some devious geopolitical goal in Mexico. They embarked foolishly on a doomed adventure of their own choosing, and little else should be read into the events that transpired.
In the same vein, we should avoid reading too closely between the lines on Iran’s recent bomb plot against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil. Even had it been successful, the outcome would have run counter to Iranian interests. It was executed as poorly as it was conceived, and now, as the FBI tries to discern what exactly happened, the U.S. punditariat is left pondering all sorts of theories as to why the Iranians attempted such a thing.
Assuming the plot was not a false flag operation or other deception, we should apply Occam’s razor to the explanations for why it occurred. This is not a bid to encourage us to strike Iran. This is not evidence of a divide between Iran’s military, civil, and theocratic leadership. This is not a nuanced diplomatic message or some similarly complex effort. An Iranian planner with poor supervision, low intelligence, and manic hubris, made an error in judgment. That’s all.
The first two conditions — poor supervision and low intelligence — need no explanation. Governments, by their nature, are stupid creatures, and such traits are endemic. And the latter condition, manic hubris, has a source that is plain as well.
When this paper last commented on the state of Iran’s nuclear program (Sept. 14, 2010), we were somewhat optimistic, noting that Iran had experienced setbacks in their program (their number of operating centrifuges had fallen from 4,592 to 3,772 in the previous year). However, we mixed this optimism with an urgent demand for diplomatic or martial action, observing that despite its setbacks, Iran had still managed to increase its separative capacity by 40 percent by becoming more proficient with its remaining centrifuges. Our summary conclusion was that unknown events had bought us time for diplomacy, but not much.
Since our last report, it has been revealed what the cause was for Iran’s setback: a powerful cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And the time that we estimated for diplomacy has elapsed. Iran today should be counted as a de facto nuclear power.
Between its Natanz and Fordo facilities, Iran has installed approximately 8,500 centrifuges, of which 6,184 are in operation. The average productivity of these centrifuges is approximately 1.1 separable work units (SWU) per centrifuge-year, giving them a yearly separative capacity of roughly 6,800 SWU. They have a 4,543 kg stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium dioxide, and 70.8 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride.
What does this mean, all told? It means that Iran has the uranium stockpile and enrichment capabilities to produce 20 kg of 90 percent-enriched uranium in approximately 22 days, and it has the capacity to produce enough material for six weapons within nine-and-a-half months. Depending on Iran’s ancillary weapons-making and centrifuge-operating capabilities, the time from a decision to create a nuclear bomb to its actual completion might be marginally longer, giving a delay somewhere between a few days and a couple weeks. But in short, Iran has the capabilities to develop a nuclear weapon faster than our international diplomatic system has time to react, and follow up with the quick development of enough additional weapons to represent a credible deterrent.
The picture six months from now will be even grimmer. In that time, we might expect Iran to bring online an additional 2,000 centrifuges at its Natanz site and further improve its centrifuge productivity to 1.15 SWU per centrifuge-year. Its stockpile of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium (LEU) will have grown to approximately 5,400 kg. Its stockpile of 20 percent enriched UF6 will have grown to 93 kg. Its separative capacity will be at approximately 9,300 SWU per year. And the time to weapon will be even shorter. To enrich enough material for a single bomb will take them approximately thirteen days, and six bombs worth would take six months.
It’s not hard to understand why an Iranian planner would think his country immune to American counterattack — such an assessment is not far off the mark. Iran is, for most intents and purposes, a nuclear power. From here on out, military options against the Iranian regime should be considered to have large downside risks.
In light of these facts, it would be prudent to recommend pursuing a diplomatic course with Tehran in order to balance nuclearization with moderation. Iran’s de facto nuclear status makes direct diplomacy all the more important. The U.S. should hedge its efforts with a revived engagement of the regime directly; without the option of conversation (albeit a strained one), small disagreements and serious conflict situations alike have the potential to degrade dangerously and quickly. The alternative to establishing diplomatic ties is a cold war with an intolerable risk of conflict.
Last week’s assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador within American territory will push Iranian-American relations to the tensest they’ve been in years. The situation could lead to unnecessary escalation if not addressed — in particular, it may lead Iran to realize its nuclear potential. While Iranian deployment of nuclear aggression is an unlikely and unwise ploy, an effort should be made to back up the failing containment strategy by establishing at least a tacit rapport.
In short, American policy must both acknowledge the potential of a nuclear Iranian regime, resistant to internal efforts at change. We must prepare for a world in which a belligerent and nuclear Iran is a permanent feature on the international scene. Should sanctions and other measures fail to significantly affect the hard-line officials to which they are targeted (instead, diminishing the quality of life of the Iranian middle- and lower-class), there must be a backup plan. Without a straightforward diplomatic approach, frustration in Washington and Tehran will steadily build, to neither side’s benefit. Defusing this tension must be actuated by a cogent and cautious strategy that inevitably begins with communication.