The incoming Barack Obama administration has already been inundated with
reports, policy recommendations and position papers vying for the
president-elect's attention on the Iran nuclear issue. Although nicely wrapped
in the semantics of a "fresh" or "game-changing" approach, the majority are
familiar and lack novelty, and this should come as no surprise as many were
penned by old US foreign policy hands like Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk.
As a result, even when they seem to be suggesting a reasonable "new thinking"
in the US's Iran policy, wedded to the idea of "engagement" and or "dialogue
without preconditions", these noble efforts are, however, undermined by their
dubious assumptions. Not to mention their restrictive methodologies, which
ultimately veer them back towards the same old plans for "coercive diplomacy".
There are also the limits to the "dialogue without preconditions" logic put
forth by, among others, the president of Council on Foreign Relations, Richard
Haass, in a new collaborative report with Indyk published by the Brookings
Institution. Although positive in many respects and apparently earning the
disapproval of Israel, the Haass-Indyk call for engaging Iran in dialogue
without preconditions falls short of what is really necessary and lacking in
Washington today, that is, dialogue without false assumptions.
One such false assumption that has been adopted like an article of faith by
nearly all the pundits and nuclear experts in the US today, is that Iran is
fast approaching a "nuclear breakout capability" - in light of Iran's double
process of mastering the nuclear fuel cycle and advancing its missile
technology. This has warranted the word "crisis", to quote US Senator Jon Kyl.
 Not to be outdone by politicians, a number of nuclear experts, such as
David Albright, have echoed the sentiment.
In his latest report, co-authored with two colleagues from the Institute for
Science and International Security (ISIS), Albright contends that Iran "is
moving steadily toward the nuclear breakout capability", and puts a firm
dateline on it. "This capability is expected to reach that milestone during
2009."  The authors' next concluding sentence deals with the search for
solutions: "In the short-term, the response should include increasing economic
sanctions on Iran and accelerating the timetable for US-led negotiations with
Iran over the fate and transparency of its nuclear program."
But if Iran is thought to be reaching a critical threshold of capability to
make one nuclear bomb in the near-term, as this report contends, wouldn't this
undercut the validity of the proposed "short-term" response? Not even the
authors themselves believe economic sanctions could lead Iran to halt its
supposed march toward nuclear might, but a more important question, however, is
on what legal grounds can the authors justify their position on sanctions on
After all, this latest ISIS report is built on a sand castle of conjectural
"ifs", for example, "if Iran decides to breakout". Troubled by the complicating
factors fueling "uncertainty about the circumstances of a breakout". The
authors' main fault is that they adopt their hypothetical "maybes" as facts.
One example is the statement, "Iran may delay the inspectors access" to the
Natanz enrichment facility, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
"may" not be able to quickly discover that some enriched uranium "may" be
This flawed logic, which superimposes the authors' uncertainties on Iran's
objective realities, is a line of thinking that simply evades the obvious: that
is, the fact that Iran's entire stock of enriched uranium is kept in containers
sealed by the IAEA and the whole fuel enrichment plant is constantly monitored
by the IAEA's surveillance cameras. Contrary to their false assertion, any
Iranian attempt to tamper with the IAEA seals and or divert some of the stored
low-enriched uranium to some clandestine facility would be quickly uncovered.
By ignoring these issues completely, the respected nuclear experts seem
unconvincing in their quasi-alarmist projections of Iran's near-term nuclear
weapon capability - the same projections which are indirectly fueling the
argument of the more hawkish experts for the military option.
Their report serves as a half-cooked meal for new US policy-makers gearing up
for action come next January. But it will surely give them indigestion, as it
replicates the coercive approach that is centered on the theology of Iran's
"nuclear intentions" and "capability".
It ignores the empirical signs that point at the need for an entirely different
approach, one that would respect Iran's nuclear rights, avoid the George W Bush
administration's addiction to disinformation, and set realistic goals on the
issues of transparency and implementation of the IAEA's intrusive inspection
Another flaw of the latest ISIS report is that the authors claim Iran has
recently degraded its cooperation with the IAEA. But the Iran-IAEA work plan of
August 2007, after an extensive discovery of documents and physical inspection
of Iran's facilities, all the six "outstanding issues" were favorably resolved.
That is, Iran was absolved of lingering questions hovering around connections
to clandestine proliferation.
Naturally, the IAEA has not since fulfilled its part of the bargain, as
mandated by the concluding paragraph of the work plan, which stipulated the
normalization of Iran's file. It has instead sung the US's tune of new
"outstanding issues" caused by fresh evidence "provided by several countries",
pertaining to "alleged weaponization studies".
Iran has reacted in kind, showing its displeasure at the agency's weaknesses,
not to mention the IAEA's foray to the no-man's land of setting forth the
unreasonable demand that Iran must prove the absence of such a weapons program.
Such excessive, unreasonable demands must be limited by the IAEA, which must
stick to the terms of its bilateral inspection and verification standards.
Concerning the latter, various Iranian officials have hinted that Iran may be
willing to re-adopt the intrusive Additional Protocol (AP) of the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), if Iran's file is brought back from the UN
Security Council and treated as "normal" at the IAEA. No doubt, if Iran is
presented with the carrot of an end to UN sanctions and a just treatment of its
nuclear dossier, the Iranian government's willingness to embrace the IAEA's
demands for greater nuclear transparency via the AP is almost guaranteed.
Unfortunately, such tangible, perfectly reachable goals, which would be
tantamount to a mutually satisfactory solution of the Iran nuclear standoff,
are held back by relentless nuclear suspicions that are, as stated above,
partly fueled by various experts.
They may be apt in cold calculations of how many kilograms of low-enriched
uranium are needed to build a bomb, yet are wide off the mark when concluding
this means Iran is "marching toward" nuclear weapons.
Their leap of faith is undermined by the robust IAEA inspection regime in place
at Natanz and other nuclear facilities in Iran, as well as by the IAEA's
declared confidence that it has been able to "continue to confirm the absence
of any diversion". This is not to mention the IAEA's other important admission
that it has not detected any diversion of nuclear material toward the "alleged
The fact is that Iran's breakout incapability, constantly ignored by the
Western experts and pundits alike, is highlighted by Iran's pattern of nuclear
transparency and cooperation with the IAEA. It is a sheer error on the part of
Albright, Jacqueline Shirer, Paul Brannon, and other nuclear experts in the US
and Europe, to minimize or undervalue the IAEA's current ability to detect any
Iranian steps toward a nuclear breakout.
This does not wash, and a more strident effort on the part of these experts to
align their analyses and reports with the NPT legal standards is called for.
Their present call for more economic sanctions on Iran, simply because it is
legally pursuing nuclear fuel production, remains unjustified.
Indeed, an alternative report that puts the emphasis on the constraints of the
path to breakout is necessary, as it would confirm Iran's obverse breakout
incapability. This incapability is cemented by the nation's official ideology,
religious fatwas, and national security doctrines which are all averse towards
the nuclear weapon.
After all, Iran is still a revolutionary state that does not operate by the
typical standards found in Western models of governance, but if it wanted to
Tehran would have resorted to chemical weapons in response to Iraq's use of
chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Similarly, with Saddam Hussein's threat gone, and Iran's neighboring nuclear
powers perpetually locked on other adversaries, Iran is not so threatened as to
race for a deterrent nuclear capability. This is heart of the problem with the
seemingly enlightened calls for a new US approach toward Iran. As long as such
calls are premised on the notion of a nuclearizing Iran, it hampers the
potential of any dialogue for a meaningful breakthrough in stalemated US-Iran
A housecleaning of faulty assumptions and hypothetical notions are the real
preconditions for restoring the health of US-Iran relations, otherwise nuclear
suspicion will continue to reign, feeding this unnecessary crisis in
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.