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    Middle East
     Dec 6, 2008
Iran's breakout incapability
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

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 reliance on


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. [1] 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." [2] 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 Iran?

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 missing.

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 regime.

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 weaponization studies".

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 relations.

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 international affairs

1. See Jon Kyl: Next Steps with Iran National Ledger, December 1, 2008.
2. Has Iran Achieved a Nuclear Weapons Breakout Capability? Not Yet, But Soon. Institute for Science and International Security, December 2, 2008.

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 latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

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