Mohammad Hasan Aboutorabifard, foreground, and other Iranian lawmakers during their visit to the Isfahan uranium conversion facility, October 24, 2004. (AP Photo ISNA/Kholosi)
This week's Q & A is with Henry D. Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization founded in l994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues.
How close is Iran to developing nuclear weapons?
Iran already has all the know-how and hardware it needs to make highly enriched uranium (HEU) and could make a workable gun-device bomb without testing it. All it lacks now is a sufficient amount of HEU (i.e., conservatively, 20 kilograms of material). If Iran operated the 1,000 or so uranium enrichment centrifuges they have on hand, they could produce this amount of material in about a year from the uranium hexafluoride they have stockpiled. Of course, if they have already partially enriched uranium covertly or have additional undeclared centrifuges hidden away, their timeline to a bomb would be shorter.
What are the possible ramifications of Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons?
As it becomes clearer that Iran is nuclear-ready -- i.e., that it can acquire a bomb within a matter of days or weeks -- pressures will build for its neighbors to acquire nuclear weapons options of their own. Saudi Arabia has already let it be known that it is studying the option of acquiring nuclear weapons from a foreign source (possibly from China or Pakistan). Syria and Egypt are both suspected of conducting laboratory level production of nuclear weapon fuels. Also, Algeria and Egypt both have large research reactors that could produce nearly a bomb's worth of plutonium annually. Meanwhile, Turkey and Iraq, both retain a good number of nuclear engineers. As for Israel, it is unlikely to keep quiet about its weapons stockpile if any of its neighbors actually declare. Once Israel goes overt, though, it will only further inflame the nuclear ambitions of its neighbors. Together these developments could create a nuclear 1914 scenario for the Middle East -- a large number of competing states with a first-strike military potential to wipe each other out and little or no ability to defend themselves.
What do you believe are the most effective methods for reducing the potential damage a nuclear Iran might inflict?
The worst harm a nuclear-ready Iran could inflict is establishing that it has a legal right to come within days of having a bomb and, beyond this, that it can leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) with impunity. If Iran gets away with either of these propositions, its nuclear behavior will be a model that all other would-be bomb makers will follow. What is worse, this model will be one that will be nearly impossible to fight diplomatically. To head off this prospect, the U.S., its partners, and the IAEA Board of Governors first need to challenge Iran's claim that it has a legal right to come within a screw driver's turn of a large arsenal's worth of nuclear weapons material. Certainly, the only right any non-weapons state has to develop nuclear energy under the NPT is if it is for "peaceful purposes" and such nuclear activities must be able to be safeguarded to verify against possible military diversions. If the IAEA and the NPT are to have any future, these qualifications need to be amplified and explicated. Second, the U.S. and all other like-minded nations need to start arguing publicly that no country, Iran included, can threaten to leave the NPT, and do so after accumulating the fruits of nuclear peaceful cooperation under false pretenses, without being branded an international outlaw.
What are the goals of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has it been effective in checking Iran's nuclear ambitions?
The goals of the NPT have always been to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons directly or "indirectly." It has failed recently because it has been incorrectly viewed by too many nations as guaranteeing all states -- including those the IAEA cannot clearly find to be in full compliance with their treaty obligations -- full access to all the nuclear technology they need to come within days of having a bomb. Unless this view is reversed, Iran and others will be able to use the NPT to help pursue and justify dangerous nuclear activities.
Explain what you mean when you suggest "country-neutral" rules for NPT violators. Why are they necessary? Has treatment of Iran been unique in the case of nuclear weapons?
The U.S. and its partners have over used precision-guided diplomacy to isolate the bad nuclear behavior of hostile states. We want to stop their misbehavior by putting pressure on them, but we don't want our efforts to have any collateral effect against others engaged in similar behavior. Thus, we objected to Iran getting light water reactors even though we helped South Korea build virtually identical machines for North Korea. More recently, we have complained about Iran enriching uranium and how economically inexplicable this is while giving Brazil a green light to start up a similarly uneconomical plant, which is subject to many fewer inspections than is Iran's program. Such inconsistencies, over time, undermine the credibility of any effort to enforce the rules. It also would be useful to develop rules that nuclear weapons nations outside of the NPT -- Israel, Pakistan, and India -- could uphold. As long as there are double and triple standards regarding nuclear nonproliferation, too many states will come to believe that there are no standards at all.
What are weaknesses or vulnerabilities that might be exploited to encourage Iran's compliance?
Iran is very anxious not to be branded as a violator of international laws. This would show up the current set of rulers as being reckless and jeopardizing Iran's chance to attract foreign investment to develop Iran's sick economy. What Iran wants is the diplomatic respect of a nuclear weapons state without the penalties that would come if they are branded as violators of the NPT. It is this vulnerability that the U.S. and its partners need to exploit first.