How To Counter Iran’s Nuclear Threat

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
Michael A. Levi

September 24, 2003

The U.S. and Europe are united in their opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran and, unlike with Iraq, their strategies for ensuring Tehran does not succeed are slowly converging. Yet, despite their united front at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) this month, critical differences persist. The U.S. is putting pressure on Iran to accept expanded international inspections, using a policy of confrontation and threats.

Europe is more ambitious—it wants a permanent halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and intrusive inspections—and is offering Tehran co-operation on its civil nuclear programme if it agrees. Europe and the U.S. have both identified elements of the right strategy but their individual approaches are incomplete. A successful strategy must combine Europe’s ambitious goals and incentives with the American-style threat of coercive action should engagement fail.

Thanks to effective IAEA inspections in recent months Iran’s violations of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) are clear. The IAEA report on these inspections, though it fails to accuse Tehran directly of violating the treaty, concludes that “some of the information [provided by Iran] was in contrast to that previously provided by Iran” to the IAEA. Translation: if Iran was not lying to the IAEA before, it is lying now. And that, regardless of the finer details of the NPT, is a transparent and disturbing violation.

Iran’s changes of mind and obfuscation extend across its nuclear programme. In June, it claimed never to have experimented with converting uranium, an important step in producing bomb-grade material; the IAEA now says Iran has admitted to precisely such experimentation. In June, Iran claimed that its nuclear technology was indigenous; the IAEA now says Iran has admitted to importing much of its equipment from abroad. In June, Iran claimed to have tested its uranium centrifuges with inert gas, which might have been substituted for banned uranium; the IAEA says Iran has now stepped back from that claim, leading agency experts to conclude that Iran’s current enrichment technology could have been developed to its present level only if the process had been tested with uranium.

This pattern of deceit shows the shortcomings of any non-proliferation strategy that rests solely on trusting Iran. Yet this is precisely the idea embodied in the much-applauded IAEA resolution this month, which demanded that Iran accept an additional protocol to the NPT as a way of bolstering the IAEA’s inspection powers.

Such expanded “any time, anywhere” inspection powers will make it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its weapons activities in secret but will do nothing to stop it continuing such activities openly. As long as it declares what it is doing, Tehran can produce enough highly enriched uranium for scores of nuclear bombs without having to withdraw from the NPT. By focusing on getting Tehran to sign up to the extra protocol, the IAEA’s main strategy (pushed strongly by Washington) rests on trusting that Iran, having produced a stockpile of weapons material, will not withdraw from the NPT and convert it into bombs.

Iran’s clear violation of its nuclear non-proliferation obligations, then, cannot be resolved merely with additional inspections. It will also have to give up its uranium-enrichment capabilities. It must dismantle the production infrastructure, cease its research and development activities and grant the IAEA full access under the additional protocol to ensure its full compliance. Interestingly, Britain, France and Germany understand that more inspections are not enough, which explains their recent offer to Iran to assist in the development of its civil nuclear programme provided it abandons its enrichment programme. Washington should join its European partners and make clear that eliminating the programme represents the only acceptable resolution to the current confrontation. Washington should also support Europe’s attempt to induce Iranian compliance by wielding carrots as well as sticks.

Europe and America should be careful not to give too much it would be unwise to restore full diplomatic and economic relations without also tackling Iran’s continuing support for international terrorism. Europe must join the U.S. in making clear that Iran has no choice; the enrichment programme will have to go. Should carrots fail to persuade Tehran to comply, the alternative is cutting off economic and political relations, with the understanding that bombing its nuclear facilities is an option of last resort.

So far, Washington and its European allies have avoided a repeat of their differences over Iraq in confronting the danger from Iran. A truly effective strategy, however, will require both to do more. This time, failure to agree may have disastrous consequences.