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Why America’s Obsession With Iran’s Centrifuges Could Give Tehran the Bomb

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Why America’s Obsession With Iran’s Centrifuges Could Give Tehran the Bomb

http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2015/02/why-our-obsession-irans-centrifuges-could-give-them-bomb/105660/?oref=d-river

February 19, 2015 By Joseph Cirincione


The fixation with Iran’s machines diverts us from the real threat.

Over the past two years, dozens of politicians and prognosticators
have drawn various redlines that Iran should not cross lest it be “a
screwdriver turn away from having a nuclear weapon,” as Sen. Bob
Corker, R-Tenn., said last week.



Author

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of
Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late. Full Bio

Mostly they focus on centrifuges, the water-heater-sized machines used
to enrich uranium. You can understand why. Centrifuges are part of the
elaborate process used to turn uranium ore into the metal core of
atomic bombs. They are perhaps the most quantifiable part of the
process. They are discrete objects that can be numbered.

And that is what we do. We count things. It is one of the first skills
we teach our children. It helps us put a little order in the universe.
How many kids in the classroom? How many votes to elect a president?
How many stars in the sky?

We can easily count centrifuges. Anyone with a computer can come up
with an estimate of how many centrifuges Iran needs to make the
material for a bomb. Just search Google for “Iranian centrifuges.” The
very first hit is an article produced by the publication Iran Watch
that “estimates how soon Iran could fuel a nuclear weapon.”

By using the approximately 9,000 first generation centrifuges
operating at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, Iran could
theoretically produce enough weapon-grade uranium to fuel a single
nuclear warhead in about 1.7 months.

There you go. To limit Iran’s weapon potential, cut the number of
centrifuges. No more than 10,000 say some. No more than 4,000 say
others. Between 3,000 and 4,000 say still others. Even 1,000 could be
too many, claims Ollie Heinonen, a Harvard University expert.

It is a simple metric for success. And it is wrong.

There are, in fact, many ways to limit Iran’s ability to make a
nuclear weapon. Centrifuges are just one factor in the equation.

How a Fuel Becomes a Bomb

There are multiple, industrial steps in the enrichment process,
including mining the uranium ore, purifying it into a powder known as
yellow cake, mixing that powder into a gas and then spinning that gas
in centrifuges.

The centrifuges increase the ratio of the fissile isotope,
Uranium-235, from the natural ratio of less than 1 atom in 100 to
about 5 in 100, or 5 percent enriched uranium. At about that
concentration, the U-235 atoms are close enough together that they can
sustain a chain reaction.

You can stop the process there, turn that gas into powder again,
process the powder into fuel pellets, form the pellets into rods,
insert the rods into a reactor and use the heat from the fission to
turn water into steam that spins turbines, generating electricity.
About 20 percent of the electricity in the United States is produced
in exactly that way.

The problem is that the same centrifuges that enrich uranium for fuel
can also enrich the uranium for the core of a bomb. With some
reconfiguration, the same centrifuges can keep going to 70 or 90
percent U-235, or weapons-grade. At that concentration, it only takes
about 50 pounds of the material to ensure that a single neutron
hitting a single atom will trigger an uncontrollable chain reaction,
unleashing in a microsecond enough energy to destroy a city. That is
why centrifuges are so important.

Most countries that have nuclear power reactors do not have
centrifuges. They buy their fuel from the handful of countries that
make it, including the U.S., Canada, Russia and European consortium
known as URENCO. Russia, which is constructing Iran’s power reactors,
is happy to sell Iran the fuel and dispose of it when it is spent. But
Iran says it wants to make its own fuel to ensure a steady supply. The
question is: do you trust them?  Clearly, we do not.

Zero is a fantasy, and you can blame President George W. Bush’s
administration for that.

The deal now being negotiated between Iran and the six countries known
as the P5+1 (the U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia, China and
Germany) will reportedly cap the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed
to keep. Israeli officials appear to have leaked to the press
confidential information provided them by the U.S. that places the
number at around 6,500 to 7,000 centrifuges. This would be a sharp
drop from the 20,000 machines Iran now has. But that is still too many
for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is demanding zero
centrifuges.

(Related: Iran Sanctions Showdown Is Drawing New Battlelines in Congress)

Zero is a fantasy, and you can blame President George W. Bush’s
administration for that. It may have been possible to convince Iran to
dismantle all its centrifuges when it had only a few dozen in 2003 and
first offered to talk to the U.S.. Or in 2005, when it had a few
hundred and was in talks with the European Union. But the Bush
administration spurned any deal. “We don’t negotiate with evil,” said
Vice President Dick Cheney, “We defeat it.” As a result, the talks
collapsed and Iran went from zero centrifuges installed at the
beginning of the Bush administration to about 6,000 at the end.

There is not a political leader in Iran today that could agree to
completely dismantle its nuclear fuel complex. But some, including
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, seem ready to sharply limit it. The
key to a solid deal is to couple limits on the number of centrifuges
with other limits that prevent Iran from quickly building a bomb
should it break the deal.

Break Out

The easiest way to do this is to limit the quality and amount of
uranium gas that Iran has to feed into the centrifuges. Netanyahu,
with his famous cartoon bomb at the United Nations in 2012, warned
that Iran was near his redline because it would soon have enough 20
percent enriched uranium gas to feed back into the centrifuges and
produce enough highly-enriched uranium, or HEU, for a bomb. Some
experts warned in early 2013, “We estimate that Iran, on its current
trajectory, will by mid-2014 be able to dash to fissile material in
one to two weeks unless its production of 20 percent-enriched uranium
is curtailed.”

Its production was curtailed. This is no longer a threat.  The interim
deal negotiated by the P5+1 in November 2013 effectively drained
Netanyahu’s bomb. Iran has eliminated its stockpile of 20 percent
uranium gas and has stopped making any more.

But it still has over 8,000 kilograms of uranium gas enriched up to 5
percent purity. If Iran were to feed that gas back into its operating
centrifuges, it would theoretically take between 2 to 4 months to
refine it into enough HEU gas needed to make the core for one weapon.

A solid deal would greatly reduce the amount of uranium gas Iran is
allowed to keep on hand. It would also prevent Iran from replacing its
current, inefficient model of centrifuges with newer designs, limit
the production capabilities of the existing cascades and put in place
tough, new inspection regimes that could detect any cheating. Experts
at the Arms Control Association estimate that:

By reducing Iran’s current operating enrichment capacity by half,
combined with a significant reduction in the size of Iran’s low
enriched-uranium stocks and conversion to more proliferation-resistant
oxide form (or removal to a third country), the time it would take
Iran to produce enough weapons-grade enriched-uranium gas for one
nuclear weapon would grow to nine to 12 months.

The goal of such limits, as former State Department official and Iran
negotiator Robert Einhorn explains, is to ensure that:

…the timeframe between the initiation of breakout and the production
of enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more weapons is as long as
possible; and that once breakout is detected, the international
community will have the will, the capability, and the time to take
effective action, including the use of military force, to prevent the
acquisition of enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

So, how much time?  This is something else we can count. In general,
critics of the negotiations have insisted that there be at least 6 to
12 months time.

Do we really need a year to respond?

Mark Fitzpatrick, non-proliferation director at the International
Institute for Strategic Studies says no:

“The breakout factor is not the all-consuming issue in London that it
seems to be in Washington. In the negotiations, the British go along
with the other members of the E3+3 on the timeline calculations, but
are realistic about the human factors and operational troubles that
Iran would experience if it tried to produce 90 percent HEU. Given
these practicalities, what might be characterized on paper as a
six-month breakout period in a negotiated deal would actually be
longer.”

In other words, estimates of breakout times measured in months or
weeks assume that everything goes right and nothing goes wrong – a
condition that rarely exists in the real world. Many, many things have
gone wrong in the Iranian program over the decades; nuclear research
began over 60 years ago during the time of the Shah.

Even in the worst case, Iran would just have the material for one
bomb. It could take an additional 6 months to a year to turn that
material into an actual weapon. But it would still have just one
weapon. No country has ever “broken out” with only one weapon, raising
serious doubts about this entire scenario.

There is no practical difference between a deal that provides for a
six-month breakout period and one that provides for 12 months.
Mark Fitzpatrick, non-proliferation director at the International
Institute for Strategic Studies

Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar criticizes “the fixation” on breakout
times. “The difference between, say, six months and a year is
meaningless,” he says, “when any conceivable response, including
military attack as well as enactment of the most debilitating possible
sanctions, could be accomplished within a couple of weeks.”

Could we actually detect and act on a break out in that short a time?
Currently, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or
IAEA, are allowed daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities, thanks
to the interim agreement. Inspection procedures will certainly
intensify under any final deal.

With inspectors, cameras, seals, inventory controls, tracking of
scientists, monitoring of production from the time uranium is taken as
an ore from the mines to when it is stored as a gas in cylinders, any
move to switch from producing low- to high-enriched uranium would
likely be detected within a day or two. It would take another day or
two to report this to the IAEA, a few days for the board to convene
and pass a resolution, then another few days for the UN Security
Council to engage. Total time could indeed be a couple of weeks.

But the global response is just one of the factors deterring Iran from
violating a final deal. If Iran were caught cheating, “U.S. bombers
could be overhead to stop it within 24 hours,” says Fitzpatrick, “This
is a strong deterrent against such a breakout option. So there is no
practical difference between a deal that provides for a six-month
breakout period and one that provides for 12 months.”

The Real Threat

It is not break out that should worry us. It’s the break down. It
appears that Netanyahu is trying to engineer a collapse of the talks.
He is pushing the Senate to adopt new sanctions on Iran that the head
of Israeli intelligence said would be “like throwing a grenade into
the process.” The idea, according to some supporters of this plan, is
to cause a crisis in the negotiations, so that the deal now being
discussed would collapse and talks would resume some time later,
presumably with Iran in a weaker position.

Some don’t want any deal at all. “The end of these negotiations isn’t
an unintended consequence of congressional action,” admitted Sen. Tom
Cotton, R-Ark. “It is very much an intended consequence — a feature,
not a bug.”

The break down of the talks at this stage would lead to the worst of
all possible worlds. It would repeat the flawed strategy of the Bush
administration. Rather than increasing pressure on Iran, it would
decrease it. The U.S. would be seen as the reason for the collapse.
Global support for the international sanctions regime would wither.
Restraints on Iran’s commerce would dwindle and its oil sales and
revenues climb. The interim deal would be dissolved and Iran, freed of
restraints, could increase its production capabilities without limit.

The end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of
congressional action.It is very much an intended consequence — a
feature, not a bug.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Iran could increase its supply of enriched uranium and bring on-line
more and newer centrifuges. It could move ahead full speed on a
plutonium production reactor that provides another pathway to a bomb.
And, without inspectors in the country, it might build new secret
facilities, opening up yet another pathway. Its theoretical break out
time would go from the current 2 or three months to two or three
weeks.

In short, as Ilan Goldenberg and Robert Kaplan point out, the United
States would be forced “to choose between two terrible options both of
which are much costlier than the status quo — pursuing military action
against Iran or accepting a nuclear-armed Iran.”

It appears that an agreement to verifiably confine Iran’s nuclear
program is within reach. It could put Iran’s nuclear program in an
iron box with a camera on it. It is not without risk, but every deal
has risks.

Whatever uncertainties a negotiated agreement may bring would still be
far more manageable than the uncontrollable consequences of a new war
in the Middle East and an unconstrained Iran.









http://www.manilatimes.net/kerry-zarif-to-meet-for-nuclear-talks/164883/

Kerry, Zarif to meet for nuclear talks

February 22, 2015 9:09 pm

GENEVA: United States Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Geneva
on Sunday for renewed talks with his Iranian counterpart on Tehran’s
nuclear program, after warning “significant gaps” remain as a key
deadline approaches.

World powers are trying to strike a deal with Iran that would prevent
Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb in return for an easing of
punishing international economic sanctions.

Kerry is set to sit down for two days of talks with Iranian Foreign
Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose country denies its nuclear
program has military objectives.

The US top diplomat on Saturday warned that major differences remained
between the two sides.

“There are still significant gaps, there is still a distance to
travel,” Kerry told a press conference at the US embassy in London.

There is a heightened sense of urgency to move forward as the clock
ticks down towards a March 31 deadline to agree on a political
framework for the deal.

“President [Barack] Obama has no inclination whatsoever to extend
these talks beyond the period that has been set out,” Kerry said.

US and Iranian diplomats have been meeting in Geneva since Friday, and
senior negotiators from the so-called P5+1 group of Britain, China,
France, Russia, the United States and Germany were also expected to
meet on Sunday to help drive the talks forward.

Kerry stressed on Saturday that there was “absolutely no divergence
whatsoever in what we believe is necessary for Iran to prove that its
nuclear program is going to be peaceful.”

“The P5+1 remains united on the subject of Iran,” he said.

As a sign that efforts were stepping up a notch, US Energy Secretary
Ernest Moniz flew in to snow-covered Geneva on Saturday to take part
in the talks for the first time.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the director of the Iranian Atomic Energy
Organization, was also participating in the negotiations.

The two officials and their delegations spent five hours at the
negotiating table on Saturday, Iranian media reported.

Observers said Moniz and Salehi’s participation was a promising sign
that a deal could be within reach.

Kelsey Davenport, head of the Nonproliferation Policy Arms Control
Association in Washington, pointed out in an email to Agence
France-Presse that Moniz with his technical expertise would “be a key
validator when a deal is concluded.”

And Salehi, who plays a similar role, would “likely be instrumental in
selling the agreement in Tehran,” he added.

But Kerry played down any suggestion that their participation meant
the talks were on the verge of a breakthrough.

“I would not read into it any indication whatsoever,” he said, adding
that Moniz was present because of the “technical” nature of the talks.

Salehi arrived early on Saturday with Zarif and Hossein Fereydoun, the
brother and special aid to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, to help
coordinate the talks, Iranian media reported.









http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/americas-damaging-obsession-with-irans-centrifuges/385687/

America's Damaging Obsession With Iran's Centrifuges

And how it could result in Tehran getting the bomb
Joseph Cirincione Feb 20 2015, 10:43 AM ET

An official from Iran's Atomic Energy Organization standing in front
uranium-enriching centrifuges. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

Over the past two years, dozens of politicians and prognosticators
have drawn various red lines that Iran should not cross lest it be “a
screwdriver turn away from having a nuclear weapon,” as Senator Bob
Corker, the Tennessee Republican, said last week.

Mostly they focus on centrifuges, the water-heater-sized machines used
to enrich uranium. You can understand why. Centrifuges are part of the
elaborate process used to turn uranium ore into the metal core of
atomic bombs. They are perhaps the most quantifiable part of the
process. They are discrete objects that can be numbered.

And that is what we do. We count things. It is one of the first skills
we teach our children. It helps us put a little order in the universe.
How many kids in the classroom? How many votes to elect a president?
How many stars in the sky?

We can easily count centrifuges. Anyone with a computer can come up
with an estimate of how many centrifuges Iran needs to make the
material for a bomb. Just search Google for “Iranian centrifuges.” The
very first hit is an article produced by the publication Iran Watch
that “estimates how soon Iran could fuel a nuclear weapon.”

By using the approximately 9,000 first generation centrifuges
operating at its Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, Iran could
theoretically produce enough weapon-grade uranium to fuel a single
nuclear warhead in about 1.7 months.

There you go. To limit Iran’s weapon potential, cut the number of
centrifuges. No more than 10,000, say some. No more than 4,000, say
others. Between 3,000 and 4,000, say still others. Even 1,000 could be
too many, claims Harvard's Olli Heinonen.

It is a simple metric for success. And it is wrong.

There are, in fact, many ways to limit Iran’s ability to make a
nuclear weapon. Centrifuges are just one factor in the equation.

* * *

There are multiple, industrial steps in the enrichment process,
including mining the uranium ore, purifying it into a powder known as
yellow cake, mixing that powder into a gas and then spinning that gas
in centrifuges.

The centrifuges increase the ratio of the fissile isotope,
Uranium-235, from the natural ratio of less than 1 atom in 100 to
about 5 in 100, or 5 percent enriched uranium. At about that
concentration, the U-235 atoms are close enough together that they can
sustain a chain reaction.

You can stop the process there, turn that gas into powder again,
process the powder into fuel pellets, form the pellets into rods,
insert the rods into a reactor, and use the heat from the fission to
turn water into steam that spins turbines, generating electricity.
About 20 percent of the electricity in the United States is produced
in exactly that way.

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The problem is that the same centrifuges that enrich uranium for fuel
can also enrich the uranium for the core of a bomb. With some
reconfiguration, the same centrifuges can keep going to 70 or 90
percent U-235, or weapons-grade. At that concentration, it only takes
about 50 pounds of the material to ensure that a single neutron
hitting a single atom will trigger an uncontrollable chain reaction,
unleashing in a microsecond enough energy to destroy a city. That is
why centrifuges are so important.

Most countries that have nuclear power reactors do not have
centrifuges. They buy their fuel from the handful of countries that
make it, including the U.S., Canada, Russia, and a European consortium
known as URENCO. Russia, which is constructing Iran’s power reactors,
is happy to sell Iran the fuel and dispose of it when it is spent. But
Iran says it wants to make its own fuel to ensure a steady supply. The
question is: Do you trust them? Clearly, we do not.

The deal now being negotiated between Iran and the six countries known
as the P5+1 (the U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and
Germany) will reportedly cap the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed
to keep. Israeli officials appear to have leaked to the press
confidential information provided them by the U.S. that places the
number at around 6,500 to 7,000 centrifuges. This would be a sharp
drop from the 20,000 machines Iran now has. But that is still too many
for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is demanding zero
centrifuges.

Zero is a fantasy, and you can blame President George W. Bush’s
administration for that. It may have been possible to convince Iran to
dismantle all its centrifuges when it had only a few dozen in 2003 and
first offered to talk to the U.S. Or in 2005, when it had a few
hundred and was in talks with the European Union. But the Bush
administration spurned any deal. “We don’t negotiate with evil,” said
Vice President Dick Cheney. “We defeat it.” As a result, the talks
collapsed and Iran went from zero centrifuges installed at the
beginning of the Bush administration to about 6,000 at the end.

There is not a political leader in Iran today that could agree to
completely dismantle its nuclear fuel complex. But some, including
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, seem ready to sharply limit it. The
key to a solid deal is to couple limits on the number of centrifuges
with other limits that prevent Iran from quickly building a bomb
should it break the deal.

* * *

The easiest way to do this is to limit the quality and amount of
uranium gas that Iran has to feed into the centrifuges. Netanyahu,
with his famous cartoon bomb at the United Nations in 2012, warned
that Iran was near his red line because it would soon have enough 20
percent-enriched uranium gas to feed back into the centrifuges and
produce enough highly enriched uranium, or HEU, for a bomb. Some
experts warned in early 2013, “We estimate that Iran, on its current
trajectory, will by mid-2014 be able to dash to fissile material in
one to two weeks unless its production of 20 percent-enriched uranium
is curtailed.”

Its production was curtailed. This is no longer a threat.  The interim
deal negotiated by the P5+1 in November 2013 effectively drained
Netanyahu’s bomb. Iran has eliminated its stockpile of 20-percent
uranium gas and has stopped making any more.

But it still has over 8,000 kilograms of uranium gas enriched up to 5
percent purity. If Iran were to feed that gas back into its operating
centrifuges, it would theoretically take between 2 to 4 months to
refine it into enough HEU gas needed to make the core for one weapon.

A solid deal would greatly reduce the amount of uranium gas Iran is
allowed to keep on hand. It would also prevent Iran from replacing its
current, inefficient model of centrifuges with newer designs, limit
the production capabilities of the existing cascades and put in place
tough, new inspection regimes that could detect any cheating. Experts
at the Arms Control Association estimate that:

By reducing Iran’s current operating enrichment capacity by half,
combined with a significant reduction in the size of Iran’s low
enriched-uranium stocks and conversion to more proliferation-resistant
oxide form (or removal to a third country), the time it would take
Iran to produce enough weapons-grade enriched-uranium gas for one
nuclear weapon would grow to nine to 12 months.

The goal of such limits, as former State Department official and Iran
negotiator Robert Einhorn explains, is to ensure that:

… the timeframe between the initiation of breakout and the production
of enough weapons-grade uranium for one or more weapons is as long as
possible; and that once breakout is detected, the international
community will have the will, the capability, and the time to take
effective action, including the use of military force, to prevent the
acquisition of enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

So, how much time?  This is something else we can count. In general,
critics of the negotiations have insisted that there be at least 6 to
12 months time.

Do we really need a year to respond?

Mark Fitzpatrick, nonproliferation director at the International
Institute for Strategic Studies says no:

The breakout factor is not the all-consuming issue in London that it
seems to be in Washington. In the negotiations, the British go along
with the other members of the [P5+1] on the timeline calculations, but
are realistic about the human factors and operational troubles that
Iran would experience if it tried to produce 90 percent HEU. Given
these practicalities, what might be characterized on paper as a
six-month breakout period in a negotiated deal would actually be
longer.

In other words, estimates of breakout times measured in months or
weeks assume that everything goes right and nothing goes wrong—a
condition that rarely exists in the real world. Many, many things have
gone wrong in the Iranian program over the decades; nuclear research
began over 60 years ago during the time of the Shah.

Even in the worst case, Iran would just have the material for one
bomb. It could take an additional 6 months to a year to turn that
material into an actual weapon. But it would still have just one
weapon. No country has ever “broken out” with only one weapon, raising
serious doubts about this entire scenario.

Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar criticizes “the fixation” on breakout
times. “The difference between, say, six months and a year is
meaningless,” he says, “when any conceivable response, including
military attack as well as enactment of the most debilitating possible
sanctions, could be accomplished within a couple of weeks.”

* * *

Could we actually detect and act on a breakout in that short a time?
Currently, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or
IAEA, are allowed daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities, thanks
to the interim agreement. Inspection procedures will certainly
intensify under any final deal.

With inspectors, cameras, seals, inventory controls, tracking of
scientists, monitoring of production from the time uranium is taken as
an ore from the mines to when it is stored as a gas in cylinders, any
move to switch from producing low- to high-enriched uranium would
likely be detected within a day or two. It would take another day or
two to report this to the IAEA, a few days for the board to convene
and pass a resolution, then another few days for the UN Security
Council to engage. Total time could indeed be a couple of weeks.

But the global response is just one of the factors deterring Iran from
violating a final deal. If Iran were caught cheating, “U.S.bombers
could be overhead to stop it within 24 hours,” says Fitzpatrick, “This
is a strong deterrent against such a breakout option. So there is no
practical difference between a deal that provides for a six-month
breakout period and one that provides for 12 months.”

It is not breakout that should worry us. It’s the breakdown.

It is not breakout that should worry us. It’s the breakdown. It
appears that Netanyahu is trying to engineer a collapse of the talks.
He is pushing the Senate to adopt new sanctions on Iran that the head
of Israeli intelligence said would be “like throwing a grenade into
the process.” The idea, according to some supporters of this plan, is
to cause a crisis in the negotiations, so that the deal now being
discussed would collapse and talks would resume some time later,
presumably with Iran in a weaker position.

Some don’t want any deal at all. “The end of these negotiations isn’t
an unintended consequence of congressional action,” admitted Senator
Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican. “It is very much an intended
consequence—a feature, not a bug.”

The breakdown of the talks at this stage would lead to the worst of
all possible worlds. It would repeat the flawed strategy of the Bush
administration. Rather than increasing pressure on Iran, it would
decrease it. The U.S. would be seen as the reason for the collapse.
Global support for the international sanctions regime would wither.
Restraints on Iran’s commerce would dwindle and its oil sales and
revenues would climb. The interim deal would be dissolved and Iran,
freed of restraints, could increase its production capabilities
without limit.

Iran could increase its supply of enriched uranium and bring online
more and newer centrifuges. It could move ahead full speed on a
plutonium production reactor that provides another pathway to a bomb.
And, without inspectors in the country, it might build new secret
facilities, opening up yet another pathway. Its theoretical breakout
time would go from the current two or three months to two or three
weeks.

In short, as Ilan Goldenberg and Robert Kaplan point out, the United
States would be forced “to choose between two terrible options both of
which are much costlier than the status quo—pursuing military action
against Iran or accepting a nuclear-armed Iran.”

It appears that an agreement to verifiably confine Iran’s nuclear
program is within reach. It could put Iran’s nuclear program in an
iron box with a camera on it. It is not without risk, but every deal
has risks.

Whatever uncertainties a negotiated agreement may bring would still be
far more manageable than the uncontrollable consequences of a new war
in the Middle East and an unconstrained Iran.











http://thebulletin.org/how-does-religion-really-influence-iranian-nuclear-policy7820#.VOk6qzkYLz8.twitter


How does religion really influence Iranian nuclear policy?

Ariane Tabatabai

Tabatabai_Ariane.jpg

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai is a visiting assistant professor in the Security
Studies Program at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown...

One of the most enduring myths about post-revolutionary Iran is that
the country’s policies, including those on nuclear matters, are shaped
by its leadership’s obsession with martyrdom and Messianic ideals.
Many observers, especially in the arms control community, base their
analyses on this notion, and it leads to some harrowing conclusions.
If, after all, a country’s stance is basically suicidal, there’s no
telling what it would do with a nuclear weapon. A careful and more
nuanced look at the role of religion in Iranian decision-making,
though, debunks the idea that martyrdom rules in Tehran, and gives a
much more realistic basis for understanding the regime’s behavior.

To be sure, there are reasons why some analysts see the Iranian
government as driven by martyrdom. The idea originated with the
1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, which helped shape the Iranian psyche and the
image of the Islamic Republic in the world. During the war, Iran
famously launched a series of “human wave attacks,” sending untrained
and unprepared men (and occasionally boys) to the front, sometimes
through minefields, to clear the way for the trained forces. This
tactic went hand-in-hand with the notion of martyrdom, with members of
this ill-equipped vanguard promised a place in paradise if they gave
their lives for God and country. Mental images of young boys wearing
plastic “keys to paradise” around their necks and running across
minefields have haunted the war’s observers, and though whether such
keys actually existed remains controversial, the picture lingers and
contributes to perceptions of Iran.

Much later, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad probably encouraged
the notion of martyrdom’s importance in politics with rhetoric deemed
bizarre. For instance, in 2005 he said that some delegates at the
United Nations General Assembly had seen a “halo” around his head.
During his 2005-2013 presidency, Iranians joked that Ahmadinejad would
always put out an extra plate at his table for the “Mahdi.”

Shia Muslims believe that the Mahdi, born in the ninth century and
also known as the Hidden Imam or the Twelfth Imam, is the Prophet
Mohammed’s last legitimate successor. They believe that he has gone
into occultation—the state of being blocked from view—but will
eventually return, much as Christians believe that Jesus Christ will
return some day. According to Shia belief, the Hidden Imam will
reappear along with Christ and together they will restore peace and
justice, saving the world from the chaos into which it would otherwise
descend.

The notions of martyrdom and “Mahdism” have led many to extrapolate
that the Iranian leadership’s actions are governed by an inherent
suicidal tendency and a willingness to cause chaos, even if it’s
self-destructive, in order to facilitate the Mahdi’s return. But if
one goes beyond the revolutionary rhetoric and examines the Islamic
Republic’s actions, one realizes that more often than not, Tehran is
driven by national or regime interests, rather than pure ideology and
belief. In fact, Iran’s rulers often use ideology as a means, and do
not see it as an end. It’s true that the regime sometimes makes
decisions that seem irrational to outside observers. But this is not
generally due to religious belief but rather to the fact that the
regime’s interests and the national interest do not align—for example,
Iran and Israel have many common strategic interests, yet Tehran has
adopted anti-Israeli rhetoric and policies since the 1979 revolution.
This stance may not serve national interests, but it certainly
advances the Islamic Republic’s interest in a strong, external-enemy
narrative.

The phantom fatwa. None of this is to say that Islam does not play any
role in security decision-making in Iran. Most followers of the
country’s nuclear affairs are aware of the famous fatwa reportedly
issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei prohibiting nuclear
weapons. But this fatwa, or religious edict, has become a puzzle.

In order to issue a fatwa, a religious figure must be deemed an
authority in Islamic jurisprudence. (This is why to most Islamic
scholars, fatwas issued by Al Qaeda leadership in support of the use
of nuclear weapons are void of any legitimacy.) But a fatwa does not
have to be written. It can be spoken if it meets certain requirements,
such as having been witnessed. In this particular case, Khamenei does
not appear to have written the fatwa, but it has been communicated to
the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and repeated a number of
times by Khamenei himself, as well as by other government officials.
It is unclear whether the fatwa covers only the “use” of these
weapons, or their “production and stockpiling” too, as Khamenei has
been quoted saying both.

Some scholars and policy makers believe the Khamenei nuclear-weapons
fatwa to be bogus because it is not written, and therefore irrelevant.
Others believe it to be all-important. Neither side has seen a fatwa,
and it has not been published on Khamenei’s otherwise extremely
comprehensive website.

Adding further ambiguity to the fatwa’s status is the fact that such
rulings can be overturned, allowing the faith to change and adapt to
the times. The founder of the Islamic Republic, the Ayatollah
Khomeini, famously overturned a number of fatwas. Even this
possibility of reversal, though, does not necessarily make pursuit of
an Iranian Bomb more likely, because while there is no religious
constraint on canceling a fatwa, the geopolitical cost of overriding
this one would be high. Iran has promoted the fatwa in various forums
for more than a decade and it is finally being recognized and referred
to by world leaders. In a way, by leading a public relations campaign
promoting the edict, Tehran has constrained its ability to overturn
it.

Nuclear weapons in Shia jurisprudence. Virtually absent from the
debate is the fact that Shia scholars who have spoken on nuclear
weapons show consensus. Few Grand Ayatollahs have discussed the issue,
but those who have present arguments similar to Khamenei’s, regardless
of personal political stance. Hence, whether they support the Islamic
Republic or oppose it, and whether or not they believe that politics
and religion should be intertwined (many Iranian Shia clerics say they
should not), they believe weapons of mass destruction to be against
the faith. What is unclear, however, is the scope of this prohibition.
Clerics tend to be generalists, trained to cover all possible matters
from which foot to enter the bathroom with (left!) to the use of
technology in warfare. This means that the legal debate is neither
elaborate nor nuanced.

But the basic principles underlying the Supreme Leader and the other
clerics’ rulings are very close to those in international law. In Shia
jurisprudence, like in international humanitarian law, there must be a
distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants,
typically defined as women, children, the elderly, and those mentally
unfit to fight, are not to be targeted. Hence, using poison in bodies
of water and burning trees is not allowed. The environment too must be
protected. These are among the key notions shaping Shia thinking on
indiscriminate warfare.

Does it matter what the faith says? A dissident Iranian Shia cleric,
Mohsen Kadivar, points out that when Saddam Hussein’s missiles
targeted Iranian cities during the Iran-Iraq war, officials asked
Khomeini for permission to retaliate in kind. At first he refused,
hewing to the Shia ban on indiscriminate warfare. Eventually, though,
he allowed similar attacks to be carried out. There are similar
examples in which Iran has acted rationally with little or no regard
to religious doctrine or sectarianism. Consider Tehran’s relations
with two neighbors to its northwest, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia
is a Christian country, with good ties to Tehran, while Azerbaijan, a
Shia-majority state, has had complicated relations with Iran. In
Iranians’ view, Azerbaijan tries to arouse their own Azeri
population’s separatism and enables some Israeli actions that target
Iran. Tehran’s policies are not driven by sectarianism and ideology
here, but rather by national interests.

The role of religion in post-revolutionary Iranian politics is complex
and often misunderstood in the West. It seems clear, though, that the
regime follows its practical interests. When ideology serves these
interests, it is put forward as a rationale; otherwise, it takes a
backseat. Observers who continue to argue that the regime wishes to
hasten the return of the Mahdi, and that Iran will therefore withdraw
from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop nuclear weapons,
are contradicted by the facts. In actuality, Tehran highlights that it
is party to a number of international treaties, and that its program
has been in strict compliance with its international obligations.
Whether or not this is the case is a different story, but a suicidal
regime wouldn't bother preserving appearances. The regime has not
reversed the fatwa or withdrawn from the NPT—precisely because those
would be suicidal moves. It is to the government’s advantage to be
seen as unlikely to pursue a nuclear weapon, so it cites Khamenei’s
fatwa. But the regime puts forward no religious rationale for the fact
that 35 years after the US embassy hostage crisis, with the backing of
the Supreme Leader, it is negotiating with what the revolutionaries
then called the “Great Satan.” It would not be doing so if it did not
believe it was acting in its own real-world interest.