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We Can Probably Live With Limited Enrichment

by Michael Levi
October 21, 2008

I’m pretty pessimistic about the possibility of rolling back the Iranian nuclear program. The more interesting challenge, it seems, is constraining the growth of the program in any meaningful way. That leads me to focus on one of Gary’s last questions first: Should we be prepared to accept arrangements that allow Iran to maintain a limited enrichment program under enhanced international monitoring?

Of course, so long as Iran wants to preserve a real nuclear option, we’re going to be in a bind: if some particular arrangement for Iranian enrichment satisfies us, it is unlikely to be acceptable to Tehran, and vice versa. Setting that aside for the moment, though, the simplest answer to the question is probably yes – and something Gary writes suggests why:

Assuming sufficient low enriched UF6, for example, a unit of 3,000 P-1 centrifuge machines is likely to take at least a few months to produce enough HEU for a single bomb, during which time the facility would be vulnerable to military attack.

If the Iranian program remained at its present size, any overt breakout would provide the world with enough warning time to knock out its enrichment facility. Military action in that context would attract far more international support than a preventive strike aimed at a facility producing LEU would.
There are, of course, other dangers involved in leaving even the present enrichment infrastructure in place. Legitimate nuclear activity could provide cover for efforts in support of a covert track. And while the United States might gain comfort from knowing that it could preempt an Iranian breakout, some of Iran’s neighbors might disagree; the result could be a regional arms race even in the absence of an Iranian bomb. Yet these problems would exist even if Iran scaled back its program, and the alternative – completely eliminating the Iranian program – seems entirely impractical.

The other question is whether we could tolerate a somewhat larger nuclear program than what Iran has today. I suspect the answer is yes, so long as we were confident that any shift from LEU to HEU production would be detected early enough to facilitate a military strike – and depending on the inspection arrangements, that might be possible with a substantial Iranian facility. It would be best, however, to avoid this sort of outcome.


  • Posted by cferguson

    Mike Levi correctly points out that Iran is most likely not going to roll back its uranium enrichment program but that there are immense challenges in figuring out what types of Iranian nuclear activities the United States could tolerate. And George Perkovich correctly points out the huge challenges in even interesting Iran in negotiating. My take on both of these interrelated issues is to offer a loyalty test to reassure both sides.

    Last month in the Christian Science Monitor, I proposed such a test, . It would maintain loyalty to the promise that Iranian leaders have made to the Iranian public to exercise Iran’s “right” to enrichment. That is, the United States would have to accept enrichment activities in Iran. And the loyalty test would preserve Iran’s responsibility to be loyal to the international nonproliferation system to maintain a transparent nuclear program under rigorous safeguards.

    Why would Iran consider such a mutual loyalty test? The enticement is that the United States would not only accept enrichment in Iran but would offer to become Iran’s client. That is, the United States would agree to buy Iranian enriched uranium for a competitive price. This has the benefit of allowing Iran to say that it has “the Great Satan” as a client. This could foster confidence building and trust. The added nonproliferation benefit is that low enriched uranium (LEU), which could be breakout material for weapons-usable highly enriched uranium, would be removed continually from Iran, preventing Iran from amassing a large stockpile of LEU.
    Another essential element of the deal is that Iran would agree to more rigorous safeguards. Iranian leaders have often said that they would welcome “objective guarantees” that their nuclear program is peaceful.

    Although I understand George Perkovich’s skepticism about incentives, I would be willing to offer Iran assistance in building commercial nuclear power plants as long as they adopted more rigorous safeguards, including continuous international monitoring of all nuclear facilities by employing secure means of data collection and numerous on-site inspectors, and agreed to not amass a large stockpile of LEU. In order to build commercial nuclear reactors, Iran must rely on the major reactor producers, including France, Russia, and the US – some of the same countries working to prevent Iran from making nuclear bombs. It must also rely on international suppliers of natural uranium and international fuel fabrication facilities. The overall deal would consequently bind the major powers and Iran together in a mutual client-producer relationship.

    Perhaps Iranian leaders would reject this deal. But if they did, it would most likely demonstrate that they are not serious about a purely peaceful nuclear program.

  • Posted by reiss

    Mitchell B. Reiss

    Let me share some very brief thoughts on the discussion so far.
    1. Let’s keep in mind what our goal is here: to keep Iran from enriching uranium at any level. There is no need to retreat from this goal at this time.
    2. Because of the desultory nature of the EU3+3 negotiations so far, as has been noted by George, I am not persuaded that talks have yet reached a level of seriousness where Iran has been forced to make a “strategic” choice. In other words, we have not yet sharpened the contradictions for them of selecting what type of future, and what type of relationship, Iran wants with us and its neighbors.
    3. We had an opportunity to do so when the Bush Admin reversed itself and argeed to join with the EU3. Condi should have insisted that the price for doing so was the imposition of much stricter sanctions by our European friends should Iran continue to stonewall. But she didn’t and they didn’t and an opportunity was missed.
    4. Sadly, one consequence of the global financial crisis is that our European friends will be even more reluctant to impose stricter sanctions due to their desire to protect jobs and market share. This will be a hard sell for the next Admin. (This is especially unfortunate because the falling price of oil will strain an already stressed Iranian economy, giving us more leverage than before when oil was $145+/barrel.)
    5. As we know, Russia and China are also reluctant to impose tougher sanctions. What to do? On China, get the Saudis to tell Beijing that they will judge its relationship with Beijing on how it responds, or not, to the Iranian threat. On Russia, share some intel showing the ties between Iran and extremist Muslim groups in the Caucasus and central Asia. They can connect the dots.
    6. I would also like to see the next Admin adopt a regional approach so that others do not get to free ride on the US. Much more can be said on this approach (but not here, nto now)
    7. Finally, the next Admin needs to determine early if it is serious about a diplomatic effort, and then integrate it into a military/security approach that gives the negotiators a little more leverage at the table and reassures our (anxious) friends and allies in the region. In other words, develop a strategy.

  • Posted by jwolfsthal

    Thanks to Gary and CFR for the chance to share ideas with such a terrific group.

    We appear to be, once again, hung up on a question of do we condone something we don’t like but can’t stop or do we try to isolate and punish the state pursuing a nuclear program we don’t like and can’t stop. Aceppt or isolate?

    This is not to say that we can’t stop Iran’s enrichment program. It is far from clear that we are out of options. I don’t think we have done nearly enough to split the people from the government on this, nor have we put ourselves in a strong negotiating position vis a vis Europe or Iran. We don’t know what is possible ntil we try, and we have been hamped by Bush administration posturing and tactics. Doesn’t mean other options will succeed, but too early to give up hope.

    There are many things we can and should be doing to put increasing pressure on the regime (I like the idea of offering 10,000 student green cards and visas every year Iran agrees to a 1 year suspension of enrichment – see how many people that puts on the streets in Tehran). We also need to do much more to make it attractive for Iran to reach an agreement that ends their enrichment program (normalization, recognition, etc).

    But the bottom line in thinking ahead is, as discussed, do we have to accept some enrichment in Iran or are we better of (specifically and generally) saying the program is unacceptable (not only because of now violated UNSC resolutions) and making it a pariah program. Accept or isolate?

    Both approaches have been tried. The Pakistani program is a pariah and the Indian program is now accepted. Both cases are different, obviously, from Iran but the question is the same – what approach will enable us to better manage the security consequences of Iran’s program and to reinforce the nonproliferation regime.

    No one has yet explained, to my satisfaction, how we can accept the Iranian enrichment program short of them admitting they had a weapons program and now are sorry and open their entire program up to the AP, place some constraints on the size and pace of their program, etc. If we do so, aren’t we completing undermining the nonpro regime and the UNSC system? How do we expect other countries to think there will be a consequence for similar action in the future?

  • Posted by Robert Einhorn

    I don’t think we can say that the carrot and stick approach has failed – at least not yet. I don’t think that approach has been put to a true test. Neither the carrots nor the sticks have been adequate to reshape Iran’s calculations. The carrots have been undercut by the mixed signals the Bush Administration has sent about U.S. willingness to have normal relations with the current regime in Tehran, and the sticks have been undercut by the resistance of Russia and China to sanctions with teeth. Before we throw in the towel on getting Iran to suspend enrichment, the next Administration should mount a major diplomatic effort to build broad international support for a package of incentives and disincentives that has a chance of inducing the Iranians to reconsider their need for an enrichment program. Perhaps the sharp drop in oil price, if it is sustained, will make the Iranians less cocky about riding out intensified pressures.

    Michael Levi discusses our ability militarily to preempt Iran’s breakout from LEU to weapons grade. I have a question someone may be able to answer – can the IAEA detect in real time Iran’s reconfiguration of the piping at Natanz (or whatever else Iran might do) to start producing HEU? If not, the prospects for preventing HEU production are reduced. But even if we could reliably preempt overt breakout, I think the more likely option would be covert – or “sneak out,” as Gary calls it. But rather than the scenario Gary mentions of diverting safeguarded LEU from Natanz and enriching it to weapons grade at a covert enrichment plant (which would surely be detected), why not also build a covert conversion facility to produce the feedstock and do all the enrichment covertly? What I’m suggesting is that we can’t count on knowing about and preempting Iran’s breakout to acquiring HEU.

    We may eventually find that no combination of carrots and sticks will persuade the Iranians to part with their enrichment program, and the best we can do is try to constrain Iran’s breakout options. But we’re not there yet, and I’d agree with George that the price we should be willing to pay for that is a lot lower than the price we should offer to get Iran to suspend.

  • Posted by brunotertrais

    Thanks to all for great contributions. Let me give a few random thoughts on comments posted so far:

    1. The “loyalty test” mentioned by Charles is a great idea on paper. There are however two objections:
    – In a sense, the whole diplomatic process since 2003 has been one gigantic “loyalty test”; so far, Iran has not passed it; neither did we, perhaps, in the eyes of many in Iran.
    – Such a test would take time, enough time for Iran to achieve breakout capability; if I’m right, we would therefore achieve nothing and lose time for additional sanctions.

    2. I am not as pessimistic as Mitch is regarding the Europeans’ economic interests. Remember that most European countries have only limited economic interests in Iran, except perhaps for Italy and Germany. And what matters the most for Iran’s economy (repairs, upgrades and investments in the oil/gas sector) can be abandoned without any short-term prejudice for European firms. Most importantly, Iran’s economic situation is going to worsen significantly if the oil barrel stays under 80$. Europe will not be in a bad position to bargain.

    3. It is difficult for me to understand Bob’s apparent confidence in our collective ability to detect the existence of a covert enrichment plant; but Bob is right in saying that if Iran really wanted a “separate, covert track” to enrichment, it would also build or have built a hidden conversion facility; this may have been the point of the “Green Salt” project. Unless they have been able to divert enough UF6, a possibility that one should not exclude.

    4. I agree with those who say that an Iranian reversal is improbable. And the more time passes, the more Iran invests (in all senses of the term) in enrichment, the more costly (in all senses of the term) it will be for Tehran to stop. Note, in this regard, that to the best of my knowledge, no country has gone as far as Iran has in its nuclear program (enrichment, weaponization, missiles) and NOT built the Bomb.

    5. At the end of the day, however, the reality is that whatever we decide and do, the evolution of the program will be mostly determined by the domestic evolution and political calculus of the leadership. Where we can do a better job is to make it increasingly costly from a domestic standpoint for the Iranians to continue their program, to the point that the leadership may think that the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of the population is on the line. For this to work, the next US president will have an important challenge to meet: convince Khamenei that Washington is not hell-bent on regime change. (One of the reasons why he opposes a deal is that he believes that Washington will then make other demands, and that the US cannot accept the very existence of the regime.) Now, I know that the Bush administration has tried hard to make a difference in its rhetoric between “regime change” and “regime behavior change”. The problem is that this distinction is lost on the Iranians.

    6. If we accepted “limited enrichment”, most of the leadership will think that Iran has won. I see no reason from their point of view to then not proceed to the next step, which would be to convince us that an Iran “at the threshold” would be an acceptable outcome. Remember that Iran has been looking very hard at our behavior vis-à-vis North Korea and India. I would submit that their tactics are often inspired by the North Korean example, but that their strategy is inspired by the Indian example. They think that they have good reasons to believe that we will one day accept a nuclear Iran just as now we accept a nuclear India. The trick is to convince them otherwise.

  • Posted by henry sokolski

    Already, it is clear that several of the forum’s experts would like to let Iran enrich a little with a lot of inspections. Several would not. I throw my lot in with the anti-only-a-little enrichment crowd if only because trying to get to Iran to “scale back” to a “limited” amount of enriching activity would

    1. Require additional bribes that are unlikely to persuade Iran to suspend or desist. Certainly, the chances that Iran will give up developing a bomb option now seem slim and are becoming slimmer as Iran progresses with its nuclear program. The price for even suggesting they cut-back won’t be cheap. Nor will Iran be likely to buy.

    2. Confirm Iran’s “victory” over the United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions and the IAEA’s continued complaints of non-cooperation with agency inspectors. Rewarding Iran by offering it additional bribes will be almost certain to erode any moral high ground we might otherwise have to persuade Iran’s neighbors (and others outside the region) not to see Iran’s nuclear misbehavior as a model to follow. We also would lose face with the friends in the Middle East and our allies who we need to have on our side to promote moderate government in the region and to remain influential there.

    3. Force us to oversell the effectiveness of the inspections over “limited” enrichment to the detriment of clear thinking about what is safeguardable. Yes, we could look at the facility (although, so far Iran has resisted requests that the IAEA install near-real-time surveillance systems at Bushehr, much less at Natanz and beyond). But, such monitoring would be unable to detect covert nuclear fuel making activities reliably. Nor would it assure detection of abrupt or slow diversions in a timely fashion, i.e., such monitoring could not detect diversions early enough allow for appropriate actions to prevent the building of a bomb.

    4. Tend to fortify Iran’s rebuttable contention that it has a right to make nuclear fuel under the NPT — precisely the point our diplomacy was designed to deny given Iran’s misbehavior. Fortifying this “right”, in turn, is likely to make it very difficult to limit Iran’s fuel making activities. Once one allows a little, the plea, will be to allow more as a legal “right.”

    5. Make it even more difficult to remind Iran and its neighbors of the poor economic justification for Iran’s nuclear program, which by itself ought to be grounds for suspicion. The NPT, after all, was designed to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy, not to encourage uncompetitive money losing efforts that bring states to the brink of making bombs. Compare boiling water with natural gas to boiling it with uranium in the region and there’s no contest for at least two decades or more. Back a little bit of enrichment and Iran’s nuclear power program, and you will have difficulty reasoning economically with other Middle Eastern nations to forego acquiring unecomical nuclear programs of their own.

    4. Be oversold as a way to “prevent Iran from getting the bomb.” In fact, we won’t necessarily know when Iran clearly has a nuclear option so it is a mistake to let our own calculations, which are no more than educated guesses, drive our diplomacy. Iran has a reactor program that includes a power and one large research reactor that also could be used with a relatively simple reprocessing effort to make bombs. Iran could also have a covert enrichment program. None of these weapons options would be foreclosed by either the Additional Protocol or intrusive enrichment monitoring. Nor would could these inspections be counted upon to detect such paths to a bomb in timely fashion. Indeed, allowing Iran to enrich a little even under such “enhanced” controls might well succeed in only increasing uncertainties: In allowing a “legitimate” enrichment program, such schemes would raise the noise to signal ratio so high as to make finding evidence of illegitimate fuel making more difficult.

    6. Do little to help us win the larger competition that prompted Iran’s nuclear program in the first place. That competition is for the hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East to support moderate policies and to neutralize revolutionary Islamic efforts to deny the U.S. and its friends (in and outside of the region) from having a say over events there. What will give us an edge in this competition is making it clear to Iran’s rulers that they will not gain any security, diplomatic, political or military benefits from developing a nuclear weapons option. Instead, they will only lose ground in every arena so long as they insist on upending the rules. Winning this competition will require the U.S. and its friends to work together to wage a small but long-term Cold War against the Iranian leadership. It will call for creating country-neutral rules against the misbehavior that we fear Iran might yet engage in — remaining in noncompliance with its IAEA obligations, leaving the NPT while still in noncompliance, testing a nuclear device. Such a Cold War may not eliminate Iran’s drive towards a nuclear weapons. But, in the long run, it could help — as it did in the case of our previous Cold Wars against the Soviet Union, South Africa, Libya, and military rule in Argentina and Brazil – to encourage the government to reconsider its policies, to get the people to turn out the current set of rulers, eliminate the prospects of a major strategic hot war, get the government to decide to end its existing nuclear weapons efforts, and even prompt the government, eventually, to dismantle its nuclear weapons-related activities.

    I won’t spell out the key elements here of what this cold war would require in Iran’s case but would be happy to do so in later postings. The good news is that we have succeeded before in such endeavors and have done so even without the full backing of the entire United Nations Security Council (i.e., with the help of either Russia or China). Nor did success require dramatic gestures, either groveling or bombing. All that was necessary was patience and resolve — things we and our friends are still quite capable of.

  • Posted by jwolfsthal

    I want to modify my previous comment that I had yet to hear an ida that woudl allow me to be comfortable with the idea of any enrichment in Iran. One concept, which I heard for the first tmie at Mark Fitzpatric’s Milan/IISS meeting this month, would allow Iran to have a smaller enrichment facility if all enriched uranium were shipped out of the country. I am not thrilled with this idea as it allows enrichment, but the only way i can see the US accepting enrichment is if the facility were heavily inspected and vulnerable to military action and if any material that woudl allow Iran to rapidly breakout were removed from the country.

    I am open to other ideas from those who thik limited enrichment is a scenario we CAN live with.

  • Posted by Ephraim Kam

    The idea to allow Iran to maintain a limited uranium enrichment program under enhanced international inspection involves clear dangers. Henry Sokolski referred to some of its negative implications, and I fully share his view. I would like to add a further argument.

    After six years of negotiations with the Iranians we should have no illusions regarding the Iranian strategic aim. The negotiations have failed to produce a grand deal that will include a suspension of its suspected nuclear activities not because the sticks were not big enough, or the carrots were not sweet enough. The negotiations failed, above all, because the Iranian strategic aim is to acquire nuclear weapons. All the rest is tactics. For the Iranians, the benefits offered to them in the framework of the grand deal – and possibly additional advantages that might be offered in the future – are important, but the acquisition of nuclear weapons is much more important. And for the Iranians, negotiations are a good vehicle to gain time, because the bargaining process necessarily takes time – and time is in favor of the Iranian nuclear program.

    We have to assume that the Iranians will not give up their strategic aim – the acquisition of nuclear weapons – even if an agreement is concluded regarding uranium enrichment. They might compromise on tactical aspects, but not on the strategy. This is the reason why the Iranians insist on enriching uranium on their soil. Taking into account the long Iranian experience of skillfully hiding and cheating their nuclear activities, they will find the way to continue their nuclear efforts until they achieve their aim. They will evade and maneuver, they will try to drive a wedge between the American administration and the European governments, as well as between the Western governments and the Russian and Chinese ones. And they will use the naivety of the other side, as well as the reluctance of the IAEA to say explicitly that Iran is on its way to get the bomb.

    I am not against negotiations with the Iranians, or a direct dialogue between the US and Iran, regarding the nuclear issue. Though I am not overoptimistic about their possible results, one has to exhaust any diplomatic channel to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet the purpose of the negotiations should not be just to produce a deal with the Iranians that will enable us to live with limited enrichment. Such an agreement will be the beginning of accepting the reality of nuclear Iran. The purpose of such negotiating should be to change the order of priorities and the strategic aim of the Iranians, by convincing them that continuing their drive to the bomb will become too expensive for them.

  • Posted by Mark Fitzpatrick, Senior Fellow, International Institute for Stratetic Studies, London

    With apologies for not chiming in earlier while I was travelling, I would like to comment on the basic issue of whether concerned countries should accept Iran’s enrichment program (and even possibly participate in it via a multinational consortium) in exchange for Iran accepting limitations and intrusive inspections. Many of the limitations that have been suggested, such as a requirement to store LEU out of the country, would be better than the status quo. But I very much doubt that Iran would accept conditions that constrained its break-out options. And offering to legitimize the program has serious down-sides, including the incentives it could give to others in the region who might similarly seek sensitive dual-use technology that they do not need for nuclear power.

    Meanwhile there are other ways to limit Iran’s enrichment capabilities that do not require granting it legitimacy. To go back to Gary’s very first post, it is not a given that Iran will be able to expand Natanz to 48,000 centrifuges, or even to the 15,000 of its near-term goal. Whether Iran can produce all of the components and materials for such an expansion is an important intelligence question. If not, strict enforcement of export controls, interdiction operations, pressure on Iran’s access to international financial services, and other means can limit Iran’s capabilities. Legalizing the enrichment program would make it more difficult to enforce such controls.