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City of Brass

City of Brass

Iranian nuclear program: assessment and policy

Eric Martin at American Footprints points to this great, detailed assessment of the Iranian nuclear program (PDF) by the American Foreign Policy Project. Here’s a key excerpt:

Although we often hear it said or implied that Iran is clearly pursuing nuclear weapons, the facts are more complex than that.

The Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has just re-affirmed the December 2007 finding that Iran shut downits weaponization and covert enrichment activities in Fall 2003, with no evidence of a re-start. What we know Iran to be doing is enriching uranium at Natanz, openly under IAEA safeguards, and improving its ability to enrich more efficiently, while slowly accumulating a small stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It is also building a heavy-water reactor at Arak. These projects will shorten the lead-time for developing a nuclear weapon, should Iran decide to do so in the future. That is the sense in which, as Mr. Blair puts it, we know Iran to be “developing a nuclear weapon capability” and “preserving a weapons option.”

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In practice, Iran’s current path preserves at least three different options, the first and last of which are not mutually exclusive: (a) pursuing enrichment for nuclear energy use as a source of national pride and a symbol of Iran’s refusal to be cowed, (b) using its enrichment as a bargaining chip in larger negotiations with the United States and its allies, or (c) pursuing a weapon either to deter a feared U.S. or Israeli attack, or to support aggressive goals, including expanding its influence in the region. The U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran probably has not yet made a firm decision with regard to nuclear weapons, and that decision may well depend in large part on what the United States and its allies do.

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According to U.S. intelligence community estimates, Iran is not expected to accumulate enough fissile material for even a single weapon until sometime in the 2010-2015 time frame, and that would require a “break-out” that almost certainly would be detected. What this means, in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ words, is that: “They’re not close to a stockpile, they’re not close to a weapon at this point, and so there is some time.” The only effective way to illuminate – and, if necessary, constructively alter – Iran’s intentions is to use that time for skillful and careful diplomacy.

Meanwhile, publicly assuming the worst in the absence of evidence – and issuing an immediate ultimatum based on that assumption — is a singularly bad idea. It will provoke a needless confrontation if the assumption is wrong. It will deprive Iran of a face-saving way to shift course if the worst-case assumption is correct. And continuing to threaten to bomb Iran – as Israel is doing – is the best way imaginable to make the worst-case scenario a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Eric excerpts a lot more from the paper, including specific policy objectives, and provides his own expert commentary as usual. In addition, also via Brian at AF, it’s worth noting that the presidential campaign in Iran just got more complicated. The upshot of which is that Iranian politics doesn’t map onto a simple reform-hardliner axis. Of course, as long as the discredited neocon foreign policy hawks insist that Iran’s mullahs are “insane” and cannot be reasoned with, in order to justify the hyperaggressive threat psture towards Iran, then Iran will increasingly be forced to resemble that caricature in response. The point here is that Iran is a known, rational and eminently negotiable entity which we can and must engage instead of accepting the hardline Israeli government’s preferred option of seeing it as an implacable and irrational enemy.

Related: Via CATO blog, the out-of-power and thoroughly discredited neoconservative hawks are still planning the next war, sounding the “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” refrain. 
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