Iran announced a nuclear ‘achievement’ on Wednesday. President Ahmadinejad was present at the Tehran Research Reactor for the loading of uranium fuel enriched to 20 per cent purity. Ahmadinejad also claimed that Iran has 3,000 new centrifuges for enriching uranium. Reactions in the United States ranged from hysterical warnings of imminent nuclear doom to suspicions that the whole event was staged for propaganda. The reactor in question is used to produce medical isotopes. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were on hand to observe the loading of the nuclear fuel.
The new nuclear developments in Iran have significant implications for U.S. nonproliferation policy.
They confirm what has been evident from the very beginning of the nuclear standoff: Iran will not abandon its right to enrich uranium. Western demands for Iran to halt uranium enrichment have only hardened the determination of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei to proceed with nuclear development. The insistence on stopping enrichment is an absolute non-starter and a formula for permanent confrontation. It is helping the regime’s rulers by giving them an easy issue around which to rally patriotic sentiment and popular support. It is no coincidence that this latest announcement of nuclear progress comes just two weeks before Iran’s parliamentary elections.
Some American and Israeli leaders believe that regime change is the only solution to the nuclear standoff and are supporting efforts to destabilize the regime in the hopes that a more democratic, Western oriented regime will arise. All of us would like to see a better, more representative government in Tehran, but fans of regime change are fooling themselves if they think a new regime will abandon the nuclear program and capitulate to Western demands. Many of the political moderates who have challenged the present regime support the nuclear program and Iran’s right to enrichment.
The latest development proves again that sanctions are not capable of preventing Iran from developing nuclear production capacity. Sanctions have imposed costs on Iran’s economy and may have slowed the nuclear program, but they have not stopped Tehran from steadily enhancing its nuclear capabilities. U.S. sanctions have been in place against Iran for more than thirty years, but they have not forced the government to yield to U.S. pressures. As I argued recently in Foreign Policy in Focus, sanctions work best in combination with incentives as part of a diplomatic bargaining process designed to achieve a negotiated settlement. The record of nonproliferation policy in other countries shows that countries give up nuclear programs not because of sanctions pressure but in response to changed political conditions, economic development opportunities and security assurances.
No negotiated agreement will be possible until the United States and its allies yield on the question of enrichment. Other countries enrich uranium, and Iran argues correctly that there is no prohibition in international law against enrichment. On the other hand, states with nuclear programs have an obligation to be more transparent, and to provide assurances of peaceful intent. Iran has not yet measured up to these standards. This is where international diplomacy should be focused, on gaining Iranian agreement to more intrusive international monitoring, not on abandoning enrichment.