Once again an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report of Iranian progress in developing its nuclear industry has set off alarm bells in Washington and Tel Aviv, sparking renewed discussion of possible Israeli military strikes. The following points should be kept in mind as the debate about Iran’s nuclear program continues:
1. There is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon or that it is taking steps toward actually building a bomb. Iran continues to permit IAEA inspectors to monitor its known nuclear facilities.
2. Although the UN Security Council has demanded in multiple resolutions that Iran halt uranium enrichment, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty entitles all countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The Treaty refers to this as an “inalienable right,” language that Iranian authorities constantly cite.
3. Iran is steadily developing its capacity to enrich uranium. It has now produced more than enough uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity to maintain the production of medical isotopes at its Tehran Research Reactor. Iran does not have enough more highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear warhead. Some of its 20 per cent uranium is in a form that is extremely difficult to enrich to the higher levels (90 per cent purity) that would be needed for a bomb.
4. Iran has added another 1,000 centrifuges at its underground enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. These are older, less reliable centrifuge models, and only about a third of the installed centrifuges are operating. This may be an indication that international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program are having some impact.
5. Military strikes are not a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma. Israel does not have the military capacity to destroy Iran’s widely dispersed, well defended, and increasingly hardened and deeply buried nuclear facilities. Bombing strikes would cause only a limited and temporary setback to Iran’s nuclear program.
6. Israeli military strikes would have extremely negative security implications in the region. Iran would almost certainly retaliate militarily, and its political leaders might respond to external military aggression by accelerating nuclear development and proceeding to actual weapons production.
7. Diplomacy is the only way to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. Sanctions are useful to diplomacy but they should be combined with incentives, including an end to military threats against Iran and an offer to remove sanctions if Iran is fully transparent and allows more rigorous international monitoring of its nuclear program.