Thursday, October 16, 2014

Centrifugal Force

Well I certainly feel better
The nuclear negotiations with Iran went quite well for a long time. Then, like negotiations tend to do, they hit an impasse when the few really hard-to-resolve questions became the only questions left unresolved. In this case, those questions revolve around two issues with large ramifications. The first is around Iran's right to the Uranium fuel cycle. That is, how and how much Uranium Iran is allowed to process and enrich, to what level, and how large that stockpile should be. Much of the negotiation is around a limit to Iran's enrichment capacity, intended to slow down the time required to produce weapons grade fissile material. The problem is the guiding foundational document, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) doesn't include any legal limitations on the fuel cycle. It is assumed that all nations have the right to process and enrich uranium. The NPT deals in detail with the product of that process, fissile material. How it's handled, stored, managed and accounted for is the whole point of the document. So any agreement around Iran's right to the uranium fuel cycle would be outside the purview of the NPT, and should therefore be part of a separate multilateral treaty. But Iran doesn't have any obligation to agree to those provisions, and indeed would be setting a dangerous precedent if she were pressured economically to accept them.

The second unresolved set of issues are around missile research and development. Again, this is not an issue that is addressed by the NPT, although there is precedent for nations agreeing to limit missile capabilities, range and deployment. It is, however, a bit of goalpost-moving by the P5+1 in what was originally intended to be a treaty limiting Iran's nuclear program. There are a lot of different kinds of missiles, and a lot of reasons for countries to build them. At one end of the spectrum they are artillery, while at the other end they are space vehicles. In between are tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and strategic ballistic missiles. In the case of Iran, the concern, to whatever extent it's real, is nuclear capable missiles, and that's problematic on a number of levels. First, the problem of building a nuclear weapon small enough to be mounted on a missile is one of the most difficult engineering challenges in history. In theory, building a 1st generation nuclear weapon isn't particularly difficult, but those early generation weapons tend to be very large, very complex 'devices' that can barely be carried by the largest bombers. The first American atomic bombs weighed ten thousand pounds and were ten feet long. A nation has to have been building nuclear weapons for a number of years before they can achieve that level of miniaturization. And more importantly, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to separate the research on launching an orbital spacecraft from the research necessary to build an ICBM. It just isn't ok to tell a modern nation that you will strangle them economically over their space program.

So - two questions, two answers. First, take the missiles out of this treaty - if you want to do a missile treaty, especially around missile technology proliferation, do that under a separate agreement. Then you can talk about whatever limitations on enrichment and the fuel cycle you want, but you're not going to get to zero, and you shouldn't. Just make sure you are monitoring the fissile material and forget about the centrifuges - they don't matter.

The key point, which the P5+1 pretends not to understand, is that the current monitoring regime is wholly sufficient to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapons - something all evidence indicates they don't want to do anyway. From the Supreme Leader on down, they have stated repeatedly and unequivocally that they don't want nuclear weapons and aren't going to build them. Now clearly, even so, they would very much like to have the strategic deterrent that those weapons would provide them, but without the the difficulties and complexities that actually trying to build and test nuclear weapons would create for them. The goal is what's called 'breakout' capability - having the fuel cycle, the R&D and the applied engineering in place so that if a nuclear deterrent becomes necessary, it is a short sprint to build one. But here's the thing - in order to start that sprint, they'd have to kick out the IAEA inspectors and abrogate the NPT, just like North Korea did. So the whole world would know if they decided to build a weapon, and there would be plenty of time to decide what, if anything, to do about it.

Now, much of the negotiation has been around preventing this 'breakout' capability. I think that's clearly counterproductive and shortsighted. As long as Iran is comfortable with her capabilities under the inspection regimen, the status quo is a win. No new nuclear powers, very limited proliferation risk. And if that breakout capacity prevents Israel from unilaterally starting another war, then it has actually served US interests in addition to Iranian interests.  The US should accept the centrifuges, sign the deal, and end the sanctions. The additional crude on the market would further depress oil prices, improving the US economy while further punishing Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and, ironically, Iran. You end up with a diplomatic win, reduced regional tensions and an improved economy.

This just doesn't seem so hard to me.

1 comment:

  1. The Jennifer Rubin-Bill Kristol crowd isn't interested in successful negotiations. They want Iraq-style regime change. By which I mean, the country reduced to hopeless 3rd world status.

    P.S. Some comments at The Hill.