"Iran and Europe's Containment Illusion"


House of Commons Committee Room 15 WEDNESDAY, 16 May 2012

Thank you very much, John, for your kind introduction. It is a great honor and privilege for me to speak to you here this evening.

Next week, the so-called P5 Plus 1, the 5 permanent members of the UN security council and Germany, (on the continent, and particularly in Germany, they prefer calling it the E3 plus 3), will have their second round of talks with Iran about that country's nuclear weapons program. The resumption of negotiations more than a year after the last attempt at dialogue failed, has rekindled hopes that we may yet be able to resolve the Iranian nuclear threat peacefully. But as Europe's negotiators are getting ready for May 23 in Baghdad, let's hope they'll remember the lessons from their past engagement with Tehran.

The Limits of Engagement
Time is running out

When Britain, France and Germany led the previous rounds of negotiations with Iran between 2003-2006, they not only failed to stop Iran's nuclear program, they could not even delay it. Their efforts actually played into the regime's hands. The three EU governments insisted on pursuing engagement instead of sanctions even though Tehran openly admitted that it was using the talks as cover to buy more time for the nuclear program. For example, in an interview that aired on Iranian Channel 2 on August 4, 2005, then Chief Iranian Nuclear Negotiator Hosein Musavian said: "Thanks to our dealings with Europe, even when we got a 50-day ultimatum, we managed to continue the work for two years. This way we completed [the uranium conversion facility] in Esfahan. This way we carried out the work to complete Natanz [nuclear enrichment facility]." Valuable time was lost to exert pressure on Iran.

After nearly a decade of fruitless dialogue, Iran must not be allowed to once again exploit the West's readiness to engage, particularly since time is not our side. Based on IAEA data, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control (a non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin) estimates that "by April, 2012, Iran had accumulated enough low-enriched uranium [3.5%] to fuel five nuclear weapons." In addition, the Wisconsin Project also concluded that Iran has around 100 kg of 20% enriched uranium (about 140 kg is needed to produce a bomb's worth of weapons grade material). Even though there is no civilian need for such higher enriched uranium, Tehran recently announced plans to increase its production at Fordow and Natanz, and will thus soon be able to churn out 15 kg of 20% enriched uranium per month.

Since weapons grade uranium requires enrichment to 90%, there is a common misperception that Iran still has a long way to go. But as Olli Heinonen, the former Finish deputy director general of the IAEA, has repeatedly pointed out, mastering 3.5% enrichment is 70% of the enrichment effort required for an atomic weapon. With 20% enriched uranium, you are 90% there. Iran would probably need 3-12 months to produce one bomb's worth of weapons grade material from its 3.5% stockpile. Once they have enough 20% enriched uranium, Tehran could get there in about six weeks.

We know that Iran has also worked on the other elements required for a nuclear bomb, elements that are technically much less challenging than enrichment. The IAEA's November 8 report reveals that Tehran not only continues to enrich uranium but that it has conducted experiments on nuclear triggers, created computer models of nuclear explosions and completed advanced research on warheads that could be delivered by a medium-range missile. Credible information "indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device," the IAEA said in its report. Equally troubling is that with respect to Iran's work on its Shahab-3 missile, "any payload option other than nuclear...could be ruled out."

New evidence suggests that, despite the resumption of talks, Iran is even accelerating its nuclear program. Most significantly, these efforts reportedly go beyond just enrichment. According to material provided by the People's Mujahedin, the same group that exposed Iran's secret nuclear program in 2002, Tehran didn't stop its nuclear weapon's program after 2003, contradicting the US 2007 intelligence report. As reported by the German daily die Welt last week, the Mujahedin say that apart from enrichment, Iran is relentlessly working on all the components necessary for a nuclear weapon, including nuclear warheads and triggers. The IAEA already noted in May 2011 seven areas of concern that basically covered every major aspect of a nuclear-armed missile program.

And just two days ago, the Associated Press published a drawing "based on information from inside an Iranian military site [that] shows an explosives containment chamber of the type needed for nuclear arms-related tests that U.N. inspectors suspect Tehran has conducted there." The IAEA believes that Soviet scientist Vyacheslav Danilenko helped build the installation at the Parchin military site. Citing an unnamed senior diplomat, the AP reports that tests were carried out there in 2003, 2005 and 2006.

Flexible Fatwas

And yet, there are still voices playing down the Iranian threat. Some cite a fatwa by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei allegedly forbidding the production, proliferation and use of nuclear bombs as evidence that the concerns about Iran's nuclear program are overblown.

One would think that a regime that has murdered tens of thousands of its own people over the past 30 years, orders the public hanging of homosexuals and the stoning of women, brutally represses the Green Movement, is the world's chief sponsor of terrorism, and has been repeatedly caught lying about its nuclear program would be met with a little more skepticism—even when the leader responsible for all these crimes couches his reassuring messages in religious terms.

After all, Ayatollah Khomeini himself pointed out that fatwas are not exactly written in stone:

 "The government can unilaterally abrogate any religious agreement made by it with the people if it believes that the agreement is against the interests of the country and Islam," Khomeini wrote in 1987. "The government can prevent any Islamic law—whether related to rituals or not—from being implemented if it sees its implementation as harmful to the interests of Islam."

Iranian scholar Mehdi Khalaji, who studied Islamic theology in the seminaries of Qom, the traditional center of Iran's clerical establishment, where also Khomeini and Khamenei studied, is therefore less willing to take Khamenei's words at face value. In a September 2011 analysis he concludes that "should the needs of the Islamic Republic or the Muslim umma change, requiring the use of nuclear weapons, the Supreme Leader could just as well alter his position in response. This means that, ultimately, the Islamic Republic is unconstrained—even by religious doctrine—as it moves toward the possible production and storing of nuclear weapons." So really, there is no need to be more Shiite than the Ayatollah on the issue of fatwas.

The Flaws of Containment
MAD Is No Deterrent for Religious Fanatics

While President Obama has clearly spelled out that containment is and never will be a policy option, we have yet to hear all European leaders speak with similar clarity. At the same time as some commentators try to play down the possibility of Iran actually desiring nuclear weapons, others present an Iranian bomb almost as a fait accompli and encourage us to simply live with it if not learn to love it. Former diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, for example, the host of the annual Munich Security Conference and a big voice in Germany's foreign policy debate, believes the danger could be contained. "If it was possible to deter the Soviet Union successfully, then that will probably be possible with Iran as well," Mr. Ischinger recently said.

But the Cold War analogy fails on several grounds, and simply accepting a nuclear armed Iran would be failure dressed up as policy. First, the fact that we survived the previous nuclear standoff is hardly evidence that deterrence was bound to succeed. On more than one occasion during the West's struggle with Communism, the threat of mutually assured destruction did not prevent the two sides from stepping right to the brink, most famously during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So any nostalgia for another few decades of nuclear standoff, this time with the much less predictable Islamic Republic of Iran, seems utterly misplaced.

And as dangerous as it was to play MAD with the Soviet Union, it would be far more perilous to try to replay it with Iran. This is not just because mutually assured destruction might be more of an incentive than a deterrent for some regime members. To cite Bernard Lewis, the eminent British scholar on the Middle East: "We know already that [the mullahs ruling Iran] do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. We have seen it again and again. In the final scenario, and this applies all the more strongly if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights."

The usual counterargument is that the real power in Iran is supposedly held by more rational people. But can we really be sure of that given Iran's complex power structure and the West's lack of good intelligence about the inner workings and thinking of Iran's leadership? And who counts as a moderate anyway? Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani—usually considered a "moderate"—suggested already back in 2001 that his country would not be deterred by the fear of nuclear retaliation: "Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world."

This statement underlines that it is rather dangerous to assume that Iran's clerical regime share's the West's concept of "rational." The recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant, which would have probably also killed many American civilians, is a case in point. If successful, it could have constituted an act of war against the world's only remaining superpower—probably not exactly what at least in this house would be considered rational behavior.

One theory holds that this planned attack may have been the work of rogue elements in Iran. If correct, though, this would hardly be reassuring. It would raise serious questions about Iran's unity of command. What if such "rogue" elements would also get their hands on nukes?

And even if we could be confident that deterrence would work with Iran's current leadership, it's impossible to give any reassurances for any future Iranian regime. For example, could Iranian leaders facing their imminent demise and possible death in case of another uprising still be deterred by MAD?

The Flawed Cold War Analogy

But there is a more fundamental problem with the Cold War analogy. Despite the US-Soviet Union rivalry, the two antagonists shared clear channels of communications (remember those famous red telephones?) and a relative degree of trust—both essential ingredients for deterrence to work. Nothing of this sort exists between the U.S. and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. The absence of such direct contacts raises the chance of either side misreading its opponent's intentions.

In addition, Iran, at the outset, lacks second-strike capability and Israel is too small to absorb a nuclear attack. The (rational) temptation thus for either side to launch a preemptive attack would be far greater than that faced by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Add to that the shorter flight times for missiles between Iran and Israel than between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—giving both sides less time to think and react in times of a crisis—and the chances for conflict or mishap spiraling out of control grow exponentially. Even if the Iranians accepted the basic logic of deterrence, the risks of nuclear war by misinterpretation, technical error or miscalculation could prove unmanageable.

The idea of trying to contain a nuclear Iran also overlooks the fact that Tehran's acquisition of the bomb would kill the Non-Proliferation Treaty and trigger a nuclear arms race. Countries such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey will not rely on Western promises to protect them from a nuclear Iran after the same West reneged on its promise to prevent a nuclear Iran in the first place. Unlike during the Cold War, when there were only two main nuclear players, we would be facing a fragile standoff between several, unstable actors, greatly enhancing the risks of accidental atomic war. With so many nuclear actors, any of the region's numerous unresolved conflicts could suddenly become the trigger for a nuclear exchange.

The Threat from Terrorists

And finally, we must not overlook Iran's role as the world's chief sponsor of terrorism. Hezbollah, for example, with its global network of supporters, is fully integrated into the command structure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Iranian regime could simply circumvent the logic of MAD by passing on a bomb to terrorists, thus escaping retaliation altogether. If a bomb went off in Western city, it could be months before it was ever identified as possibly Iranian. And even then, according to a November 2011 New York Times report citing US officials, confidence in the conclusion might be too low for any president to order retaliation. It is hard to imagine any Western leader ordering a retaliatory nuclear strike, and thus the deaths of untold numbers of Iranian civilians, on the basis of inconclusive evidence months after the initial attack. Tehran would be quite rational to count on Western scruples in such a case. This is a threat European leaders would ignore at their own peril given Iran's diplomatic representations, network of agents, Hezbollah activists and terrorist connections in Europe.

The Consequences for the Neighborhood

Let's also contemplate the larger meaning of "containment." Even if nuclear war could be avoided, Iran would still be able to leverage the mere possession of the bomb to advance its revolutionary program. Iran has for years armed and trained insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, causing the deaths of numerous allied soldiers. Tehran was also directly involved in terror attacks around the world, from Saudi Arabia to Argentina. If this is what a conventionally armed Iran is doing, imagine what an Iran with nuclear capability will do. Using threats and proxies, Tehran could try to bring the Gulf region and Iraq under its control, where many states, including Saudi Arabia, have sizeable Shiite minorities. It could also use its nuclear umbrella to embolden Hamas and Hezbollah to escalate their military confrontation with Israel, thus greatly complicating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.



The Outlines of a Deal

As the negotiations move forward, it is crucial to keep up the pressure. The goal here is not to make life harder for the average Iranian but to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program. In that context, it is quite worrying that just last week, Britain, which has so far led the European campaign against a nuclear Iran, said that it is seeking to delay the EU ban on insuring shipments of Iranian oil. The timing of Britain's request, coming so shortly before the next round of talks, makes this move even more damaging.

Such wavering will not help convince the Iranians that Europe means business in these negotiations. And judging from news reports, it seems the Europeans and Americans have already lowered their standards of what would constitute an acceptable agreement. According to these reports, US and European negotiators would reportedly accept a deal that would allow Iran to enrich uranium below 20% if it ships abroad the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, close the underground  Fordow enrichment facility, and allow IAEA inspectors access to suspected nuclear sites.

No doubt such a deal, if faithfully implemented by the Iranians, would be preferable over Iran continuing its program without any limitations. But it would not stop Iran's program. Instead, it would simply delay elements of this program and prevent Tehran from burying it beyond the reach of airstrikes.

There are more serious problems with such an outcome. Iran would be able to keep its large stockpile of lower enriched uranium and could produce even more of it—only this time with de-facto international approval. Recall that enriching uranium to 3.5% covers 70% of the enrichment efforts necessary to get to weapons grade. That's a significant political and in the end military victory for the regime. In addition, Iran would probably be free to try to improve on its existing centrifuges and continue its work on ballistic missiles, the delivery system for nuclear arms.

Moreover, such a deal puts too much emphasis on enrichment, which is only part of the threat posed by Tehran's nuclear program. Iran has pursued every major area of nuclear weapons development, including triggers and fitting a nuclear war head on ballistic missiles. Controlling just Iran's enrichment activities will not halt Iran's ability to move forward in all those other areas.

As the West would presumably agree to lift or weaken its sanctions against Iran, Tehran would get extra funds and breathing space to improve its nuclear research and capabilities. Tehran could thus use the letup of international pressure to get all other elements for a nuclear weapon in place. Once ready, Tehran could then break out and develop a nuclear weapon in a relatively short time. Compromising with Iranian nuclear negotiators inevitably means compromising with our security.

The P5 plus 1 negotiators should be guided by nothing less than their own previous decisions. The 9 June 2010 UN Security Council Resolution 1929 and preceding resolutions, which Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany (the P5+1) have all supported, demands that Iran suspends all of its uranium enrichment activities, not just those above 3.5% or 5%, and requires the full disclosure and cessation of its military nuclear program.

Thank you very much for allowing me to outline the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program and how Europe could help to stop it. My colleague Joshua Goodman and I would be happy to take any questions or respond to any comments you may have.

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