Iranians keep saying that they never intended to build a bomb, nor do they intend to do so in the future…ever. Unfortunately, their transgressions and behavior in the past have shown these statements to be suspect. It is certain that Tehran has considered making a bomb in the past and judging from the involvement of the elusive and secretive Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the would-be “father of the Iranian bomb” behind the scenes in the nuclear negotiations, Tehran might still be contemplating making a bomb after all.
As the deadline on the nuclear negotiations gets closer, both sides are trying to figure out what would be a good compromise. All compromises are necessarily imperfect by definition but both sides are looking for a compromise that won’t cross their red lines, even if they are drawn on sand.
Red Lines in the Sand
The negotiations are not on whether Iran will or will not make a bomb but are focused on the time to break-out point. Estimates are currently 6-12 months, depending on who you ask.
Tehran wants to maintain the status quo on its nuclear program meaning that 90% of it will remain unchanged and whatever is changed can be unchanged within a short time. This way, if and when the Supreme Leader decides to make a bomb, it will be doable within up to 6 months.
The P5+1 want to Iran’s nuclear program to downsize by about 40% by decreasing centrifuges, uranium stocks, heavy water facilities etc…and increase transparency in the hope that if Tehran does rush for break-out they will need 12-18 months (hopefully enough time to intervene – whatever that means).
The truth is that no one knows how Tehran’s nuclear program will play out in the future and if the West can effectively block Iran’s rush to break-out if it wanted to. Negotiations are less about the red lines and more about the immediate benefits, and in this case the short-term benefits are mostly on Iran’s side.
The Overt/Covert-Make/Buy Question
Were Tehran to reach for break-out, it could do so in one of 4 ways: Overtly make, overtly buy, covertly make or covertly buy a bomb. For their article “The Nuclear Maginot Line“, Allison and Setter asked several dozen experts to estimate which path Tehran would take if it decided to make a run for a bomb. The answers were split between “make/covert” and “make/overt” with “buy/covert” in third place.
The same experts were then asked what the focus of the P5+1 is in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the answer was resoundingly the “make/overt” option. This means that the P5+1 team is not focusing on Iran’s ability to covertly make or buy a nuclear weapon.
What Makes a Compromise Good?
For the P5+1, it seems that all most of the compromises being discussed don’t lengthen the break-out point sufficiently. In the opinions of three leading nuclear experts, Albright, Heinonen and Stricker, most of the compromises discussed compromise the ability of the P5+1 to effectively stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In their opinion, the final deal should be set within a framework of 5 basic parameters:
- Adequate break-out time should be a minimum of 6-12 months if not more.
- Irreversibility in program cut downs to increase the length of break-out time.
- Stability through “provisions” that limit the possibility of wild accusations and violations.
- Transparency that will allow IAEA inspectors the ability to issue warnings and assurances on time.
- Ability to detect the clandestine acquisition and management of “sensitive nuclear facilities”.
Any deal that strays from these parameters is bound to be temporary and to blow up, literally, in the faces of the P5+1 leaders. The P5+1, and in fact the whole world, better hope that the Supreme Leader will not renege on his word.