Presentation by Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, IISS, at the Conference on Arabian Gulf and Regional Challenges, Riyadh, September 2014
Among unconventional and asymmetrical challenges, nuclear weapons are the most destructive and most worrisome. In the Middle East, the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is a long-desired goal. It is regrettable that there been no progress toward fulfilling this ambition. This is partly because of questions of adherence and trust. The region has seen four cases when nations have violated their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). One nation remains outside the NPT altogether. Israel’s long-standing position is that it will join the NPT when it has peace and security. It is natural that security should be on the agenda of the delayed Helsinki Conference that is supposed to be held as a step toward the Zone.
The goal of the Zone should appeal to all parties. For Israel, surely it is better that the number of nuclear-armed states in the region is zero rather than two. Most Israelis seem to want to keep the number at one. The question is whether Iran will become the second.
It should be recognized that Iran’s nuclear program is dual purpose. The Bushehr reactor has an electrical power output of 1,000 MW. This represents 2-3% of the nation’s electricity generation capacity. It is noteworthy that far more energy is lost through gas flaring. The Bushehr electricity is produced at a huge cost: $11 billion for the reactor construction plus more than $100 billion in opportunity costs due to sanctions. In addition, Bushehr poses environmental and safety risks exacerbated by Iran’s estrangement from much of the world. The programme makes no economic sense.
Iran leaders admit the nuclear programme also has a strategic purpose. There is no evidence that Iran has produced nuclear weapons to date or even that it has made a decision to produce nuclear weapons. Rather, it is pursuing a nuclear hedging strategy to be able quickly to produce nuclear weapons if a decision is made to do so.
Iran has made significant progress in all three aspects of what is needed for nuclear weapons. It possesses low enriched uranium sufficient for perhaps six weapons if further enriched. It seems apparent that Iran has studied all of the technologies necessary to make a weapon from the fissile material. Iran has also made impressive progress in ballistic missile technology with which to be able to deliver a weapon. All that is needed for a weapon – if one can say ‘all’ -- is time and a political commitment.
Despite sanctions and sabotage, the nuclear programme steadily expanded. Sanctions along with export controls delayed goal achievement by restricting access to foreign materials, but these measures did not stop or even retard the programme. Sanctions may have been more effective in constraining the missile programme. It is noteworthy that the last known test launch of Iran’s most potent missile, the solid-fuelled Sajill-2 was in February 2011.
Iran’s ‘break-out’ capability is maybe three months to produce a weapon’s worth of 90% highly enriched uranium. The fissile material then needs to be fashioned into a weapon, which might take six months. Fitting a nuclear weapon to a missile nosecone could take another year or more.
Diplomacy has had some success. Under the Joint Plan of Action reached last November, the time to produce a weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium doubled, and Iran’s nuclear capabilities are capped. The threat of war was thus put off. Military action remains an option in the unlikely event that diplomacy collapses. President Barak Obama is determined that Iran will not have nuclear weapons. I am convinced that he will take military action to prevent that outcome, if all other measures fail. I am also convinced that he will not agree to a bad deal with Iran for the sake of a diplomatic victory for his legacy. Nor will he appease Iran on the nuclear file in order to forge cooperation to fight the ISIS.
Critics of the interim deal feared that it would entail an unravelling of the sanctions regime. It didn’t. The US and EU are ensuring that existing sanctions remain firm. They continue to designate Iranian companies and to impose fines on Western firms that do not follow the sanctions rules. So despite plane loads of European businessmen visiting Tehran, no contracts are being signed. Businesses and banks are even avoiding allowed transactions, out of fear of inadvertently violating sanctions.
The interim deal is being honoured because neither side has any incentive to cheat and lose the benefits derived from it. But a comprehensive deal is doubtful. The two sides are simply too far apart in their demands for what a comprehensive deal must entail. The Western nations want deep cutbacks: elimination of the vast majority of the centrifuges and for limitations to last more than 10 years. They also want clarity about the evidence of Iran’s past weapons development work. Iran insists it will not dismantle anything. It wants to keep a capability to be able to produce nuclear weapons if a political decision is made. It is willing to make tactical adjustments, but sees limits lasting only a short time.
There is no sign that the political landscape in Iran has been prepared for the cutbacks that would be necessary for an agreement. To provide confidence that it would not be able to quickly build nuclear weapons, most Western analysts assume Iran would need to reduce the 9,500 currently operating centrifuges by half or more. The rest, along with the 10,000 other installed but idle centrifuges, would need to be disabled. Iran speaks instead about keeping 20,000, and expanding to 100,000 in the not-so-distant future.
Were it up to them, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would probably accept enough tactical compromises to bring a deal within sight. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not similarly willing. This was apparent when he insisted that Iran needs an industrial level of enrichment. His reference to an enrichment output goal as measured by Separative Work Units rather than number of centrifuges does not make the large-sized program he demands any more palatable.
Verification should be an easier issue. President Rouhani talked in his election campaign about offering more transparency, so, unlike limits on nuclear capability, he can claim a mandate on the subject. But Iran’s willingness to accept transparency measures is in doubt. Tehran failed to meet the promised 25 August deadline for taking five transparency steps. Only three of the steps were accomplished, two of them after the set date. The two steps that went unfulfilled had to do with past activity of a ‘possible military dimension (PMD)’, the term used by the IAEA to mean weaponisation work. Iran told the IAEA that most suspicions over its programme were ‘mere allegations and do not merit consideration’.
Some analysts surmised that Iran wanted to save action on the sensitive PMD issue as leverage for ongoing negotiations with the six powers. As I see it, failure to meet the deadline is due, rather, to internal disputes in Iran. Zarif knows that Iran’s credibility in the talks depends on it keeping its commitments. I assume that he and Rouhani were overruled by hardliners who are in charge of the areas where transparency measures were not taken: clarification concerning alleged experiments on explosives that could be used for nuclear weapons and studies related to calculating nuclear explosive yields.
Failure to provide the agreed information not only undermines Iran’s credibility in negotiations, it makes it harder for Obama to sell any prospective deal to a sceptical Congress, and, I presume, to sceptical Arab partners. It also shows how hard it will be to reach any deal. If Iran now can’t even meet pledges of cooperation with the IAEA, it is hard to see how it can muster the collective political will to accept the kind of cutbacks in Iran’s nuclear program that would be necessary for a comprehensive agreement.
The alternative to a comprehensive deal is not necessarily a collapse of diplomacy. I do not see a return to escalatory sanctions and centrifuge enhancements, with military action again on the horizon. The more likely alternative, rather, is another interim deal, probably one with new conditions, such as locking in an agreement to change the design of the Arak reactor so that it produces less plutonium. Some analysts say that the political circumstances in both Washington and Tehran would not allow for a continuation of the interim deal. A Western diplomat underscored this on 11 September by ruling out a further extension of the negotiations and calling November 24 a ‘hard deadline’. But if the alternative to an ‘interim-plus’ arrangement was the breakdown of diplomacy, would either Obama or Rouhani reject it? Of course not.
Continuing the interim deal will not solve the problem. But by continuing to cap Iran’s nuclear programme it keeps the problem from getting worse. And it preserves leverage for Iran’s negotiating partners because most sanctions remain in place. I do not buy the idea that talks just buy time for Iran to advance its nuclear programme. The programme was advancing every year anyway in the absence of real negotiations. And a continuation of the interim deal is not necessarily in Iran’s favour. Its leaders have to worry about internal expectations of more sanctions relief. Continuing the status quo on sanctions could be politically dangerous in Tehran.
I recognise that there is a danger in the negotiations dragging on. External factors could serve to derail diplomacy, for example: if Iran pushes envelope of R&D work on new centrifuges; if evidence surfaces of unreported nuclear; if rumours of nuclear cooperation with North Korea are confirmed; if the US Congress adopts new sanctions over Obama’s veto; if the Iran Majles forces the Iranian government to break the constraints; and if Russia and Iran go through with their reported ‘oil-for-goods swap’ plan, under which Moscow would end up bringing Iranian oil to the market outside of sanctions.
The Ukraine crisis will also have negative repercussions for the Iran talks. So far, Russia has not broken ranks with its negotiating partners. But the Iranians now have more reason to wait out the six powers, in the expectation the fall-out from Ukraine will make the Russians more willing to strike a side deal.
At the EU Non-Proliferation Conference in Brussels at the beginning of September, Bruno Tertrais warned about the black swans that could sink diplomacy. But not every black swan bodes ill. Buying time can allow for positive as well as negative developments. How much longer will Khamenei live, for example? His prostate operation was reportedly successful, but he won’t live forever, and he may be replaced by a leader who is more flexible about dealing with the United States.
The emergence of a common enemy could also be a positive black swan. In fact, the ISIS has emerged as just such an enemy. US-Iran tacit cooperation against ISIS could facilitate a nuclear deal by demonstrating to hardliners that there are worse devils and that cooperating with an erstwhile adversary can bring benefits.
Such American cooperation with Iran would arouse suspicions, including suspicions among Gulf Arabs. Such cooperation should therefore not be bilateral, but should also include GCC states. There is a need for a security architecture in the Gulf area that includes Iran, the GCC states and their external partners. If I may make a commercial, the Manama Dialogue organised in early December each year by the International Institute for Strategic Studies aims to build just such a regional security architecture. I hope to see many of you at the Manama Dialogue this December.