Continued Enrichment?

IR40 Heavy Water reactor facility, near Arak, Iran

From Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

The criticism that Obama drew for his subdued response begs the question of whether the Green Movement actually wanted his vocal support. Gauging the views of movement leaders, Parsi determines that, at the height of the protests, they worried about support from Washington tainting them as aligned with outside powers — which was also Obama’s reason for keeping his diplomatic distance.

For those who have followed the process closely, the book provides ample material to reexamine one’s own appraisals of Obama’s approach and gain a sharper sense of the issues. Take Parsi’s critique that the administration built up the fuel swap into too harsh a test, ultimately becoming a self-defeating obstacle:

Though the fuel swap was supposed to be a confidence-building measure, it soon turned into a precondition for continued diplomacy; unless Iran agreed to the swap, no other diplomatic activity would take place. This approach, which in essence confused the strategic goal of establishing a functioning and sustainable diplomatic process with the tactical benefit of the fuel swap as a trust-building measure, was highly problematic.

 What Parsi’s analysis misses, though, is that confidence-building must serve a different function in the case of Iran from its usual tactical role. Given that Iran can keep developing uranium enrichment while pretending to negotiate, this raises the threshold for a functioning diplomatic process. Faced with Iran’s strategy of running out the clock, confidence comes at a higher price. At this point, Iranian demonstrations of good faith indeed must be quite substantive, just to keep diplomacy from serving as a mere façade. The real significance of the fuel swap was the way it would have constrained Iran’s ability to build a bomb; it was not turned into a fetish object by the Obama administration, as Parsi describes.

One of the ways Parsi makes his critique of Obama’s impatient diplomatic style is to draw comparison with past US diplomatic successes. Examining the cases of the dismantlement of Libya’s nuclear weapons program in the mid-2000s and normalization of relations with Vietnam a decade earlier, Parsi points out that those negotiations took seven years and four years respectively. But the diplomatic history of the Iranian nuclear program stretches back for nearly a decade of on-again-off-again talks. How, then, should we mark the passage of time in this case? And do we even have the luxury of four to seven more years of diplomacy — or will Iran become a virtual, or even an actual, nuclear weapon state in the meantime?

The prospect of Iran as a virtual nuclear power — without weapons but with the technical capacity to build them — raises the thorniest predicament of the entire process.

“Diplomacy, Iran, and the bomb”, David Shor, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists