In January 2012, during the last U.S. presidential campaigning season, I wrote an op-ed for Britain's Telegraph newspaper about the nuclear deal that the West could strike with Iran. I was worried by GOP enthusiasm for the illegal use of force to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure. I reckoned that Western policy had failed to adjust to a reassuring 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear intentions. I knew that Iran was ready to volunteer restrictions on its civil nuclear program and intrusive verification to build confidence that in the future its nuclear program would be peaceful, whatever it may have been in the past.
So I am more than pleased that this year's Vienna nuclear agreement with Iran occurred and has survived a partisan Congressional review process. But I do not regard the Iranian nuclear problem as solved. Let me explain why.
The agreement will restrict Iran's capacity to produce enriched uranium for 15 years. The machines that enrich uranium to fuel nuclear reactors can also be used to produce the raw material -- "highly enriched uranium (HEU)" -- for nuclear weapons. So these restrictions are valuable. They reduce to near-zero the risk of Iran having enough time to make enough HEU for a weapon without being forcibly interrupted.
All this is well and good. But what will happen 15 years from now when these restrictions lapse and Iran is free to install as many centrifuge machines as it wants?
On August 11 Iran's Fars News reported that one of Iran's deputy ministers had announced a tentative plan to acquire the capacity to produce one million "separative work units (SWU)" (an enrichment output measure) a year once the restrictions lapse. With an installed capacity of one million SWU Iran could produce enough HEU for one nuclear weapon in a matter of days, with little risk of interruption.
I may be wrong, but I doubt whether 15 years from now the West would feel comfortable with such a dramatic expansion of Iran's capacity to enrich uranium.
So is there a way of heading off a rapid expansion in the years following 2030? Yes, by creating incentives for Iran's leaders to be extremely prudent in their nuclear decision-making. The Director of National Intelligence pointed towards this option in 2007 when he assessed that Iran's leaders were rational and that their nuclear decision-making would be determined by cost/benefit considerations -- formulas since repeated in reports to Congress.
What form can incentives to prudence take?
The leaders of the Islamic Republic are not indifferent to domestic opinion. They know that public dissatisfaction with economic stagnation could threaten the Islamic Republic's survival. So re-integrating Iran into the global economy and keeping it there, to raise Iranian living standards, is in their interest.
They also desire re-integration into the global political community. The Islamic Republic has passed through its revolutionary phase and is now a conventional state. Its leaders want the kind of relationship with the West that other Asian developing states mostly enjoy: independent, non-aligned but cordial and correct.
In other words, to reduce the risk of an alarming expansion in Iran's enrichment capacity after 2030 the West needs to spend the next few years drawing Iran into the global economic and political community. The more that Iran's leaders feel that the Islamic Republic is an accepted member of that community, and enjoying the benefits of acceptance, the more they will hesitate to take nuclear decisions that could put those gains at risk.
There is all the more chance of this in that the costs of prudence will be minimal. Last November Iran's Atomic Energy Organization and Russia's nuclear reactor supplier signed an agreement that envisages Russian supply of eight nuclear power plants. It also envisages Russian supply of the fuel for these reactors, throughout their operating lives
We can infer that for decades to come an Iranian nuclear power program will not be dependent on Iran acquiring a one million SWU enrichment capacity. Iran will need indigenously enriched uranium only for domestically produced medical isotope reactors, and for that far less than one million SWU will suffice.
What does all this imply for U.S. policy over the coming years?
The U.S. does not need to take the lead in re-integrating Iran. They can leave that to their allies in Europe and Asia whose national interest lies in normalizing relations with Iran.
Holding back will mean that U.S. corporations miss out on an opportunity to make money by doing business in Iran. It will also reduce the potential for influencing Iranian foreign policy by working together on regional security, and for securing the release of several Americans who are held in captivity in Iran. But if domestic politics require that for a while longer the U.S. nurse its grievances and placate two of Iran's Middle East rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, by shunning Iran, so be it.
What the U.S. should resist, however, is steps that obstruct or undermine that reintegration process. Those in Congress who urge the imposition of additional secondary sanctions (secondary sanctions punish European and Asian banks, for instance, for doing Iranian business) should be ignored. The attempt to justify additional sanctions by claiming that Iran is the world's leading sponsor of terrorism and by laying blame for all the ills of the Middle East at Iran's door has become increasingly absurd.
In addition, it's time to end the war of words with the Iranian government over their domestic political arrangements and their handling of dissent. Aggressive public criticism of Iran has not changed Iranian behavior but will discourage an inclination to nuclear prudence. The right way to go is that favored by the European Union: a discreet dialogue on human rights through diplomatic channels.
This year's nuclear agreement with Iran offers a long respite from concern about Iran's nuclear intentions. It gives Iranians a chance to build confidence that they have no more intention of violating their nuclear non-proliferation commitments than any of the other non-nuclear-weapon states that could produce enough HEU for a nuclear weapon in quick order but choose not to do so.
But the agreement does not offer an indefinite respite. When its restrictions on Iran's capacity to enrich lapse, concern could revive. This long-term problem cannot be solved through coercion or the use of force. It can only be solved by influencing Iran's nuclear decision-making and creating incentives for nuclear prudence.