Putting a Country on a Leash: Iran and Uranium

With increasing frequency, we hear that the United States would be wise to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium. We’re not a big fan of former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller — another one of those commentators whose credibility was permanently shredded by supporting the Iraq War. But in a recent blog post (Times columnists uses them expand on their regular op-eds), he performs a public service by expanding on this train of thought. First, as most Iran watchers know:

… forfeiting the enrichment rights granted to other states (and to Iran when it was ruled by the shah) is a humiliation no Iranian leader can accept and hope to stay in power.

The second argument for allowing Iran to continue to enrich, just beginning to gain traction, is the more beguiling. It’s best explained by, Keller writes (emphasis added):

… R. Scott Kemp, a Princeton research scholar who spent a year at the State Department as a science adviser on Iran. He points out that under international treaties aimed at preventing nuclear proliferation, enrichment comes with international inspections. Iran presently has inspectors monitoring the Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities. Ending enrichment also ends the obligation to be inspected, and without prying eyes it would be quite easy to reconstitute a nuclear enrichment program in secret. A plant dedicated to making weapons-grade fuel would be nearly impossible to detect.

Why? Because

… Iran has now mastered the most clandestine-capable nuclear-weapon pathway in history: the gas centrifuge. … A gas centrifuge plant capable of making one nuclear weapon per year could be housed in a high-school gymnasium, powered by a diesel generator, and would not need more than a single canister of uranium feed material to make a bomb. It would emit less heat per square foot than a typical warehouse or grocery store and so would be invisible to infrared-sensing satellites. … To this day, there remains no technical way to discover a clandestine centrifuge plant.

In other words (Keller, this time)

Ending enrichment also ends the obligation to be inspected, and without prying eyes it would be quite easy to reconstitute a nuclear enrichment program in secret.

Allowing Iran to enrich could be sold to conservatives as the price we pay for a spy operation inside Iran that’s not only trustworthy but legal. To the Obama administration, it buys time, until, as they say, sanctions work. To progressives, it buys time to bring the West to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, opposed as we disarmament advocates are to proliferation, we stand in at least as firm opposition to states such as the United States attempting to enforce nonproliferation without undertaking substantive measures toward disarmament (such as the token New START treaty) on its own.

In any event, allowing Iran to enrich is marginally less depleting to the United States’s severely diminished stock of disarmament credibility than its present policies. It amounts to keeping Iran on a leash, but perhaps one sufficiently long for Iran to live with.