A couple of things need to be made clear regarding the Iranian nuclear program, and Iran’s broader current situation. Both of them are of practical relevance to the form that the negotiations now opening up between the west and Iran should take.
First, the Iranians are now very close to achieving a nuclear weapons capability. Iran now has 186 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20%. It is generally considered that it will need 250 kilograms, which it can then rapidly enrich further to 90% for the production of a nuclear weapon.
This point, according to former head of IDF military intelligence Amos Yadlin, is a matter of “months” away.
Yadlin thinks that achieving the ability to place a deliverable nuclear warhead on a missile might take Iran longer to master. But the Iranians are into the final stretch. All that is now required to take them to the threshold of nuclear capability is an amenable international atmosphere for the next year or so.
Second, the sanctions against Iran have hit the Iranian economy hard. Foreign currency reserves have been severely depleted. The value of the Iranian riyal has plummeted.
This has led some observers to conclude that the election of Rohani and the proclaimed turn toward flexibility may this time have some substance to it. The argument is made that whatever the ideological intentions of the Iranian regime, the sanctions have placed it in an impossible position, from which it now has no choice but to seek a dignified exit through rapprochement with the west.
This view is belied by the evidence of Iranian behavior on matters not directly related to the nuclear file. For the last two and a half years, Tehran has been directly challenging the west in one of the most important Mid Eastern arenas –- that of the Syrian civil war. In offering their backing to their client Assad regime, the Iranians have spent somewhere in the region of $10 billion. This is a massive outlay for any country. For a country suffering the demonstrable effects of international sanctions it is an enormous investment, carrying a clear message.
The message is that where the regime’s core strategic interests and ambitions are at stake, it will not compromise, but rather will find a way through. Severe internal repression will serve to dampen any public response to the undoubtedly deleterious effects of the sanctions. So far, it appears to be working.
This is demonstrably and undeniably the choice the regime chose to make regarding the costly but ultimately secondary issue of defending a key regional ally. It is not clear on what the optimists base their view that when it comes to primary, cardinal issues such as their nuclear program, the regime will for some reason choose to adopt a more flexible stance.
Iran has suffered serious setbacks over the last two years. The unrest in the Arab countries and the rise of Sunni political Islam have dashed its hopes of leading the Muslim world against the West. Non-Arab, Shia, repressive Iran is a model for no one now outside of the narrow realms of Shia Islam.
Yet Iran has nevertheless performed effectively in defending the narrower borders of its area of domination. Iraq is now aligned with it. Lebanon is in the hands of its Hizballah proxy. And Assad is holding on. The idea that Iran has been brought to its knees and is looking for a way out is not borne out by the observable facts.
Given these two facts — that the regime is now close to its nuclear goal, and that it has a proven track record of willingness to sacrifice short-term interest for the pursuit of long-term goals — what is the appropriate stance for the West to take?
It is vital that any negotiation be limited in time, with a clear point at which Iran must be given the choice of either complying with international demands, or deciding not to comply with them, at which point other options, including military ones, should come into consideration.
The reason for the need for a strict timetable is that Iran is close to nuclear success and has a proven track record of prevarication and obfuscation. Negotiations must include the demand that Iran stop enrichment beyond 20% and ship its existing stockpile out of the country.
The means for enrichment should also be dismantled. These would include the Fordow facility, and the Arak facility which makes possible an alternative, plutonium-based push for a nuclear capability.
Iran must also sign on to the additional protocol of the Non Proliferation Treaty, giving IAEA inspectors rapid and expanded access to facilities for inspection in Iran.
These demands will prevent the possibility of a sudden and rapid advance to a nuclear capability.
Anything less than Iranian acceptance of these demands (which is highly unlikely) should be seen as an indication that Tehran is pursuing the same strategy that it has adopted over the last decade. Namely, a push for a nuclear weapons capability combined with a sophisticated diplomatic campaign to hide this intention.
At this point, the inescapable logic of the situation brings us back to the following conclusion. There must either be an acceptance that Iran is going nuclear, and measures taken to contain and control this, or military action against Iran must come on to the agenda. Reality does not allow for a third way.