Keep your enemy closer

The best way to know the full extent of Iran’s nuclear doings is to offer it help.

Tt now appears a foregone conclusion that Iran will continue its nuclear program no matter what the United States and the European Union offer to stop it.

Short of a U.N. Security Council resolution–which is unlikely, given the reluctance of veto-wielding nations such as China and Russia to impose sanctions–Israel or the United States might seek to end the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program through force. But bombing nuclear facilities or launching a preventive war runs the risk of futility because Iran has hardened and dispersed its nuclear complex. Moreover, military action may spark reprisal by Iranian-backed jihadist groups at a time when the U.S. military is already stretched to the breaking point by the insurgency in Iraq.

In pursuing a civilian nuclear program, Iran has international law on its side. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gives signatories “the inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technologies contingent on not making nuclear explosives. Although Iran has been less than forthcoming about many of its nuclear activities, inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency have not revealed evidence of a nuclear weapons program.

Despite the U.S. government’s fears, the president’s “WMD Commission” concluded that U.S. intelligence knows “disturbingly little” about Iran. And in August, the Washington Post reported that a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) projects that Iran is about 10 years from having the capability of making nuclear weapons–double the time predicted by earlier estimates.

The new NIE, if correct, provides more time for active engagement. The United States and other international partners should seize the opportunity to work closely with Tehran to ensure that its nuclear program complies with the most rigorous safeguards while preserving its right to perform peaceful nuclear activities. Close involvement also can serve as an important source of data on Iranian nuclear activities and can act as a reality check on U.S. intelligence community estimates.

Such collaboration would open interesting avenues to shape the development of Iran’s nuclear program in a positive manner. In the near term, the United States could work with the nuclear industry to provide a steady supply of fresh fuel to Iran through direct contracts with individual companies or through a multinational consortium. (Such a “fuel bank” was recently proposed at an international conference in Moscow.) In parallel to the provision of guaranteed fresh fuel as needed, Iran would implement part of its own proposed agreement with the European Union to restrict the number of enrichment centrifuges it operates for research purposes.

A key to successful implementation, however, is to enhance the monitoring of Iranian enrichment facilities. Unfortunately, the United States is ill-prepared for this task, since efforts to improve safeguards technologies have languished. Safeguards techniques include video surveillance to monitor daily activities at a nuclear facility, satellite imagery analysis to assess movements to and from a country’s nuclear sites, and environmental sampling to determine what types of nuclear materials are present at a facility. In a May report titled “Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risk,” the American Physical Society found that less than $5 million was devoted to such research and development in fiscal 2005.

No technology is proliferation-proof, but more can be done to make nuclear technology proliferation-resistant. To that end, the American Physical Society recommends that the United States “expand efforts in international technical collaborations” with an eye toward “designing safeguards directly into critical nuclear systems.” Probably the most effective built-in safeguards technologies are “use-control” systems that would automatically shut down a facility if a violation occurs. (For example, a use-control system could stop operation of a uranium enrichment plant if highly enriched, bomb-usable uranium is produced.) Iran’s nuclear program could be a valuable test bed for such enhanced safeguards. And increased transparency would yield important diplomatic benefits by minimizing the distrust that currently characterizes Tehran’s relationship with the United States and other countries.

Over the long term, if confidence builds that Iran is fully complying with more rigorous safeguards–and if Iran’s nuclear energy needs continue to grow–the United States and its international partners can assist Iran with developing next-generation fuel cycles that have built-in proliferation-resistant technologies. One such option would be to spike low-enriched uranium hexafluoride with thorium. If the spiked material is introduced into an enrichment plant to make highly enriched uranium, as opposed to the low-enriched uranium used for nuclear fuel, the presence of radioactive thorium would sound an alarm.

To make all this happen, the nuclear industry has to play an essential role. Some industry officials are gradually coming around to the concept that proliferation is bad for business because a well-publicized diversion of commercial nuclear technology into a military program would likely hurt sales. However, the industry has yet to make proliferation-resistance a top priority in all new fuel-cycle technologies under development.

Critics would likely label our proposal as appeasement. Rather than being starry-eyed Neville Chamberlains proclaiming nuclear “peace in our time” with Iran, we would hinge implementation of our initiative on Iran agreeing to rigorous, continuous monitoring of their nuclear program through active involvement with the United States and the European Union. Only by keeping our enemy closer can we increase confidence that Iran is living up to its commitments.

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