After months of resistance, Iran has agreed to accept stricter international inspections and temporarily suspend its production of enriched uranium. That is progress, but not enough to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Last summer, while Americans were searching fruitlessly for evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq, international inspectors found disturbing evidence next door in Iran. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran began enriching uranium at a pilot centrifuge plant last August and is also constructing larger underground enrichment facilities. Within a year, the plant could make enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb a year and the larger facilities could make 15 to 20 times as much.
Iran said that its program were for peaceful generation of nuclear energy; but inspectors found traces of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. The IAEA set an October 31 deadline for full compliance. And now, under pressure from Europe, Iran has called a temporary halt to enrichment. But it would be a mistake to stop at this point.
Iran correctly claims that, as a party to the non-proliferation treaty, it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. In a sense, the NPT was born with a loophole. Even if a country allows inspections, it can legally accumulate enriched uranium (or reprocessed plutonium) under the guise of a peaceful energy program and then suddenly declare that circumstances have changed, and withdraw from the treaty. It could then produce nuclear weapons at short notice. If Iran were to do this, it would add to the dangers in an unstable region and would be likely to begin unraveling the non-proliferation regime worldwide.
For these good reasons, President George W. Bush has declared an Iranian nuclear weapon unacceptable. Our unilateral options, however, are limited. Not only is our military plate full in trying to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq but it would also be difficult to recruit allies. Fortunately, there is a precedent from something we began in the mid-1970s.
India had recently exploded a nuclear device, France was selling a reprocessing plant to Pakistan and Germany began to sell enrichment technology to Brazil. Many parties to the NPT planned to import or develop enrichment and reprocessing facilities. We feared that the non-proliferation regime was unraveling. The Jimmy Carter administration successfully persuaded France and Germany to curtail their exports, and countries as diverse as the Soviet Union and Japan joined us to form a Nuclear Suppliers Group. In 1977, we signed an agreement to restrict the export of enrichment and reprocessing facilities. We were able to plug part of the loophole without amending the treaty.
Mr. Bush should build on recent progress by approaching Europe, Russia and others and persuading them to offer Iran a deal that would fully plug this loophole. Russia, which is helping Iran to construct a nuclear energy reactor at Bushehr, would offer it a guarantee of low-enriched uranium fuel and reprocessing of the reactor's spent fuel in Russia. The deal would be given teeth by a United Nations Security Council resolution, endorsed by the US. The resolution would include a stick declaring that further proliferation of nuclear weapons would be a threat to peace under the Charter and that any country moving in such a direction would be subject to sanctions. The resolution would also include a carrot—guaranteeing Iran access to the non-dangerous aspects of nuclear energy technology. The deal could be sweetened by offers to relax existing sanctions and a security guarantee if Iran remains non-nuclear. At best, such a proposal would head off a looming danger in the Middle East. At worst, if Iran rejected the deal, it would have served notice of its real intentions.
European foreign ministers have produced a useful first step. Russia has refused our requests to cancel the Bushehr reactor but has indicated it would be willing to provide such fuel services. Given Iran's suspicion of the US, subtle American diplomacy would be needed to persuade Europe and Russia to launch the proposal, and we would then announce our support. There have been few recent issues on which the US, Russia, Europe and the UN are in close agreement. Such a proposal offers a rare opportunity to co-operate on an issue of vital concern.