Lock the Mullahs Up With a Moratorium

June 9, 2005
Graham Allison

Die Zeit
International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohammed ElBaradei has called for a “five-year moratorium” on all new uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities. His proposal should become a rallying point for everyone committed to preserving the non-proliferation regime. Though rejected initially by both Iran and the United States, this proposal should be resurrected by Germany and others.
Significantly, such a global moratorium would provide a bridge for Iran, allowing it to comply with an international obligation without explicitly yielding to American or European demands. Persuading Iran will require an international bundle of both carrots and sticks. The U.S. and the EU3 need to present Iran with a bargain, packaged as an offer Iran’s mullahs cannot refuse.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed that “the most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do.” What should be our objective in the case of Iran ? No Iranian nuclear bomb. Relative to a nuclear-armed Iran , all other issues – its sponsorship of terrorism among the most serious – are subordinate.
During President George W. Bush’s trip to Europe in February, the U.S. and E.U. leaders agreed that Iran must not be allowed to make operational its uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities. The same cascade of centrifuges Iran seeks for “peaceful purposes” – producing low-enriched fuel for reactors – could also produce highly-enriched uranium to fuel nuclear bombs.
The EU3 are prepared to deliver important economic benefits under the terms of an agreement with Iran . Iran is eagerly seeking trade and investment. As Iran’s deputy minister of economy and finance, Muhammad Khazai, has acknowledged, Iran will need $20 billion in investment every year for the next five years as its burgeoning youth population joins the job market.
What Iran wants most from the United States is a credible assurance that the U.S. will not attack it to change its regime by force. That, I believe, is something the Bush Administration is prepared to provide – if Iran will actually cease all work on its reprocessing and enrichment facilities that could support a nuclear weapons program. The administration will struggle, however, to find a way to do so that does not legitimize a regime it judges evil.
Russia has signed a contract to provide nuclear fuel for an Iranian energy plant at Bushehr and to take back the spent fuel (and the plutonium it contains). Russian president Vladimir Putin has stated in no uncertain terms, “Our position on nuclear non-proliferation is consistent and strict -- we are categorically against proliferation of nuclear weapons and categorically against any kind of military nuclear programs in Iran.”
Beyond the current contract, Iran needs credible international guarantees that it can buy additional civilian nuclear reactors, an uninterruptible supply of fuel for these reactors, and removal of spent fuel at bargain prices.
Carrots alone, however, will not suffice. Crucial to sealing this deal will be a judgment by Iran ’s leaders that they have no realistic prospect of completing their enrichment and reprocessing facilities at this time. Essential to that judgment is a credible military threat to destroy the facilities before they can be turned on. Since the point is the threat, not the act, central casting has provided an ideal candidate in Ariel Sharon. His government has left no doubt about Israel ’s willingness to play its part. As Sharon ’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, has warned: “under no circumstances would Israel be able to tolerate nuclear weapons in Iranian possession.”
All that remains for this deal to come together is a determined dealmaker. While other parties currently wait for the U.S. to step up to this role, there is no reason why a European leader could not fit the bill.
Iran continues probing the EU3 with threats to restart enrichment, expecting it to yield. When the EU3 have hung tough, however, Iran has stepped back. At the beginning of May, an EU3 letter warned Iran that any enrichment work “would bring the negotiating process to an end… [and that] the consequences could only be negative for Iran.” Iran immediately reversed course, withdrawing its letter notifying the IAEA of its intent to restart its uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan.
If Iran agrees to extend the current moratorium for five years, in an appropriately verifiable way, and we maintain the status quo on all other fronts, we will be no worse off then we were yesterday on other issues in this relationship. And we will be hugely better off than if Iran becomes a nuclear-armed state. A five-year window will allow statesmen an opportunity to repair the nuclear non-proliferation regime that otherwise could be irreversibly devastated.

Graham Allison, director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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