The inauguration of Iran’s President Hassan Rohani in two days restarts the countdown toward a confrontation over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program as it approaches Israel’s “red line” for military action.
After a decade of fruitless negotiations and tightening economic sanctions, the next 12 months may make or break the international effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Such weapons would pose an existential threat to Israel, endanger the U.S. and Europe, and trigger a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf region.
Rohani, who takes office Aug. 4 and was considered a relative moderate among the candidates permitted to run by the country’s Guardian Council, has spurred hopes in some quarters that Iran may be willing to curb its nuclear efforts. That view isn’t shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who calls Rohani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and Iran’s nuclear advances are narrowing the window of time to avoid a conflict.
“There is a 75 percent to 80 percent chance that issue will have come to a head” by this time next year, said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
As negotiations stalled during the wait for the election to choose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor, Iran increased its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium and added centrifuges capable of shortening the “breakout” time to produce enough highly enriched fuel for a nuclear device.
The country could have a nuclear weapon within a year if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chooses to do so, according to former U.S. Marine General James Mattis, who retired in March as commander of the U.S. Central Command.
Iran joins Syria and Egypt on a mushrooming list of Mideast challenges for President Barack Obama. During a March visit to Israel, he said the U.S. “will do what is necessary” to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Netanyahu has renewed his warnings of Israeli military action amid Iran’s nuclear advances and talk in the West of Rohani’s moderation.
“I’m convinced that last year Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to attack Iran and was looking for some kind of green light, or at least a yellow light from Washington -- and he didn’t get it,” said Gary Samore, who at the time was White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism.
Obama has said there’s still time for talks and assured Netanyahu -- as well as declaring publicly -- that “all options are on the table” to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
By pressuring Iran with sanctions, the U.S. and other world powers are seeking an initial agreement that halts its production of 20 percent enriched uranium -- a step short of weapons grade -- and removes its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium so it can’t be diverted for weapons.
Iran says its enrichment program is intended solely for electric power generation and medical research. Netanyahu in June said Iran needs to stop all uranium enrichment activities so that the Islamic Republic won’t get nuclear weapons.
The negotiating window will shut if Iran moves to avoid International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring, such as kicking out global inspectors. In that case, “I think it would be impossible to hold back the Israelis,” Samore told a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, last month. “In fact, it would probably be impossible to hold back the United States.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Khamenei, who has ultimate authority over the nuclear program, hasn’t decided to produce a weapon, though Iran is developing the ability to do so quickly.
The situation is complicated because Iran is advancing along three paths, each with weapons implications.
One is the production of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is the initial focus of Western concerns because it can quickly be purified to weapons grade. Netanyahu’s “red line” for a military strike is tied to the amount of medium-enriched uranium needed for a warhead, about 240 kilograms (529 pounds).
In May, the Vienna-based IAEA reported that Iran’s stockpile totaled 182 kilograms (401 pounds), up from 167 kilograms (368 pounds) three months earlier, after removing some for use in a reactor making medical isotopes. At that rate, Iran by mid-2014 would have enough to make one weapon, an amount the U.S. says is far more than needed to fuel its one existing medical research reactor and four others being planned.
Iran’s second effort involves thousands of new centrifuges at facilities at Natanz, 209 kilometers (130 miles) southeast of Tehran, and Fordow, near the holy city Qom, that cut the time needed to convert power-reactor grade uranium to weapons material. Iran has 5,000 centrifuges ready to join 12,000 in operation, Ahmadinejad said July 28, according to the state-run Mehr news agency.
The growing number of centrifuges will give Iran the ability by mid-2014 to dash to a bomb while evading IAEA safeguards, according to a report this week by David Albright and Christina Walrond of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. With enough centrifuges, “there simply would not be enough time to organize an international diplomatic or military response,” according to Albright, a former nuclear inspector, and Walrond, who urge talks on capping the number of Iranian centrifuges.
Iran’s third path is a heavy-water reactor at Arak, 241 kilometers (150 miles) south of Tehran, that’s to enter operation in mid-2014 to produce isotopes for medical and agricultural use, officials say. This type of reactor could yield about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of plutonium a year -- enough for about two nuclear weapons -- if the weapons-grade material is separated from irradiated fuel, according to ISIS.
Israel in 1981 bombed a similar facility that was nearing completion in Iraq, and in 2007 it destroyed what allegedly was a similar heavy-water reactor secretly being built in Syria with North Korean assistance. Any attack on Arak would have to come in the next six to nine months -- before fuel is loaded -- to avoid spreading radioactive material.
To stop Iran’s programs, the U.S. has led an international effort to impose an array of sanctions that have hit Iran’s economy by sharply reducing Iran’s oil revenue, trade and international financial transactions.
In December, Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini said oil revenue had dropped 50 percent due to sanctions, according to the Tehran-based Khabar Online website. The national currency, the rial, lost more than half its value in the past year before Rohani’s June 14 election, and the International Monetary Fund forecasts a decline in gross domestic product of 1.3 percent this year, following a 1.9 percent contraction in 2012.
Rohani, 64, who was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, owes his election in part to public discontent over economic conditions, and he won’t be able to improve conditions without sanctions relief.
The six world powers negotiating with Iran -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany -- are prepared for new talks and think Rohani’s election may provide an opportunity for progress, a Western diplomat told reporters in Brussels on July 19, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The atmospherics and the mood have really changed,” Ray Takeyh, a Mideast analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said in a phone interview. “Given that change of atmosphere, I suspect that the prospects of confrontation, which I always thought were low, are likely to be even lower.”
That may depend on what Rohani does in the next few months. An initial test will be Iran’s response to the outstanding proposal from the Western nations, which call themselves the P5+1 because all but Germany are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
They’ve offered to ease trade sanctions on petrochemicals, precious metals and civilian aircraft parts and to provide technical cooperation on nuclear energy if Iran halts production of 20 percent-enriched uranium and ships much of its stockpile out of the country, according to diplomats involved.
That would only be a first step, and wouldn’t give Iran relief from the main sanctions on the oil and financial sectors.
“The Iranians will be in for some sticker shock,” Samore said. “They’re going to have to pay a very high price in terms of limiting their nuclear program.”
Kenneth Katzman, a Mideast analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said he doesn’t expect the U.S. to alter its negotiating strategy following Rohani’s election.
“There’s a very deep hesitancy in the United States to make any advance concessions to Iran until the U.S. sees what Rohani wants to do and what he can do,” said Katzman, speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy group.
Samore said an early test of whether Rohani can take a different path is whether Iran accepts Obama’s longstanding offer of a bilateral channel for talks. He called the P5+1 negotiations a relatively ineffective route toward a deal.
“I’ve sat through those meetings, and it’s really kind of staged event,” he said. To hammer out an agreement, he said, “you really have to get the two critical parties -- the U.S. and Iran -- in a room together and do some give and take.”
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