05/20/2014 - 21:45

The historic debate about Iran’s nuclear program

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette, Jr. is a science writer/editor and foreign correspondent who has filed stories from every continent except Antarctica. His stories have appeared in Scientific American,...

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“A relentless drumbeat of public doubt about Iranian compliance with arms control commitments could lead to missed opportunities at a time when Iran may be heading toward reform, greater openness, and a greater interest in building international confidence… American and Israeli rightists are quick to suggest the military option, and Iranians are painfully aware of how popular that option is among prominent Republicans and hardline opinion-mongers.”

The words sound like they could have been written today about the latest talks in Vienna. But they actually appeared 16 years ago in a Bulletin article by Eric Arnett, “Iran is not Iraq.” Arnett, head of the Military Technology Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, noted that for all its faults, Iran “has the best arms control and norm-building record in the Middle East. Iran is party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). It has unilaterally signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), unilaterally capped its ballistic missile program, participates in the UN Arms Register—revealing imports that previously had not been known to the public and were not reported by the supplier—and it has taken the initiative in promoting regional confidence-building measures.”

What he wrote then is important to bear in mind now, when—in fits and starts, with many pauses and hiccups—Iran and the major powers seem to be moving closer to a deal that limits the Iranian nuclear program. And just as in the past, some in the US Congress are challenging any such approach, claiming that little short of bombing or invading Iran will ensure a weapons-free Middle East.

But something significant has been happening in Vienna, where other countries hope to limit Iran's program so it does not produce material that is more than 5 percent uranium 235, an enrichment level that would allow Iran to make radioisotopes for research and, perhaps, fuel for its one commercial nuclear power plant, but not to build nuclear weapons. It seems, now, that such a deal is possible, perhaps because what Iran has been seeking all along is a national-pride-assuaging “Japan option”—that is, remaining one short technological step from weapons- grade uranium, unless the need to take that step arises.

Such a result may be the best that the West can hope for, as Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “The alternatives are war or a nuclear-armed Iran.”

“What remains to be done does not diminish the historic dimension of what has been achieved,” Mathews wrote. “After more than a decade of failed negotiations and, for the US and Iran, three decades of unproductive silence, diplomacy is working. As of January 20, 2014, the short-term agreement is in full effect. Twenty percent enrichment is suspended. If the agreement is sustained by both sides, Iran’s enrichment progress will be halted and in important respects rolled back.”

Writing 16 years apart, Arnett and Mathews seem to agree that there are reasons for qualified, cautious trust in Iran; by Middle Eastern standards, Iran is reasonably open, and it is one of the few places in the region where there has been a peaceful transition of power.

Just the same, neither expert suggested that Iran has been a model country, now or then. “Its human rights record is dismal,” Arnett wrote back in 1998. “It has sponsored terrorism and the deliberate murder of dissidents living abroad. And its funding and training of terrorist groups—especially Hezbollah—has disrupted its relations with a number of Arab states and made enemies of Israel and the United States... But to say that Iran flouts nonproliferation norms is naïve, if not cynically mischievous.”