The terrorism and nuclear proliferation expert on how the Iranian impasse could be resolved by putting the country on ‘probation’

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat June 15, 2006

The international dispute over Iran’s fledgling nuclear program has reached an impasse, and, shockingly, the Bush administration’s response has been more carrot than stick. Just a week ago, the U.S. offered Iran a package of economic and diplomatic incentives in the hopes that this would resolve the current flap. Tehran’s response continues to be defiance: It will not halt its nuclear enrichment activities. While the diplomatic dance must still play out, however, Washington has few remaining peaceful options. As the risk of a global showdown grows, CityBeat sat down with one of the country’s preeminent experts on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, Dr. Bennett Ramberg, to get an insider’s assessment of where we go from here. A Ph.D. in International Relations from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, Ramberg is the author of a plethora of books and articles on nuclear issues. Most well-known for his classic treatment of the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to military attack and sabotage – Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy (University of California Press) – Ramberg has been on the faculty at Stanford, Princeton, and UCLA, consulted Congress on foreign policy, and worked in the State Department during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Over the last several years, Dr. Ramberg has become the country’s most published newspaper commentator on nuclear security issues, having authored over 30 Op-Eds in major papers in his attempt to turn the world away from another nuclear arms race.

-Michael Collins

CityBeat: How do you see the Iran situation today?
Dr. Bennett Ramberg: Both Washington and Tehran appear to be playing “chicken.” Much like two cars careening toward each other, both are reluctant to step off the accelerator and avoid a disastrous collision. Washington’s current incentive package may do little to change the momentum, given Iran’s repeated commitment to continue its enrichment program.

Could that result in a global crisis?
You bet it could. Iran sits at the pivot of the world’s oil resources. Were conflict to break out – were the United States to conduct a military strike as Israel did in 1981 against Iraq to eliminate Tehran’s suspect nuclear weapons capacity – the world economy would be impacted dramatically. If you think $70 per barrel is a lot of money, think again; $100-$150 is the trajectory of petroleum pricing that we could see as a base plateau. Then there is the possibility of Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests in Iraq and elsewhere. That’s why we have to figure out a diplomatic formula that would both test Iran’s intentions and mobilize the international community to oppose its nuclear weapons development. I think I have found one in “nuclear probation.”

Yes. It is a unique means to resolve the conflict. It would grant Iran’s right to mature its nuclear fuel-cycle facilities, subject to the presence of residential inspectors and a “nuclear mousetrap” – an automatic international enforcement mechanism endorsed by the Security Council that would spring into action were Iran to break a nonproliferation tripwire. It’s an idea based on accepting Iran’s position that it only wants to develop nuclear capability for peaceful purposes, but if it bolts from its nonproliferation vows the hammer would drop with predetermined sanctions culminating in military consequences without any of the dilly-dallying we see now at the U.N.

That seems like a tall order. Is there a historical context that bears out the possibility that this could actually work?
This would be a novel approach that would reinforce international mechanisms to enforce nonproliferation generally. A review of history suggests why it is needed. Iran’s interest in nuclear weapons actually goes back to the era of the Shah. In the 1970s, the United States provided Tehran with nuclear assistance as part of our Atoms for Peace program. We believed that exports tethered to oversight would prevent countries from getting the bomb.

So there were safeguards?
Oh, yes. In 1970, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] went into force, requiring all signatories to reveal their nuclear activities, except the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states – the U.S., the USSR, Britain, France, and China. However, the Shah hoped to use the peaceful program to shroud a parallel nuclear weapons effort. The ambition went up in smoke with the 1979 Iranian revolution that kicked him out of the country.

So the Shah falls and then what happened?
Well, the revolutionary regime revived the possibility through an enrichment program.

The enriched uranium could give them the bomb, right?
Well, it depends on the level of enrichment. Power reactors require uranium-35 enriched to about 3 percent. Recently Iran claimed that its experiments brought enrichment to over 4 percent. Nuclear weapons require enrichment of 90 percent, although a lesser figure would suffice for a less-efficient bomb.

But doesn’t Iran have the right to enrich uranium?
Yes, it does. Under the NPT, Iran has the right to peaceful technologies. And enrichment technology can generate fuel for power reactors. The problem is that Iran does not operate a power reactor. Although its Russian-built plant may go online next year, Iran’s proposed enrichment program would only make economic sense if it fueled a dozen reactors. Still, Iran claims it needs the program for energy independence.

But Iran sits on a sea of oil.
True, but the government wants to extend the life of its oil and natural gas fields. The development of fuel substitutes, including nuclear energy, allows this.

So let’s return to Iran’s enrichment plant. You imply that Iran had a secret enrichment program.
That’s right. In 2002, a London-based Iranian dissident group released information that Iran was building a large enrichment plant under the noses of international inspectors. The crap hit the fan. The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] demanded that Iran come clean. Iran was very defensive at first. It called the demands of the Agency to reveal all selective and discriminatory. It stammered that the IAEA relied on false dissident claims and U.S. arm-twisting.

Was the U.S. twisting arms?
Well, you might say Washington raised quite a fuss. After all, it was pretty clear that Tehran was violating its vows to provide the IAEA full nuclear transparency. Called on the carpet, the mullahs announced their full commitment to the NPT. However, in June 2003, drawing on international inspections and new documentation, the IAEA revealed its initial findings: Iran had failed to meet its obligations under its safeguards agreement with respect to reporting of nuclear material, the subsequent processing and use of that material and the declaration of facilities where the material was stored. In a nutshell, Tehran was cheating.

What happened next?
The U.S. pressed for U.N. Security Council consideration. You see, the IAEA has no enforcement capacity. All it can do is report violations to the council. However, the agency’s board was unwilling to take the step. The Europeans, concerned that matters could get of control, pleaded with Washington to give diplomacy a chance. The Bush administration, burned by Iraq, reluctantly agreed.

So Iraq had an impact on how we’ve handled Iran?
No doubt. Washington would have been far more aggressive in confronting the mullahs had it not been tied down across the Persian Gulf.

What happened to the European initiative?
In October 2003, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Britain flew to Tehran and said, “Let’s work out a deal.” The EU3, as they are called, then met with Iranian delegates off and on for a period of years. At times – to promote “progress” – the Iranians would halt their enrichment activities. But the negotiations stalled – the Iranians brushed aside European diplomatic and economic carrots. They refused to give up their enrichment program as the Europeans demanded. In the meantime, the IAEA issued periodic reports calling Iran on the carpet for failing to reveal all to inspectors.

So diplomacy went nowhere?
That’s true. Iran used the time to bolster its enrichment experiments declaring that its objectives remained peaceful. The Bush administration declared repeatedly that it had had enough and demanded that the matter be forwarded to the Security Council. Finally, the IAEA did so. But here’s the rub: Both China and Russia are reluctant to press Tehran too hard. China has large gas and oil interests in Iran, and Russia seeks nuclear power plant contracts. Neither wants to apply sanctions. Both countries are “free riders,” meaning they are willing to have the U.S. take the heat. If things work out, they benefit; if they don’t, they still benefit.

Where does that leave us today?
The Europeans are back at it. They have asked for another chance to buy Iran off. Washington has signed on and offered another carrot: it has agreed to sit down with Tehran as long as it suspends its enrichment program. Iran insists that it will not surrender its right to enrich uranium, but it has not commented on suspension. Washington remains wary and has not excluded the military option if Tehran refuses to bend. Indeed, the Bush administration may be laying the groundwork. The Los Angeles Times reported on May 20 that the United States has offered Iran’s neighbors air and missile defenses. The Times suggests that these systems will defend against Iranian coercion in the event Tehran becomes a nuclear weapons state. But the defenses also can shield these countries against retaliation in the event the U.S. conducts a military strike.

This sounds ominous. How are we going to resolve this problem?
If we stay on the current “chicken” track things can get very ugly. Unfortunately the Bush administration has not thought out of the box.

How would probation work?
The seeds for resolution can come from Iran’s persistent declaration that its nuclear objectives remain peaceful. “Nuclear probation,” trip-wired to an enforcement mousetrap, offers an unexplored option to put the peaceful proclamation to a final test. Given its history of safeguards violations, Tehran would agree to place resident international inspectors at all atomic sites of concern indefinitely. They’ve already said they would do this. In an April 6 New York Times op-ed, Iran’s ambassador floated a trial balloon which included this element. Washington should pocket this concession and others, including affirmations to open up suspicious facilities to snap inspections, ban nuclear weapons material and weapons, prevent unauthorized access to nuclear material, apply export controls, refrain from plutonium production, and convert all enriched uranium to fuel rods enriched to no greater than 3 percent power reactor grade, while accepting additional foreign commercial oversight.

In addition, under probation, Iran would expand IAEA access to personnel and procurement documentation, dual-use equipment and military workshops, and research and development locations that the Agency demands.

Now, here is the clincher: To avoid the dithering that now characterizes the Security Council’s enforcement, under my probation plan, Iran would tether itself to a tripwire that would automatically set in motion the nonproliferation mousetrap endorsed in advance by the Council were the mullahs to initiate a proliferation breakout. The compliance mousetrap would lay out an expeditious timetable for the imposition of increasingly dramatic punitive measures, including economic sanctions, travel restrictions, military blockade, and armed action to destroy suspicious nuclear facilities inventoried by the resident inspectors and other intelligence. Successful application will discourage other countries from violating their nonproliferation vows.

Basically, probation pulls the Iranians in by taking their word about their peaceful nuclear intentions and eases the Security Council into adopting a more proactive stance in case Tehran fails to live up to this agreement. It’s a win-win for all sides. Furthermore, the time is ripe. Given the recent U.S. initiative, in the weeks and months to come we are going to see a lot of diplomatic back-and-forth. Probation provides the mechanism to resolve the dispute permanently.