Experts know that as long as Iran is not able to run smoothly an assembly of 2,000 to 3,000 centrifuges, there is no haste to take irreversible decisions.
President Ahmadinejad boasts that this will be done before the end of March. Thanks to the invaluable inspections of the IAEA, we know that it will take much more time, considering the technical intricacies that the Iranian engineers still have to overcome. We will perhaps assist, by mid-March, at a flamboyant inaugural ceremony in the Natanz enrichment plant, but it is more than doubtful that the annual production of the centrifuges seen on TV will come close to the equivalent of 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) necessary for a bomb.
And the assembling of an explosive device presents another round of technical hurdles. All in all, we can safely consider that Iran would need at least two to three years to produce a first explosion from the starting point represented by the satisfactory operation of 2,000 to 3,000 centrifuges. All of this assuming, of course, that the present regime has taken the strategic decision to become a military nuclear power, forsaking publicly or covertly its obligations under the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
But what about the existence of a clandestine enrichment program? Considering the difficulties that Iranians encounter in their visible endeavours, it is doubtful indeed that a covert program could be much more advanced. And a covert enrichment program would also have to dissimulate the whole line of upstream operations, from ore extraction and refining to the conversion of uranium in gaseous form, ready to feed the centrifuges : not an easy task either, as long as the IAEA inspectors are allowed to do their job. Overt or covert program or a mixture of the two, the minimum of two to three years from the starting point mentioned above remains by all cases valid.
We have therefore enough time to give negotiation a second, and more serious, chance. But for what, and how?
For what? The goal is clear : Iran must not have the bomb. And for this, negotiation, if successful, should produce more lasting effects than coercion.
But more precisely how? No use to list here all the reproaches we can address to Iran, simply because we have little leverage on this part of the problem. To be able to do better, we have to analyse the mistakes of the West.
· First, the three Europeans (UK, G, F : EU3), knowing that little could be offered to Iran as long as the American sanctions could not be eased or lifted, dragged their feet from 2003 to 2005, during the whole time of the negotiation, hoping that the suspension of centrifugation activities, accepted by the Iranians as a pre-condition for talks, would evolve into a de facto renunciation. But the trick was too visible to be swallowed.
· Second, the EU3 as well as the United States lived at each step of the process under the illusion that with a little more pressure, Iran would finally budge. They practiced a mixture of negotiation with finger pointing, threats of sanctions, and more. Agitating simultaneously carrot and stick, we ignored the importance of separating clearly the time for negotiation and the time for ultimatum.
· Finally, the West overplayed the argument of "confidence building" as a basic prerequisite for any kind of agreement. But confidence is produced by agreements faithfully applied, and not the opposite. Furthermore, looking at several episodes of their past, the Iranians had little reason to confide in the West. Deep distrust built up on both sides.
Now, is it possible to escape from the spiral dive in which we seem to be trapped?
In principle yes, but only with a new strategy.
· We can safely offer to Iran a new round of negotiations, stating clearly that it will be the negotiation "of the last chance", the failure of which would allow each party to recover its freedom of action. The negotiating time should be clearly set, six months for example. We should tell clearly the Iranians that during this time, they would be well inspired to avoid any dramatic change in their format of centrifugation activities. And any discovery in Iran of covert activities, as well as impairing IAEA inspections, would of course put the whole process to a halt. But during this time, UN sanctions should be suspended, as well as threats of harsher sanctions and of unilateral action.
· For practical reasons, we should designate a pilot on our side, dedicated full time to the task. This is what the Iranians have done, first with Rouhani, then with Larijani. This pilot would travel to Iran and other places as much as necessary to give the negotiation the necessary momentum, and create an atmosphere of trust between the key players.
· We should stop trying to lure Iran with offers of technological transfers, thus creating a kind of Bazaar atmosphere. These transfers will come in time, as a natural by-product of the faithful implementation of a good agreement. We should rather explain to Iran that if it wants to enter the Club of responsible nuclear Nations, it has to abide by a set of rules, the first of which being the acceptance of the so-called "Additional Protocol", which authorises intrusive inspections from IAEA. All western countries, even those with a nuclear arsenal, have signed and ratified it.
· Here comes the last and most difficult choice : where to draw the line between acceptable nuclear activities, even in the sensitive field of centrifugation, and the unacceptable beyond?
· Up to now, the dividing line was "zero centrifuge". It was a simple concept, and easy to sell to the general public. But it has been judged unacceptable by the Iranians, who rightly or wrongly, see it as another plot of the West to maintain its technological superiority. If we insist on this position, we must prepare ourselves to the use of force.
· Another idea has been to offer Iran some joint venture in centrifugation, provided that production would not take place on its soil. But this creates more problems than it solves. The Iranians are not interested in a venture which would deprive them of access to the technology, and would not give them an objective assurance of timely fuel delivery for their future nuclear plants. And if the plant were to be put on Iranian soil, there would be indeed a high risk of disseminating advanced and sensitive technologies.
· The only practical solution left is to allow Iran to maintain a research and development centrifugation activity, strictly limited in scope (no more than a few hundred centrifuges) at least as long as the country is not equipped with a significant park of nuclear power plants which could justify an domestic industrial enrichment capacity. This gives us at least a good fifteen years of tranquillity, and probably more. Furthermore, Iran should commit itself not to cross the line of 5% enrichment, enough for an industrial use. Finally, it should accept to export as soon as produced its low enriched uranium (LEU), to be incorporated for instance in the Russian fuel allotted to its Bushehr plant, and this as long as it is not able to produce its own domestic fuel components.
Basically, these three commitments (and others of lesser visibility), to be put under tight control of the IAEA, give us the guarantee that Iran, should it decide it, would not been able to rush into the fabrication of an atomic bomb without being uncovered in a matter of weeks, giving ample time for the international Community to react in full legitimacy. The Iranians have hinted in the past that a solution along these lines would be acceptable for them. The decision is now up to the West.