On Iran, different tack urged

Daragahi is a Times staff writer.

A report released Monday by a respected arms-control expert urges the West to change course by accepting sensitive features of Iran’s nuclear program and focusing instead on discouraging Tehran from building an atomic bomb.

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the nonproliferation program at the London-based Institute for International Strategic Studies, predicts in a 100-page report that Iran will produce enough fissile low- enriched uranium and obtain the expertise next year to build a bomb.

But unless Iran were to boot out international inspectors and begin to further refine its stockpile, steps Tehran insists it won’t take, all would not be lost, he says.


“During 2009, Iran will probably reach the point at which it has produced the amount of low-enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear bomb,” writes Fitzpatrick, who served 26 years in the U.S. State Department. “But being able to enrich uranium is not the same as having a nuclear weapon.”

Iran’s nuclear program is one of President-elect Barack Obama’s greatest foreign policy challenges. On Sunday, Obama said he would pursue a “carrot-and-stick” policy of incentives and sanctions to prevent Iran from building a bomb, which could upset the Middle East balance of power and begin a regional arms race. Tehran insists that it is only pursuing nuclear technology for civilian energy purposes.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hasan Qashqavi on Monday again insisted that Iran would continue to enrich uranium and rejected Obama’s approach. The carrot-and-stick policy “has been a defeated and unacceptable approach,” he said. “The world should accept our nuclear rights, and we in return give all guarantees that we will not deviate toward a nuclear bomb.”

Fitzpatrick’s report, titled “The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-Case Outcomes,” represents a growing shift in the assessments by international arms-control experts away from getting Iran to stop processing and enriching uranium toward preventing it from “breaking out” of existing nonproliferation systems and producing weapons.

President Bush and European leaders have demanded that Iran stop refining uranium, in which volatile isotopes are teased out of raw uranium to produce fuel for a power plant -- or, if highly concentrated, material for a bomb.

Iran has about 5,000 centrifuges producing reactor-grade uranium that it insists is only meant for a civilian energy program. Tehran has refused to halt its enrichment activities despite three rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions and a set of Western commercial and political prohibitions on Iran.


Fitzpatrick, reflecting a trend among analysts, argues that it is time to accept enrichment as a fait accompli, without officially legitimizing it.

“It seems very doubtful that we’re going to get rollback to zero centrifuges,” he said in a telephone interview. “A more realistic question is, ‘How are we going to build up reasonable barriers to breakout?’ ”

In speaking of “breakout,” arms-control experts typically cite the North Korean example, in which Pyongyang withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expelled inspectors, ignored world reaction and dived wholeheartedly into building a nuclear bomb, testing one in 2006.

Thus far Iran is at least trying to appear to abide by the letter of international arms-control regulations, granting access to key sites and allowing cameras to monitor sensitive activities to prevent material from being diverted. By setting aside the argument over enrichment and keeping Tehran within the umbrella of the NPT, Fitzpatrick argues, the international community would be better able to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Fitzpatrick says he has no doubt that Tehran’s nuclear program is meant to produce weapons. He cited the “secrecy and deception” and “military connections” as well as the “economic illogic” of producing enriched uranium without as yet having any functioning nuclear power plants, the report’s executive summary says.

He argues for diplomacy and sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and opposes the military option favored by some hawks in Washington and Israel. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably encourage an Iranian “breakout” scenario, he says in the report, according to the executive summary.


“In the aftermath of an unprovoked attack,” it says, “Iran could be expected to withdraw from the NPT and engage the full resources of a unified nation in a determined nuclear-weapons development program.”


Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.