As talks begin this week between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany) in Geneva to end the standoff over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, conservatives and their allies in the United States and in Israel are demanding that any deal include a provision that prohibits Iran from enriching uranium on its soil for civilian purposes — a proposal that experts say is “unrealistic.”
Iran has enriched uranium to around the 5 percent level, for what it says is for civilian energy purposes, and to the 20 percent level, which it says is used for medical purposes (Iran has gradually reduced its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium). Uranium needs to be enriched to 90 percent purity for use in a nuclear weapon.
The right has been pushing the position that Iran give up all its enrichment capabilities for some time, but their collective voices have amplified ahead of the Geneva talks amid hopes that moderation from Iran’s new leaders might create greater space for a final agreement.
“We will not accept any level of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) — who once said “it’s okay to take food from the mouths” of innocent Iranians — wrote in the Telegraph on Sunday. Kirk argued that agreeing to allow some kind of enrichment capability would mean that the Iranians could enrich uranium further for a bomb quickly and without detection. The Illinois Republican compared the current situation with Iran to Nazi Germany in the 1930s, saying an agreement that allows Iran to enrich uranium to any level would be “appeasement.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a USA Today op-ed on Tuesday agreed with Kirk. “Even a limited enrichment program and possession of sensitive reprocessing technologies is unacceptable because it would keep the path to nuclear weapons open,” he said. A bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators took this a position a step further last week saying they plan to introduce new sanctions on Iran unless Iran commits — in a move that would presumably take place outside of the current negotiation process — to curbing all enrichment.
Israeli leaders are also ramping up their support for “zero enrichment.” “If Iran wants civilian nuclear energy as it claims, it must stop enriching uranium and give up material enriched so far,” said Israel’s Minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But “[i]t is no longer considered realistic to expect Tehran to agree to suspend all enrichment, as demanded by the Security Council,” Reuters reported last week. Experts agree.
“[A] permanent end to Iranian enrichment would be ideal, it is also highly unrealistic,” said Iran experts Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader in a Foreign Policypiece published on Monday. “The Iranian regime has invested enormous amounts of political capital and billions of dollars over decades to master the knowledge and centrifuge technology associated with uranium enrichment — and nothing will put that genie back in the bottle.”
Kahl and Nader point out that agreeing to zero enrichment “would be political suicide” for Iran’s new relative moderate president Hassan Rouhani, as Iran’s nuclear program is “matter of pride and principle for the regime.” (Indeed, as the Israeli daily Haaretz noted, Iran’s recent show of willingness to negotiate on its nuclear program “ha[s] been met with staunch opposition and harsh criticism from the Iranian right.”)
Kahl and Nader add that Washington could be seen as the intransigent party by forcing the Iranians to accept zero enrichment, which could then lead to a breakdown of the international coalition on Iran — one that includes Russia and China — making it more difficult to enforce sanctions, which could then perhaps “enhance, rather than lessen, Tehran’s motivation to seek a nuclear deterrent as the only means of ensuring regime survival.”
“A permanent end to Iranian enrichment is not in the cards,” they write. “Instead of pushing for an impossible goal, the United States and other world powers should push for a possible one: an agreement that caps Iranian enrichment at the 5 percent level (sufficient for civilian power plants but far away from bomb-grade) under stringent conditions designed to preclude Tehran’s ability to rapidly produce nuclear weapons, including restrictions on Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium, limitations on centrifuges, intrusive inspections, and halting the construction of a plutonium reactor that could open an alternative pathway to nuclear weapons.
“Such an accord would allow Khamenei and Rouhani to claim Iran’s ‘rights’ had been respected, giving them a face-saving way out of the current nuclear crisis. Even this might be difficult for the Iranian regime to stomach. But if paired with meaningful sanctions relief, it has a much better chance of success than insisting on the complete dismantling of Iran’s program.”