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Iran Inches Toward Nuclear Red Line

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 11, 2007

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Marking Iran’s latest national holiday, “Nuclear Day,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had “good nuclear news” for his compatriots. One year to the day after announcing to the world that its scientists could now enrich uranium, Ahmadinijad bragged that Iran’s enrichment efforts had achieved an “industrial level” (RFE/RL). It remains unclear if Iran will meet the president’s stated goal of operating three thousand centrifuges by May (some officials are calling for fifty-thousand centrifuges). But Iranian officials say the facts on the ground—that Tehran is “past the experimental stage”—are irreversible. Just to underscore their point, Iran released new currency bearing a nuclear emblem.

The president’s declaration flies in the face of recent attempts by the UN Security Council to punish Iran (NYT) with limited economic sanctions for refusing to suspend its nuclear program. It also comes on the heels of a twelve-day confrontation involving the brazen capture of fifteen British sailors and marines who were patrolling disputed waters. Some analysts say the timing of the events is meant to dispel rumors that Iran has been weakened (i.e. internal political divisions, worsening economy, the arrests of five Revolutionary Guards operatives in Iraq) and “thumb its nose” (JPost) at the West. Others say the nuclear announcement was nothing more than a public relations stunt. Given the fact that in February (NYT), Iran had about one thousand centrifuges up and running, some nuclear experts doubt Tehran’s latest claim that it is operating three thousand centrifuges, which is no small feat. “I think Iran lowered the bar of what is industrial scale, even by its own definition, and then declared victory,” nuclear expert David Albright tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman.

Still, the announcement, if true, could jeopardize negotiations underway between the Iranians and Europeans on the current standoff at the UN Security Council. It also could affect the inspections process in place as set forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as call into question Iran’s membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Although Tehran wants to be seen as in good standing within the letter of international law, if it were to cross the nuclear red line, that could mean further isolation, stricter sanctions, and a potential military strike. 

Threats of military force have not been in short supply. “The United States would be perfectly justified in hitting Iran now, before it acquires nuclear weapons,” warns CFR’s Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times. A clandestine plan has been in place for over a year now to launch air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, wrote Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker last April. But most experts say squeezing Iran financially, as Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy advises in this CFR.org Podcast, remains the most attractive option.

Others favor more active engagement with Iran, in light of Tehran’s behavior during its standoff with Britain. CFR’s Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr, writing in the New York Times, suggest that Washington adopt a three-prong strategy: “Ending its provocative naval deployments in the Persian Gulf, easing its efforts to get European and Asian banks to divest from Iran, and inviting Iranian representatives to all regional and international conferences dealing with the Middle East.” Robert E. Hunter of the RAND Corporation tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that Washington should be willing to offer Iran the same kind of security guarantees it has given North Korea in return for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program.

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