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Iran Throws Down Nuclear Gauntlet

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: April 14, 2006

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Iran continues to press ahead with uranium enrichment efforts, in defiance of UN Security Council powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei arrived in Tehran after Iran announced it had reached an important threshold on uranium enrichment and he urged suspension of the program. Iranian leaders said there would be no retreat from efforts to achieve the full nuclear cycle (LATimes), despite concerns Iran wants to build a nuclear arsenal. The Security Council has given Iran until April 28 to freeze its nuclear activities. Washington is urging the Council to take tougher action.

Experts say it still remains unclear how close Iran is to completing a nuclear-fuel cycle. But CFR Fellow Charles Ferguson and other nuclear experts, speaking at a recent CFR symposium, point out that Iran has proceeded with its enrichment process much faster than many expected and, despite skipping steps along the way, may have passed a point of no return in terms of rolling back its nuclear program. The Iranians removed seals from enrichment equipment at their Natanz reactor in January and, within a span of two weeks, developed a cascade of 164 centrifuges. Given the new political facts on the ground and Iran's recent announcement, most experts admit that the most likely option now, especially if the UN Security Council fails to take strict action, is for Iran merely to freeze its nuclear program, not completely dismantle it. CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman in a new interview that the only way to slow down Iran's nuclear program now is for the United States to become more directly engaged in talks and to offer concessions.

The International Crisis Group has even called for sanctioning a "limited enrichment" program, provided it is coupled with intrusive inspections. CFR President Richard Haass tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman that a very limited enrichment program could be permitted as part of a diplomatic package that combines incentives with the threat of military force. Any limited military strike, Haass argues in the FT, would not be "small or quick" and "would not remain limited for long."

Uncertainties remain. It is still unclear whether a hidden conversion program—or so-called Green Salt Project (Arms Control Association)—run by Iran's military exists or not. Then there is the possibility that Iran could acquire highly enriched uranium from an outside supplier like Russia, which would throw out all nuclear timelines and only further accelerate Iran's capabilities, argued Daniel Poneman of the Forum for International Policy at the April 5 CFR symposium (PDF). Another less-discussed uncertainty is Iran's foreign-policy apparatus. Iran's Foreign Ministry has recently accused Washington of launching a "psychological war" (ChiTrib) over its alleged nuclear program, but Iranian foreign policy, as this CFR Background Q&A explains, can be diffuse and difficult to read.

U.S. policymakers are puzzled on how to proceed. There are reports of stepped-up military planning in Washington, and U.S. war planners are even discussing nuclear options, according to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh. President Bush in a recent speech called these reports "wild speculation" and reiterated that Washington was focusing on diplomacy to resolve the crisis. An Oxford Research Group report outlines the consequences of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on Iran.

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