Albright: U.S. Should Offer Iran Security Guarantee to End Nuclear Weapons Capability

Amid mounting concern over Iran’s nuclear program, a prominent Western expert says there is still time to dissuade Tehran from pursuing an atomic-weapons capability. David Albright tells’s Bernard Gwertzman it is time for the United States to offer security guarantees to Iran.

February 06, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says that he does not believe Iran has passed the point of no return on developing nuclearweapons.

"I think they’re really determined, at least to get a nuclear-weapons capability," says Albright. "Whether they’ve made the decision to get the bomb or not, I personally think that there isn’t a firm decision; I also think they’ve made a decision that they want this enrichment capability, and it’s going to take the international community quite a bit of effort to get Iran to reconsider."

Albright says that just as the United States has offered North Korea a security guarantee if it stops its nuclear-weapons program, the United States would be well-served doing the same with Iran. "Iran needs to believe that if it gives up its nuclear programs, it’s not going to be vulnerable to an attack by the United States," he says. "And in the case of Iran, the United States has not wanted to make a security guarantee. I think it makes the whole situation more difficult to manage."

Over the weekend a decision was taken by the IAEA to send Iran to the UN Security Council in March because of serious questions involving Iran’s nuclear policies. What’s likely to happen?

Well, the first thing is: What is Iran going to do? There’s a one-month delay in the Security Council taking up the issue actively, to see if Iran will accept the conditions laid out in the Board of Governors resolution, which are mainly to stop enrichment, or enrichment-related activities, and to give up building a heavy water reactor. The IAEA would then either do inspections based on the so-called additional protocol or go beyond the additional protocol to resolve the outstanding questions.

So it’s really a time to see what Iran does. And I think part of the whole approach has been to give Iran an opportunity to back down. And I think if Iran doesn’t back down -- for example if it really goes forward and says no longer will the "additional protocol" be in play in Iran -- then I think what you will have is the Security Council fairly quickly issuing a statement from the chairman that would basically reiterate what the IAEA Board of Governors said, and that it would signify a broadening of the efforts to get Iran to change its mind.

Talk about the "additional protocol" for those who are not acquainted with that.

Well, the "additional protocol" came about because of the failure of the international inspectors to detect Iraq’s secret nuclear-weapons program back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The reason that failure happened was largely due to too-limited access to nuclear and related sites. And so the "additional protocol" was aimed to fix this specific problem, that the IAEA was not very good at finding undeclared nuclear activities or facilities.

This was custom-made to deal with Iran. Iran was operating undeclared facilities and with the "additional protocol," signed by Iran with the IAEA in 2003, the IAEA had authority to conduct more rigorous, short-notice inspections at undeclared nuclear facilities to ferret out secret nuclear activities. The IAEA was quickly able to uncover a series of secret facilities, to catch Iran in lie after lie, and see through deception campaigns and reach a point where it forced Iran to really reveal most of its nuclear program. Unfortunately, there were some parts of the Iranian program that are suspected to exist that the "additional protocol" isn’t enough to deal with, and that’s why this resolution actually calls for the IAEA to have expanded authority beyond the "additional protocol."

What the IAEA’s facing is military procurement of equipment that looks like it could be for centrifuges. And the Iranians say "no, it’s not anything to do with nuclear activities but you can’t see it." The IAEA feels it needs to see it because it does look like it’s equipment imported for a centrifuge program by a military-related organization. They don’t have the authority under the "additional protocol" to probe as deeply into nuclear weapons efforts that could involve the missile program. Documents were brought out of Iran and given to intelligence agencies that have information that seem to be modifying the reentry vehicle of a missile so that it looks like it could hold a nuclear weapon. Again, under the "additional protocol" there isn’t much the IAEA can do. So it needs more authority to ask for interviews with certain people who the Iranians say are not in the nuclear program. And [the IAEA] needs broader declarations from Iran.

Since the decision by the Board of Governors on Saturday, the Iranians have said they’re resuming full-scale uranium enrichment. What does that really mean?

It doesn’t mean much of anything. They’re just continuing what they’ve been doing. They play games with words. Originally, when they ended the suspension they said, "oh, it’s only research, it’s what a university would do." They tried to downplay it, but what they did is they started their program to learn how to use centrifuges to enrich uranium, largely a developmental program now, and they need to run centrifuges alone and they need to run what’s called a "cascade" [a series of centrifuges]. They have a pilot cascade that is built but has not been operated with uranium. This is at the pilot plant in Natanz. And so they’ve been doing all the preparatory work to start up the activities that they stopped in the fall of 2003. And so now they call it full-scale enrichment but it’s really no different.

Talk to me again about centrifuges. Are these big things? How many centrifuges do you need to make nuclear weapons?

Well, there are many types of centrifuges. And the ones that Iran (have) been building and deploying (have) been at Natanz and [are] what have come to be called the P-1. The P-1 is actually a Dutch design originally, I don’t know, two meters high, 100 millimeters in diameter; aluminum is the rotor material, it doesn’t spin that fast, it has some problems in it, it’s actually kind of hard to learn how to operate.

Each centrifuge doesn’t really do that much. It just doesn’t enrich that much and it can’t process that much uranium in a year. So you start connecting them together, both to increase the amount of enrichment, and to increase the amount of uranium that you can push through and to come out as enriched uranium. So if Iran right now wants to run a 164-machine cascade, they won’t really make much material.

In the end centrifuges are rather precious to the Iranians. And so you don’t want to break too many of them. If they wanted to make enough enriched uranium for a bomb program, they could get by with 1,500 centrifuges operated in cascades, and that would give them enough highly enriched uranium for about one bomb a year. If they wanted to make enough to fuel the Bushehr reactor [being built for Iran by the Russians], they would need about 50,000 operating centrifuges, of enriched uranium.

Is that a heavy-water reactor?

No, it’s a light-water reactor. It’s a Russian design. One of the difficulties in the situation is Iran says, "oh, we just want it for civil purposes, it’s for the power reactors." Well, once they see if they went ahead and did that, and they had 50,000 centrifuges operating, then they would be able to change the purpose of that facility overnight, and actually within a few days make enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon. It would give Iran a rapid capability to produce material for a bomb, way faster than the IAEA could ever detect.

And so I take it from what you’re saying, you think Iran’s purpose right now is to make nuclear weapons.

Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t think the Iranian leadership has really decided. I mean what you’d expect if there was a bomb program -- and we’ve seen this in South Africa, we saw it in Iraq in the 1980s -- that you have a decision made by a leader or leadership, and then the scientific infrastructure, the engineering infrastructure in the nuclear and the military fields goes about making the material for bombs, making a weaponized device militarily sound, fitting into a delivery system, or at least trying.

So you get this whole range of activities, you get budgets, you get major resources committed. No one can find evidence of that in Iran that’s compelling. And so there’s a good argument for the side that’s says Iran hasn’t made the decision to build and deploy their weapons. But there’s another view that says in 1985, when Iran says they started this program, it was started by the military, and was started for the reason to get nuclear weapons. And it was done right in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. Iran learned that Iraq wanted to get nuclear weapons, and I think it was responding.

It wasn’t started by some civil part of the nuclear establishment. And then there was some kind of transition where the Iranian Atomic Organization got much more involved in it, but that it was military in nature. But again, 1985 is a long time ago. Iraq did invade Kuwait and was crushed and its nuclear program was eliminated; Iran was well aware of that. I remember doing an assessment in 1995 on the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and it was hard to see what they had, but again they were working on centrifuges in secret, and they were at least seven years or so from building a centrifuge plant.

Now that Iraq is knocked out of the nuclear business, why doesn’t Iran just say, ’OK, great, we don’t need nuclear weapons’?

Well, I think, another thing that’s come to play is that (Iran has) invested a lot in the infrastructure, and they’re gaining prestige from doing what they’re doing. And some of the Iranian leadership’s statements reflect that. I think that they’re so invested in the nuclear infrastructure, they think they’re going to get benefits from it. They also think that it could deter an American attack, and I think that they’re really determined, at least to get a nuclear-weapons capability. Whether they’ve made the decision to get the bomb or not, I personally think that there isn’t a firm decision, I also think they’ve made a decision that they want this enrichment capability, and it’s going to take the international community quite a bit of effort to get Iran to reconsider.

Do you think the Russian proposal to have enrichment done on Russian soil for the Iranians has any real possibility?

Yes, I think it does. It’s a way for Iran to back down gracefully. And so I think that it’s very important that these offers continue and they be developed, and Iran needs to negotiate with Russia so that if Iran does make the decision to change its course of action, that it can grab onto a proposal. In the end I think a lot of people support Iran’s desire to build a nuclear power plant. Even the U.S. government has changed a lot in the last two years. It now realizes that it’s just going to have to accept that Iran’s going to have nuclear power and it is all right so long as it doesn’t have a weapons capability. And if you’re going to have nuclear power you’re probably going to build more than one plant and you’re going to have to have a source of fuel; and so it makes sense that Russia provide a source of fuel in some kind of guaranteed way where Iran is part of the deal, and also that the Western nations make commitments to guarantee a fuel supply for nuclear power reactors.

Is the United States overacting to all this?

No, I don’t think the United States is overacting. I think the United States stumbled badly a couple of years ago, because it said the goal is to go to the Security Council no matter what. And most people didn’t agree. And then the argument against [it] was simple: What are you going to do then? There won’t be sanctions, so let’s do a different process. And I think the Europeans had the right approach, an offer of carrots; and I think the United States joined that effort and now Russia and China joined it. But it’s tough, a tough road to hoe. It’s very hard to get Iran to change course. But also because of that difficulty it’s important to build up support slowly, and countries react in different ways to Iran, so you have to have a strategy that offers carrots to Iran and at the same time, if Iran just refuses those carrots, and acts provocatively, which it’s done recently, you can set up a track to get to the UN Security Council. That can lead to isolating Iran and threatening to put on sanctions.

Do you think Iran has sort of watched the North Koreans closely to see what they do?

I think so. Both North Korea and Iran face the problem that the Bush administration has been very aggressive about challenging both regimes. And once [the United States] invaded Iraq, both regimes concluded you could deter the United States with nuclear weapons. Both countries feel that nuclear weapons are important for their security. And Iran is pretty far from having nuclear weapons -- several years at least. So it’s struggling to get nuclear-weapons capability while at the same time trying to deter the United States, or trying to prevent the United States from keeping it from having nuclear-weapons capability.

So there are still differences. But in the end it does reflect on what the United States needs to do. In the case of North Korea, it finally said to North Korea, "Look, if you give up your nuclear weapons, we’re not going to attack you and we’ll give you security guarantees." And the United States is not going to stop trying to transform the regime and it shouldn’t, but it’s not going to have an active program to overthrow the regime. It needs to do the same thing with Iran. Iran needs to believe that if it gives up its nuclear programs, it’s not going to be vulnerable to an attack by the United States. And in the case of Iran, the United States has not wanted to make a security guarantee. I think it makes the whole situation more difficult to manage.

Because the United States keeps indicating it thinks it can influence the internal situation in Iran?

I think the Iranian people are very proud. The regime is very good at manipulating the media to distort what’s going on and gain more support from the Iranian population. I think that if the confrontation heightens, the regime is perfectly capable of suppressing dissent more. I’m not optimistic that a transformation like the United States wants is going to take place soon, and yet I think we can get rid of the Iranian nuclear-weapons capability. It may require the United States to give a security guarantee to Iran.