No Endgame in Sight

Demanding Zero Enrichment From Iran Makes Zero Sense

Technicians work at a uranium processing site in Isfahan, 2005. Courtesy Reuters

In “Still Time to Attack Iran,” Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig echoes an argument that has been making the rounds in Washington -- that nuclear negotiations must result in the complete elimination of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle program to be considered a success. This is the standard logic a bipartisan group of U.S. senators -- including Robert Menendez (D–N.J.), Mark Kirk (R–Ill.), and Charles Schumer (D–N.Y.) -- embraced last month when they introduced legislation that would torpedo any final agreement that allowed Iran to retain any enrichment capabilities and facilities.

The senators’ preferred policy sets an unachievable goal. Yes, the world would be a safer place if Iran did not enrich uranium. But contrary to the arguments that hawks put forward, the United States is not in any position to prevent Iran from doing so. Iran is one of 14 countries that already enrich uranium. Even if Iran deserves to be singled out for having broken conditions that other uranium-enriching states uphold and offering weak civilian rationales for enriching, the unfortunate fact is that neither more sanctions nor military strikes will push Iran out of the enrichment club. Iran has already paid tens of billions of dollars in direct costs; lost more than $100 billion in sanctions; and suffered a cyberattack, the assassination of key scientists and engineers, and the perpetual threat of war to protect its self-proclaimed right to enrich uranium. There is no reason to think that more sanctions or military strikes would change Tehran’s stance now.

It is telling that congressional hawks do not explain how they intend on eliminating Iran’s enrichment program in the long term. They are fond of citing military strikes as a final trump card, but such strikes are almost certainly incapable of ending Iran’s enrichment program on their own. To do so, they would have to eliminate not only Iran’s enrichment infrastructure but its capacity to reconstitute it and the Iranian leadership’s determination to

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