How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
In the summer of 1953, James Lockridge slipped across the Iranian border with a tennis racket, a fake passport, and lots of cash. The tennis racket was part of his cover: Once in Iran, he played for hours on the courts of the Turkish embassy, where he had the easiest access to British intelligence officers who could open doors in Tehran. The fake passport allowed him to present himself as the proxy of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, even though Lockridge was really Kermit Roosevelt, a CIA officer. The cash was for funding Operation TPAJAX, the CIA mission approved by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to restore the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to power.
Mohammad Reza had met Roosevelt before and knew him by his real name. Although there were, in fact, no guarantees that the shah could regain his throne, which was under threat by the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, Roosevelt told the shah that he had Washington’s and London’s unquestioned support. He was right. The U.S.-backed coup that pushed Mossadeq out in August 1953 has cast a long shadow over U.S.-Iranian relations and sowed mistrust in the region ever since.
The recent disclosure that a CIA contractor, Robert Levinson, was captured in Iran has all the elements of Roosevelt’s tale gone wrong. Levinson went missing after a 2007 trip to Kish Island, an Iranian tourist destination in the Persian Gulf. The CIA reportedly sent him there to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program through a potential U.S. informant. Seven years later, Levinson has been in captivity longer than any other U.S. citizen, including the Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson, who was held hostage by Hezbollah for more than six years during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s.
The Levinson incident is a barometer for what the future holds if the United States does not reach a permanent and enforceable agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Washington could spend the next 60 years like the previous 60, prying information out of Tehran at untold costs. Or it can negotiate to walk in through the front doors of Arak and Natanz with international inspectors.
Iran, for its own part, should want a nuclear deal for those same reasons. It would be a mistake to believe that the reach of Iran’s Quds Force -- the powerful spying and special operations unit of the Revolutionary Guard -- is any less sophisticated than the CIA. In 1980, a U.S. citizen, David Theodore Belfield, at the behest of an earlier Iranian intelligence agency, put on the uniform of a postal worker, walked up a quiet street in Bethesda, Maryland, and executed Ali Akbar Tabatabai, a staunch supporter of the shah, in the doorway of his own home. Before settling on Tabatabai as a target, Belfield, who changed his name to Dawud Salahuddin when he converted to Islam, begged his Iranian handlers to allow him to kill Kermit Roosevelt himself. Such tales of spying and assassinations are symptomatic of an international game of tit for tat, in which each side thinks it is perpetually down by one. But there is a better way: striking a durable, comprehensive deal that permits Iranian enrichment.
Looking at the recent deal struck between the West and Iran to halt temporarily Iran’s enrichment program at five percent -- the key level needed for a sustained nuclear reaction sufficient to generate electricity -- one has to wonder if grand, state-level deception is even possible today. In a world of nearly total surveillance, it is unlikely that any country, having agreed to the international monitoring of its nuclear program, could then secretly construct the infrastructure to enrich uranium to extraordinary purity, weaponize it, and build a command-and-control system to deploy that weapon, all without any number of intelligence agencies catching it in real time. And yet critics of a deal have long insisted that Iranian weaponization is only months away.
Such criticisms ignore some fundamental realities about enrichment, given the oversight Iran already agreed to with the interim deal in November, which took effect January 20. The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) now estimates that it would take about two months to develop an undetected breakout of low-enriched uranium from the 20 percent level -- the threshold needed for weaponization. That time frame is substantially longer than the mere hours it would take for the United States and its allies to launch a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Therefore, the world should rest easy that an Iranian breakout capacity could be dealt with in due course, as long as enrichment is permanently and verifiably halted at around five percent as part of a permanent deal.
The best way to reach that goal is not by threatening more economic sanctions but by gradually rolling them back and eventually allowing limited domestic enrichment. In such a deal, the West could exchange Iran’s right to enrich for the IAEA’s physical custody of the country’s refueling process and the temporary export of its already-enriched uranium, which would be converted to fuel and sent back to Iran.
Of course, the acceptance of this level of Iranian enrichment by the United States and its allies is hardly a foregone conclusion. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has adamantly avoided any language confirming Iran’s right to enrich. Doing so would only undermine international law, since Iran is presently in violation of both the Security Council and the IAEA’s safeguards because of previous failures to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities.
But the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), despite its specificity about compliant, signatory nations’ inalienable right to use peaceful nuclear power, is vague, either by design or omission, about where that enrichment can take place. November’s agreement still leaves open the question of the future “scope and level of [Iran’s] enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium.” The phrase “where it is carried out” will surely be hotly contested as negotiations over a final settlement ramp up, and could provide a potential opening.
The crucial piece of this plan is convincing Iran to let the IAEA take control of its refueling process, not just oversee it. France, which has one of the world's largest civilian nuclear programs, and Russia, which has existing uranium enrichment deals with Iran, are natural choices for countries that could take the Iranian uranium already enriched at the 20 percent concentration level and return it as civilian fuel. Iran is currently estimated to possess around 600 pounds of enriched uranium at the 20 percent level. The interim deal will reduce this amount, but the details are unclear. Although that stockpile is still a tiny fraction of the estimated 15,000 pounds of the five percent enriched uranium Iran has on hand, it is still a huge security risk. As for the five percent enriched uranium that Iran possesses, it could fuel the single, Russian-built reactor at Bushehr for about four months. Since Iran intends to run Bushehr for some time and has plans to build 20 more such reactors in the future, it will need far more uranium than it has now.
A deal that allows Iran to enrich domestically, in return for IAEA custody of that uranium and no unsupervised refueling of Iran’s reactors, would be another speed bump in the road for the Iranian nuclear program. The IAEA would know exactly what fuel and at what concentration, down to the individual rods, is going into the core. It would also know the exact concentration of waste product that would remain in the rods at the next refueling, which is crucial since the by-product of spent fuel rods, plutonium, can also be used to create a nuclear device.
By permitting Iran to seek domestic enrichment in exchange for IAEA custody of the refueling process, the international community would resolve a few seemingly intractable roadblocks. Iranian negotiators would get political cover at home by only temporarily shipping uranium overseas -- one of their self-declared red lines. The rest of the world would get expanded oversight over Iran’s program. It would also signal some willingness on Iran’s part toward formally adopting the additional protocols of the NPT, which are the holy grail of this entire process. Those additional protocols mandate near-total IAEA access to any given country’s civilian nuclear program. (Although Iran has signed the additional protocols, it has yet to ratify them.) Best of all, the deal would generate goodwill and open even more room for the specific details of a comprehensive, long-term agreement.
Alternatively, the United States could pursue yet more crushing sanctions, or demand that Iran give up enrichment without offering anything in return. But that would only breed more resentment and make the final peace less sustainable. Current proposals in Congress aimed at Iran’s total abandonment of its domestic nuclear enrichment program are simply disconnected from reality. The United States and its allies must embrace the opportunity, through negotiations, to let Iran lift the curtain on its nuclear program and enrich according to accepted international standards.
At the intermission of a long, poorly scripted 60-year-old play between the United States and Iran, Washington now has the chance to choose a better ending. The recent progress is a historic win for diplomacy that could ensure a potentially horrible Act II never sees the light of day. In 2006, Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s top spy, praised his country’s involvement in Lebanon since it gave Hezbollah “a central role in turning the stones of the Palestinians into missiles.” The deal with Iran could guarantee that those missiles are never nuclear tipped.
The Naming and Shaming Strategy