Iran Community Call with Dr. Jim Walsh
On October 8th, Council for a Livable World members participated in a conference call with Council Board Member Dr. Jim Walsh. Dr. Walsh is a renowned expert on international security who has been involved in private nuclear arms control talks with Iranian officials. The discussion addressed the implications of recent developments in Iran’s nuclear program and U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Dr. Walsh assessed these developments and provided his recommendations for the U.S. strategy in dealing with Iran.
Preface: There are solid reasons for “cautious optimism” regarding Iran’s nuclear program
- A week before the P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with a group of scholars, including Dr. Walsh, on the sidelines of the New York UN event. During that meeting, Ahmadinejad was “surprisingly conciliatory.” In contrast to his usual fiery and defiant or professorial and lecturing roles, he took on a diplomatic persona, noting the upcoming P5+1 process to be a useful opportunity.
- Significant progress was made during the October 1st negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 nations. During the process, for the first time in thirty years, U.S. and Iranian delegations held a bilateral diplomatic meeting. In addition, an important agreement was made during the negotiations: Iran offered to export much of its own LEU for outside enrichment to manufacture medical isotopes. Such a deal results in two momentous developments. First, it diverges from Iran’s past insistence on retaining all enrichment processes domestically. Second, it redirects much of Iran’s LEU away from the potential for diversion to weapons-grade enrichment.
- The delayed declaration of Iran’s 2nd enrichment facility, which was made public on September 25th, is not of irreconcilable concern. The widespread assertion that the formerly secret facility may be used for the purpose of producing HEU is not entirely true. In fact, this claim was not in the White House talking points nor is it supported by evidence from the U.S. intelligence community. Iran’s failure to disclose the facility in advance is certainly a violation of IAEA safeguards, but Iran had not viewed it as such. Now that the facility has been declared, it no longer presents a concern, and there is every reason to believe that the scheduled October 25th inspections will occur.
Q & A
In the context of a recent poll showing that a majority of Americans believe that preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is crucial even it that means military action, to what extent would a hypothetical military strike be effective in debilitating Iran’s nuclear program?
In Dr. Walsh’s view, the poll results are a bit misleading, as all polls can be, since they ask people questions in the abstract. In spite of the 61% that favors preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons program even through military action, 63% also approve of direct negotiations. This latter figure is what we should emphasize when we discuss the Iran issue with our colleagues.
Moreover, it is unlikely that either the U.S. or Israel will take military action anytime soon. In particular, Israel seems to have revised its stance on the possibility, showing a greater affinity for negotiation. While negotiations are in process, it is highly unlikely that military action would be undertaken.
Nonetheless, we must be vigilant of those in politics and the media that will lead the charge for military action. Right now they may espouse support for negotiations, but the moment things begin to look doubtful, they will push immediately for military action. We can expect this contingent to continue to press the case for military action for a number of years.
What do you make of the claims that delayed inspection of the second enrichment facility will give Iranians a window of opportunity for housecleaning, thereby allowing them to dispose of evidence that would indicate what was really going on there?
According to U.S. intelligence, the U.S. press announcement, and Iran’s letter to the IAEA, the enrichment facility near Qom is not yet operational. It does not seem that there are even any centrifuges yet in the facility, thus reducing the urgency of immediate inspections.
As already iterated, the Qom facility is not gravely concerning. Now that it has been declared, the facility will be subject to IAEA monitoring and safeguards. In order for the hypothetical production of HEU, Iran would have to either convert one of its enrichment facilities or divert LEU to another, covert facility. One of the IAEA’s greatest strengths is its ability to detect diversion. It would be promptly evident to the IAEA if Iran were to pursue HEU.
Enrichment diversion and nuclear breakout is not a likely path for Iran, as such a decision would invite immediate military action.
To what extent does the Sunni-Shia rivalry relate to an Iranian desire to obtain nuclear weapons?
The Sunni-Shia split is not a motivating factor for Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, in Dr. Walsh’s view, the program is most significantly driven by national pride and internal politics.
Hypothetically speaking, what other sites and resources would be required beyond enrichment sites for Iran to construct a working nuclear weapon?
The most technically difficult phase in the construction of a nuclear weapon is the production of weapon-grade fissile material (HEU or weapons-grade plutonium). For Iran, weaponization would be comparatively simple relative to producing HEU.
If Iran made the decision to pursue nuclear weapons (which would necessitate expelling IAEA inspectors and eliminating safeguards), Iran could create a crude nuclear bomb in two or two and a half years. It would take them one year for the production of a sufficient amount of HEU and another one or one and a half years for weaponization. This would result in an unwieldy first-generation fission bomb.
It is unlikely that Iran would have any practicable way of using such a device, given that they would not have an appropriate bomber with which to drop it, and they would definitely have no way to project it – nuclear outfitting of a missile is at least a decade away. Nonetheless, Iran’s mere possession of a nuclear bomb would certainly have repercussions.
What are your views on the possibility of the U.S. imposing tougher sanctions on Iran in the near future?
Sanctions are useful in giving a country an incentive to negotiate, but they are unlikely to cause a country to capitulate. This is certainly the case with Iran. Iran greatly values its own pride, and Iran is incredibly sensitive to every statement made or action taken against it. There is no evidence that sanctions over the last 30 years have at all changed Iran’s nuclear policy; in fact, sanctions often seem to have been counterproductive.
Public sanctions merely encourage Iran to push back, to be belligerent and recalcitrant. In contrast, quieter sanctions do give countries an incentive to negotiate. Of course, Iran does not want to be subjected to sanctions, but it will not back off its public commitment to a nuclear program simply as a result of slightly higher costs.
It seems right now that the possibility of a new sanctions legislation is gaining momentum, and this presents a threat to Obama’s engagement strategy. The push for sanctions seems to be coming from two sources. The first is Congress. Support for sanctions is quite understandable as it averts the need for military action while also publicly proving that action is being taken. But in Dr. Walsh’s view, if we want to solve the nuclear problem, this is the wrong time for the belligerence of sanctions. We must encourage supporters on both sides of the aisle to support the President. The second source is Dennis Ross and a pro-sanctions contingent in the White House. However, Dr. Walsh does not believe their position to be predominant.
It seems that the White House does not support a new installment of sanctions. Instead, Dr. Walsh believes President Obama to have a prudent view of existing sanctions as leverage which would be undermined if new sanctions were imposed. Thus, the White House must maneuver to hold Congress at bay. Someone may need to intervene with the Congressional leadership to buy more time. If new sanctions were to occur in the middle of negotiations, the current opportunity for engagement may be ruined. This would have serious implications regarding the push for military action.
What are the odds that Iran has other secret nuclear program facilities in addition to the recently declared facility?
It is widely assumed that there are other facilities, and this seems like a reasonable possibility. In fact, the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization director explained that the second enrichment site was created to guarantee Iran’s ability to continue its nuclear program, in spite of threats made toward Iran by Israel and the U.S. Given this comment, as well as expected behavior on the part of Iran acting in its own interests, it seems likely that Iran would build, disperse, and harden additional facilities.
Thus, we must entertain the possibility of other secret facilities, but we should also have great confidence in our intelligence community’s ability to identify those facilities. We knew about the recently declared facility for years, substantially before the start of the Obama administration. The IAEA is very adroit at detecting diversion of materials, but not at finding undeclared facilities. However, the U.S. is very good at finding undeclared facilities.
Based on the reported information, it seems that Iran has not been aware for long that the U.S. had identified its second enrichment facility. Thus, if they created any other secret facilities, they likely would have replicated the construction procedures used for the Qom facility. This suggests that, if Iran has any other undeclared facilities, the U.S. probably knows about them.
The question then becomes: what is the best way to deal with the possibility of other facilities built in the future? If we do not negotiate, Iran will likely continue to construct redundant, parallel, and hidden facilities. A military strike will not work if we do not know where these facilities are located. Sanctions also will not work on facilities no one knows about.
The key is to increase transparency. One means of doing so would be to take Iran’s earlier suggestion of multinationalizing its facilities. Through the operation of facilities by an international group of staff and managers, information about all of Iran’s facilities would likely be revealed, and it would be much more difficult for Iran to run a parallel program. At the end of the day, the only thing that will give us a sufficient assurance that Iran is not hiding a parallel or clandestine program is the institution of greater transparency.
What are the implications of the U.S. development of a bunker buster bomb – the “massive ordnance penetrator”?
It seems to be a capability that the U.S. government wants. In addition, the conventional status of the massive ordnance penetrator (in contrast to tentative plans during the Bush administration to produce a nuclear bunker buster bomb) takes the sting out of it, politically speaking.
Nonetheless, Dr. Walsh believes we should put less focus on building new weapons to eliminate hidden underground facilities, and more focus on creating a better system of transparency that would deter Iran from constructing hidden facilities in the first place. Countries have been historically reluctant to build hidden facilities when there are inspectors on the ground. Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s rule is a prime example: he terminated the creation of hidden facilities between the two Iraq wars because he feared being caught.
Transparency presents the unique advantage of keeping honest both those who would normally be honest and those who would like to cheat – the would-be cheaters are averse to being caught. U.S.-Iranian relations have been cyclically open and close. We must take advantage of the current open period to create a new standard of transparency, lest we begin to drift irreversibly to regrettable outcomes.