All of this severely deflates whatever extra negotiating time we and our friends might hope we have to limit the Iranian nuclear weapons effort diplomatically. Instead of a year, we must now think about a nuclear negotiating grace period that’s shrunk to zero.
Two other takeaways from this analysis are no less worrisome:
First, the last time the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Iran’s nuclear program, it called on Iran to suspend all of its nuclear fuel-making activities. Given how much Iran’s nuclear program has progressed since then, getting Iran to comply with this resolution is the bare minimum the United States and other like-minded nations should be demanding.
Over the weekend, Tehran announced that it had broken out of its dependence on outside sources of uranium and had domestically developed all of the mining milling and ore processing it required to supply itself. Now, unless we can get Iran to stop enriching, it can simply continue to make more and more bombs’ worth of uranium.
Second, proposals that would have Iran surrender whatever uranium it has enriched in exchange for an equivalent amount of fully fabricated fresh reactor fuel will have to require Iran to give up nearly all of the uranium it has enriched to have any hope of success. Last fall, the United States and its key European allies, China, and Russia asked Iran to give up less than half of what Iran now has amassed in a swap for fresh reactor fuel. At the time, Tehran said no. Presumably, if we and the other negotiating states now ask Iran to give up most or all of its current stash of approximately 2,000 kilograms of low enriched uranium, its answer will be no different.
This poses a terrible dilemma, and it is sure to push the United States and the other negotiating parties down one of two difficult paths: The first would be to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium under more frequent international inspections. The hope here would be to prevent Iran from enriching the uranium it has, which currently is only useful to fuel reactors, up to much higher levels that would only be useful to make bombs.
The reality, however, is that pushing this approach is pointless. Undercutting the Security Council's unanimous demand for a suspension of fuel-making activities and allowing a nuclear violator, such as Iran, to continue to make nuclear fuel would set a frightening precedent for Iran’s neighbors. Several of these states are already spooked by Iran and considering whether to try acquiring bombs by making their own nuclear fuel. If we gave Iran a green light now, it would only make blocking their future efforts much more difficult.
And even more important, the notion that we could get enough warning of a military diversion from Iran's fuel-making facilities to intervene and prevent the first weapon from being forged simply defies all we have learned from bitter experience. We would have only days, which is hardly sufficient time to intercede and block Iran from setting aside enough material for a bomb—and if Iran has covert fuel-making plants, our intense monitoring of their declared plants will be of little value.