It’s too early to know for certain how deep the Bush Administration’s commitment to Iran diplomacy runs. But two ground truths have been made abundantly clear in conversations with US allies: (1) the military options are not attractive; and (2) there isn’t yet the sense of urgency that characterized the run up to the war in Iraq.
What does the Iran timeline look like now? The Bush Administration has deliberately signaled a fairly relaxed expectation about how long it may take the fractious Iranian regime to formulate a response to the incentive package offered by the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Initial Iranian reactions have been positive. Certainly, the US is prepared for at least several weeks’ worth of waiting, – which costs nothing in terms of US options. Keep in mind that the UN route and “coalition of the willing” sanctions are both unpredictable and likely to fail — possibly in a way that highlights US limitations. That helps makes the case for patience.
There are press reports that a forthcoming IAEA report on Tehran’s activities will call attention to the discovery of enriched uranium on equipment at an Iranian military site. While not bomb-grade material, the fact that Iran has such equipment at a military facility increases speculation about a covert program.
What’s the status of Iran’s nuclear technology? Tehran started small-scale enrichment in February. It intends to build a 164-machine cascade by end of the year. IAEA officials and the foreign intelligence communities now generally agree that Iran is attempting to develop its own nuclear weapon capabilities. In addition to the possibility that Iran could break out from its disclosed activities at Natanz, it is of course also possible that Tehran could: (1) acquire highly-enriched uranium (HEU) from another country; or (2) conceal a significant centrifuge program that exceeds the small number the Iranians are thought to have assembled at Natanz thus far.
To be clear, going from a pilot program of 164 centrifuges that can produce small quantities of enriched uranium product to a cascade of 1,500 or 3,000 machines is an enormous technical challenge, and the penalty for mistakes along the way is high, e.g., in terms of damage to already assembled centrifuges. Those familiar with Tehran’s capability express substantial uncertainty regarding how quickly it can achieve its objective. Absent a technological leap or the acquisition of HEU from another source, however, most agree that Iran is unlikely to obtain bomb quantities of HEU before some time in 2009 — a point Director of National Intelligence Negroponte affirmed again last week.
Taken together, an initially positive Iranian reaction and more troubling technological discoveries leave near-term events moving in a range from vaguely positive to negative. But the technology timeline doesn’t yet argue for urgency. The key will be whether a real Iranian reaction (perhaps not public) invites a dialogue or presents insurmountable obstacles to the US initiative.
Of near-term events, it’s likely that the G8 Summit will be the most important. But all of these venues will be worth to watching:
- June 8 — Meeting of NATO defense ministers (Brussels).
- June 12 — Meeting of the Board of Governors of the IAEA (Vienna).
- June 15 — Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; Iranian President Ahmadinejad to attend (Shanghai).
- June 15-16 — EU Summit (Vienna).
- June 21 — US-EU Summit; President Bush to attend (Vienna).
- June 29 — Meeting of G8 foreign ministers (Moscow).
- July 14 — President Bush expected to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Stralsund, Germany).
- July 15-17 — G8 Summit (St. Petersburg).
It’s interesting to ponder what impact British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent trip may have had on US policy toward Iran. Certainly, he pressed hard for a stepped-up diplomatic outreach to Iran, likely echoing calls that Chairman Lugar and Senator Warner had made for direct talks. It’s easy to imagine that he came to Washington to deliver a more pointed plea related to Iraq. Events in Basra are going very badly, and the Brits want out — after the US midterm vote, and perhaps before end-year. To manage such an exit, Iranian forbearance would be important. Blair hasn’t asked Bush for much in return for his constancy, but he now needs a story to tell about a graceful British exit from Iraq. And capping off Iran risk while reducing the worst-case outlook in Basra would make sense in protecting what’s left of a Blair legacy.
Kevin Nealer is a lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Business and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.