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Caveat Lector!

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On Dec. 2 the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, What a Final Iran Deal Must Do. The authorship is ascribed to Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, but it is hard to believe that this piece is really the work of such distinguished statesmen, so striking are the misleading depictions of crucial facts and the shortcomings in their reasoning.

The authors open by reminding readers of their Cold War experience of confronting “nuclear perils”, implying an analogy between a Soviet Union that by the 1970s possessed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and an Iran which at present possesses no more than an unproven, very basic and as yet unused nuclear weapons capability.

They go on to argue for the dismantling or mothballing of parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, omitting to mention that they never tried to persuade the USSR (or China) to dismantle any of their nuclear infrastructure (and would have been given short shrift, had they done so). Instead, they negotiated balanced arms control agreements that reduced “nuclear perils” by improving mutual understanding and providing for confidence-building verification measures.

In addition, they write as though there is a clear distinction between a nuclear weapons capability and a “plausible civil nuclear program” (to which they, rightly, raise no objection). The essential problem posed by a dual-use nuclear technology like uranium enrichment is that no such distinction exists. An enrichment plant that is producing fuel for reactors one day can be reconfigured the next to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Because that is the case, it is a mistake to fixate on technical capabilities. Far more useful is to minimise the risk that a state that possesses nuclear weapons potential will ever want to realise it. The world is full of states that possess the capacity to inflict death and destruction on other states. Mercifully, most of that capacity remains unused because most governments are smart enough to recognise that picking a fight is a pretty dumb thing to do, i.e. not in the national interest, in a post-1945 world.

So it would have been wise of the authors to focus, not on a misleading distinction between civil and military capacities, but on the desirability of developing the mutual understanding that they, in their prime, were so adept at fostering, and on confidence-building verification measures.

It would also have been reassuring if they had shown awareness of the divergence of the outlook that has been a discernible characteristic of Iran’s leading politicians since the late 1980s. President Rouhani’s outlook has little in common with his predecessor’s. He shares with former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami a pragmatic and defensive mind-set. None of these three leaders (all are still alive) seeks to export Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Defending Iranian interests is their guiding objective.

A penchant for treating facts misleadingly transpires in the authors’ description of Iran’s nuclear program. They write as though it had been established beyond all doubt that this is a military and not a civil or safety-net dual-use program. It has not.

They also imply that the program is on a vast scale, whereas in fact it is modest. Nearly eight years after the re-opening of the Natanz plant (following a negotiated two year suspension of activity there) Iran only possesses enough low-enriched uranium for four nuclear weapons (which it has not attempted to make). Its stock of LEU would barely supply one quarter of the fuel needed to re-load its 930MW power reactor at Bushehr. The 40MW reactor at Arak is still incomplete.

Here are a few more egregious statements:

…progress on a heavy water reactor and plutonium reprocessing facility at Arak

There is no trace of a reprocessing facility at Arak or anywhere else in Iran. Since 2003 Iranian negotiators have steadily disclaimed any intention of reprocessing spent fuel from any of their reactors.

IAEA directives have demanded…unconditional compliance with an IAEA inspection regime

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s board resolutions (which only have political, not legal force) have urged Iran to grant exceptional access to IAEA inspectors. Iran has complied with the regular Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) inspection regime.

…we must avoid an outcome in which Iran…emerges as a de facto nuclear power leading an Islamist camp.

Do the authors really envisage Turkey, Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan hailing Iran as their leader? They ought to know better.

…[Iran has] proceeded with a major nuclear effort…in violation of its NPT obligations

None of the nuclear facilities built by Iran is outlawed by the NPT. Since 2003 the IAEA has reported regularly that all nuclear material known to be in Iran’s possession is in peaceful use, as required by the NPT, and has not reported any evidence of undeclared nuclear material.

The flaws in this article matter because the ostensible authors are so distinguished that they are likely to be seen as authoritative sources of wisdom on the subject at issue. This impertinent critique of their analysis stands little chance of correcting the perceptions of those who have been influenced by this Dec. 2 piece. Nonetheless, here’s hoping.

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years.

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