A nuclear energy program that benefits the Iranian people

1 Bulletin

Iran should move beyond its "false nationalism" and embrace the significant benefits of a peaceful nuclear approach, Stanford scholars say.

In return, professors Siegfried Hecker and Abbas Milani wrote Jan. 21 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the West should neither isolate nor attack Iran  – those approaches would not necessarily stop Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program if it chose to do so.

Interestingly, the Iranian government republished the Hecker-Milani article in Farsi on at least one official website. That could reflect, the scholars say, a "genuine internal debate" in Iran regarding its nuclear future directions.

Hecker is a professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the institute's Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is also a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. He is also an affiliated faculty member of FSI's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

In an interview, Milani expressed cautious optimism. "Clearly, this is an important fact that they allowed this article to be posted on an official website. They are rethinking their nuclear program. But there are many others who will oppose it as well."

He added that Iranian reformers – who won the last presidential election – understand that the confrontational approach of Iran's hard-liners was not working. Many people are hurting due to the economic sanctions: inflation is at least 35 percent by official measures and may actually be twice that, Milani said.

South Korean model

As Hecker and Milani wrote in the article, South Korea in the last few decades has become one of the world's preeminent peaceful nuclear energy countries by focusing on the profitable parts of the middle nuclear fuel cycle — reactor component fabrication, fuel fabrication and reactor construction.

However, Hecker acknowledged, there has been talk that South Korea may be seeking consent from Washington for enrichment and reprocessing options beyond peaceful uses. He pointed out, however, that South Korea has had a peaceful nuclear program for four decades.

The problem with a weaponized approach is that it steals away the resources and expertise needed for a civilian-minded energy program, the authors stated.

"For Iran, the lesson of the South Korean experience is clear: Tehran should decide to abandon its enrichment efforts because the costs – technological, economic and political – are not worth the price of keeping the nuclear weapon option open," Hecker and Milani wrote.

When Iran's covert nuclear program was discovered in the early 2000s, the West enacted crippling economic sanctions against the country. Despite oil revenue windfalls, Iran has an economy riled by inflation and on the verge of collapse. 

There is hope. An interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the United Nations Security Council plus Germany that went into effect Jan. 20 consists of a short-term freeze of portions of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief for Iran. The idea is to give the countries time to work toward a long-term agreement.

Milani said that after the short-term agreement was reached, Iran's inflation rate began to moderate and its currency rate began to stabilize. That small bit of economic relief may bolster the reformers' argument in favor of a civilian nuclear policy.

"There are many people in Iran who want to see this issue resolved peacefully," said Milani, explaining that the hard-liners are associated with the clergy and Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

How close is Iran to a bomb?

Hecker and Milani warned of a "breakout scenario" in which Iran's centrifuge program could make enough highly enriched uranium (90 percent uranium 235) for a nuclear bomb "in a matter of months or even weeks."  The Iranian scientists would still need to craft a bomb and develop the means to deliver a nuclear weapon, which requires a high level of miniaturization.

"Iran would need a number of years of research, development and testing before it could have a reliable, missile-deliverable nuclear warhead," they wrote, noting the periodic missile threats made by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard against the United States and Israel.

In an interview, Hecker said the primary challenge now is no longer how to keep Iran from the capability, but rather "how to convince Iran it is not in its interest to build the bomb."

He noted that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Mohammad Zarif told him that it was not in Iran's security interest to build the bomb. "In fact, he added, even the appearance of pursuing the bomb was bad for Iran's security."

As Hecker explained, completely getting rid of the Iranian bomb option is not possible through military action or sanctions with political pressure. "The only chance is through diplomatic means. We need to make it clear to the Iranian regime that they are better off without pursuing the bomb."

For now, Hecker and Milani wrote in their article, the interim agreement will temporarily prevent Iran from reaching a breakout scenario. While a delay is good, more must be done to actually stop the Iranians from militarizing their nuclear program. After all, external pressure did not stop Israel, Pakistan, India, South Africa or North Korea from building nukes.

"Such a decision, we believe, must be made internally, not externally driven," the two Stanford experts wrote.

The Iranian elite should take note of the scant returns of the country's nuclear efforts to date. "After 50 years, Iran has very little to show for its nuclear pursuit," they said.

Iran has one commercial reactor, built by the Russians and only partially ready for electricity production. Another reactor, used primarily for medical isotope production, is on its last legs. The new Iranian reactor planned for Arak is not of modern design nor suited for medical production, and presents serious proliferation concerns because it will produce plutonium suitable for bombs.

"Iran's pride and joy, the uranium centrifuge program, can enrich in one year only as much uranium as the European consortium Urenco can produce in about five hours," wrote Hecker and Milani.

Change in government

The timing may be right for a new nuclear approach, Hecker and Milani wrote. In his September 2013 speech at the United Nations, Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, acknowledged that other nations could have "legitimate concerns" about Iran's nuclear program.

"That admission opens up the possibility for objective debate within Iran on the economic and technical costs of its current nuclear trajectory," wrote the Stanford professors. Such a debate would include business leaders, intellectuals and a broad spectrum of civic groups advocating on behalf of the "enormous benefits" of a safe, peaceful nuclear program.

"For this to happen, the international community must of course provide reliable access to uranium and enrichment services," they wrote.

Hecker added that Washington must demonstrate that it is prepared to cooperate with Tehran on a "peaceful nuclear pursuit, and not continue to isolate it."

As for Iran, it would need to operate transparently and implement specific protocols to assure the international community that it would not return to the nuclear weapons option. Both the West and Iran need to save face on such a deal, Milani said.

He noted, "The Iranians need to make a deal that has some real concessions, but they need to sell it at home as a victory."

As Hecker put it, if the Iranians want nuclear energy and relations with the West, they need "nuclear integration, not isolation."

Clifton B. Parker is a writer for the Stanford News Service.