Here’s what we do know about Iran. As of a year ago it had 2,100 centrifuges in an underground site, and by using them was intensifying its production of nuclear fuel. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that much in an August 2012 report.
These are advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium at much higher speeds than the 18,000 older, “first generation” centrifuges Iran has been using. The 2,100 centrifuges—presumably spinning still—suggested a leap in uranium enrichment: Three months earlier, the IAEA reported Iran had only 689.
“Tehran has reached the threshold of having a nuclear weapons capability,” said two of the world’s pre-eminent weapons experts, Rolf Ekeus and Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, upon reviewing the IAEA report. Ekeus led the UN weapons inspections teams into Iraq after the Gulf War, and Braut-Hegghammer teaches nuclear security at Stanford University.
Iran’s continued uranium enrichment—and the threat of a nuclear weapons arsenal building in one of the world’s worst police states—has led to a decade of economic sanctions by the United States, the EU, and international organizations. The IAEA said Iranian cooperation “was essential and urgent” to restore confidence in the “exclusively peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program—and 10 rounds of talks in Vienna and Tehran later, it got nowhere.
Now Iran wants to talk, and starting in mid-October will put forward a package of proposals to halt production of nuclear fuel. This is deadly serious business, and it comes at a time when U.S. foreign policy has been anything but. The United States cannot afford ignorance, posturing, or being unserious in its approach.
Initial proposals, for instance, aim to limit the numbers of centrifuges operating, to curtail enrichment amounts and the need for verification. That’s not a halt but a slowdown in the march to nuclear weapons. And the proposal is contingent on Western powers easing economic sanctions—a dicey timetable: Restrictions on overseas transactions by Iranian banks can be removed in a moment; verification that nuclear enrichment has slowed or stopped is a long and tedious process.
Even as the first proposals hit the table in Geneva, opposition groups in Iran reported that officials were moving to a fortified defense ministry complex a Tehran nuclear weapons research center—one they say employs 100 researchers and engineers, in small-scale experiments with radioactive material.
Iran has demonstrated over the last decade its willingness to give up economic necessities in order to pursue nuclear capability. Oil revenue is down by half, thanks to an EU embargo and banking restrictions. That means fuel itself is more expensive for Iranians, and essentials like medicine and many imports are in short supply. This is a price the ayatollahs have been willing to pay to keep the centrifuges spinning.
Also, despite the talk of a “new” regime in Iran, those in power very much represent the old Islamic order. Hassan Rouhani, the new president, has been part of Iran’s national security apparatus since 1989. He headed Iran’s team of nuclear negotiators through unsuccessful rounds of talks with European diplomats. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini was part of the 1979 revolution and hasn’t altered his anti-American positions. Already he has said aspects of Rouhani’s trip to New York, where he spoke briefly with President Obama by phone, were “improper,” and Iran news media have been feverishly trying to decipher the implication of Khameini’s displeasure.
Watch what happens to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s U.S.-educated top diplomat who served as its ambassador to the UN and has paved the way for renewed U.S.-Iranian negotiations. A newspaper closely linked to Khameini ran front-page coverage of a Zarif confession of sorts following his trip to New York. “Zarif: The phone conversation with Obama and my long meeting with John Kerry were improper,” read the headline. Zarif denied saying that, then was briefly hospitalized, for stress, after the report came out.
Watch what happens to political prisoners, particularly three American prisoners cited by President Obama in his phone call with Rouhani—Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and the Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini. All have reportedly been tortured. Releasing them without preconditions would be a simple way for the Iranian regime to demonstrate not only is it ready to talk, but it’s also listening.