The Obama administration’s recent focus on finding a compromise to allow the Iranian regime to maintain some enrichment capabilities “for peaceful purposes” distracts from the underlying nuclear threat at hand. Any outcome short of the verifiable dismantling and end of the Iranian nuclear program (including the removal of all nuclear material) will leave Tehran at the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability that will pose a threat to American interests and global security.
President Barack Obama said in March that a diplomatic resolution with Iran could give the regime “access to peaceful nuclear energy.” Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said less than one week later that the Iranian regime could demonstrate its supposed peaceful intent simply by ending its development of 20 percent uranium enrichment, transferring the stockpile of that material from Iran, and agreeing to continuous inspections. Implicit in Obama’s and Clinton’s positions is some sort of notion that Iran could retain certain nuclear capabilities—an admission that the administration has essentially given up on preventing Iran from further enriching uranium or demanding an immediate and sustained suspension of enrichment and other activities.
These statements, apart from ceding previous red lines, are shortsighted in their embrace of faulty assumptions about nuclear programs and dismiss the unique circumstances of the Iranian regime's nuclear activities.
It’s worth rememebering what Albert Wolhstetter and others wrote in the 1970s, in a report for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency:
It would be nice if there were a simple dichotomy between safe and dangerous nuclear activities: on the one hand safe, economic, civilian, non-military, peaceful activities that are to be promoted, and on the other dangerous military activities threatening war, a net drain, even in peace-time, on the productive life of humanity and therefore to be not merely discouraged, but banned…But unfortunately all these good things do not come in a cluster distinct from the bad ones…There are not two atoms, one peaceful and one military. They are the same atom.
The general lesson to draw here is straightforward: Any nuclear undertaking, particularly one that includes fuel cycle activities such as uranium enrichment and reactor development, reduces the technological barriers to developing nuclear weapons technology and affords states an expedited path to acquiring nuclear weapons. That proliferation risk is inherent irrespective of past behavior or the intent of the state in question.
In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime that is violating its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, it refuses to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, has pursued nuclear weapons technologies covertly, stockpiles enriched uranium that it can rapidly convert to bomb fuel while rejecting international offers for fuel assistance, constructs reactors that provide a pathway to plutonium-fueled bombs, and was caught in recent years secretly building a buried enrichment facility (on a military base) most likely designed to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium. The proliferation risk is, therefore, naturally heightened, posing an unacceptable threat given the regime’s prior record and that all enrichment facilities or reactors are pathways to surpassing the most difficult obstacle to acquiring nuclear weapons (obtaining fuel for a nuclear weapon).
Iranian leaders are in standing violation of the same non-proliferation treaty they and their sympathizers evoke as a basis for their supposed right to pursue nuclear technology. This in itself is a contradiction that often stands unchallenged. The NPT is not an à la carte menu and it was never intended to cover the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability under the guise of rights to nuclear technology; signatories are either fully compliant or noncompliant and, therefore, outside its bounds. The Iranian regime has placed itself outside the bounds of the NPT because of its own actions. It is nonsensical for anyone watching this scenario unfold under current circumstances to insist on Iran’s right to any nuclear program.