TEL AVIV — Is Iran finally ready to talk? New president Hassan Rouhani has said he’s ready for nuclear negotiations. In recent weeks, the Iranian government has repeatedly expressed its desire to reach a deal on its uranium enrichment program.
A few days after Mr. Rouhani’s victory, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, stated that Iran was prepared to limit its enrichment to a level below 20 percent, which is the main goal of an agreement between the West and Iran. Last month, Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, reportedly told the White House that Iran wanted to begin direct nuclear negotiations with the U.S.
But it would be dangerous to think that Iran’s proposal for negotiations alone would pave the way for a deal. What matters is not the talks but the outcome.
Whoever negotiates with Iran must acknowledge that the enrichment of uranium from a low level (3.5 percent to 19.75 percent) to weapons-grade level (90 percent) is only one of three dimensions of Iran’s nuclear strategy. A second is Iran’s progress toward a quick “breakout capability” through the stockpiling of large quantities of low-enriched uranium that could be further enriched rapidly to provide weapons-grade fuel. Iran also appears to be pursuing a parallel track to a nuclear capability through production of plutonium. A deal with Iran must address all three parts of its strategy.
Western experts like Graham T. Allison Jr. and Olli Heinonen estimate that if Iran decided to develop a bomb today, it could do so within three to five months. That is assumed to be sufficient lead time for the West to detect and respond to an Iranian decision.
But a recent report from the Institute for Science and International Security estimates that at the current pace of installation, Iran could reduce its breakout time to just one month by the end of this year. Any agreement must ensure that an Iranian breakout is detected quickly enough to allow for a Western response.
A solution will also have to address the potential for a plutonium bomb. In May, Iran announced that the heavy-water reactor in Arak would become operational early next year. Some American and European officials claim that Iran could produce weapons-grade plutonium next summer.
A functioning nuclear reactor in Arak could allow Iran to produce sufficient quantities of plutonium for nuclear bombs. Although Iran would need to build a reprocessing facility to separate the plutonium from the uranium, that should not be the West’s primary concern. Western negotiators should instead demand that Iran shut down the Arak reactor.
This is crucial because the West would likely seek to avoid an attack on a “hot” reactor, lest it cause widespread environmental damage. Once Arak is operational, it would effectively be immune from attack and the West would be deprived of its primary “stick” to persuade Iran to forgo a military nuclear capability.
Of the three countries that have publicly crossed the nuclear threshold since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970, India and North Korea did so via the plutonium track. Any agreement must guarantee that Iran will not retain a breakout or “sneak out” plutonium-production capacity.
At the United Nations last September, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, focused only on uranium enrichment. This narrow perception is widespread in the West and could enable Iran to attain a swift breakout capability using uranium or to build a plutonium bomb without detection.
Negotiations with Iran should resume, and the sooner the better. But Western leaders must maintain their current leverage — sanctions and a credible military threat. Moderate messages from Tehran should not be allowed to camouflage Iran’s continuing progress toward a bomb.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, is director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, where Avner Golov is a researcher. They wrote this for The New York Times.