Iran, and the approaching nuclear red-line
20 Mar 2013|

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office. May 18 2009.President Obama’s recent comments in an interview with an Israeli TV show about the Iranian nuclear program are a timely reminder that the issue hasn’t gone away. In the interview, which aired on 14 March, he said that an Iranian nuclear weapon was still more than a year away but ‘we don’t want to cut it too close’, and restated his position that Iranian possession of a nuclear weapon was ‘a red line’ for the US. On Monday 18 March he called for full disclosure of the Iranian nuclear program, arguing that such disclosure would be a prerequisite for ‘a new relationship’ between Iran and the United States.

These comments are a reminder that the Iranian nuclear issue continues to simmer. It’s been somewhat marginalised in the headlines this year because North Korea has been grabbing all the attention. Kim Jong-un has cards to play—including actual nuclear tests—that are considerably more worrying than just about anything Iran can do in the short term.

Obama’s comments need to be read alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear activities (PDF). Late last year, Iran bought itself a window for negotiation on the enrichment front—apparently Tehran was just as nervous as some in Washington about the prospect of an Israeli ‘October surprise’. It certainly hasn’t slowed its production of enriched uranium, and has in fact begun introducing more advanced centrifuges at its facilities. But it’s diverted a portion of its stockpiled 20%-enriched uranium to its nuclear fuel plate facility to be transformed into triuranium octoxide (U3O8), one of the more common forms of yellowcake.

That has helped to keep its stockpile of moderately-enriched uranium significantly under the figure of 250kg—a threshold that seems to trigger Israeli anxieties. Indeed, at current production rates, it has probably bought itself six to nine months, and there’s scope to repeat this gambit if necessary in the future. It does mean that Iran is building some really expensive fuel plates, but Tehran might find that an acceptable path by which to preserve ambiguity about its long-term intentions.

Despite claims made by the Iranian media, the latest IAEA report does not proclaim the peaceful nature of the Iranian program. Anyone willing to read the summary of the report—which is not, I might add, helpfully placed at the front of the document, but rather at the back (paragraphs 62 to 68)—will find that the IAEA specifically states that it’s ‘unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and [can’t therefore conclude] that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities’.

Meanwhile, Obama is trying to signal to Israel that Washington hasn’t taken its eye off the ball in the Middle East, despite the many competing issues clamouring for attention. Some are suggesting that Obama’s latest comments are an interesting wrinkle on the formal US intelligence position—that Tehran hasn’t yet taken the political decision to move to a nuclear weapon. But the more important message is the one aimed at the Israelis—a reaffirmation of Obama’s previous position that the US could not deter and contain a nuclear-armed Iran. That’s a point that really does highlight that Iran is a much more important test case of US counterproliferation policy than is North Korea.

Australia, because of its location, is currently fixated on the North Korean problem—and for perfectly valid reasons. Kim Jong-un looks intemperate on occasions and the latest successes with a long-range missile launch and nuclear test have lent weight to his recent threats. Moreover, South Korea and Japan are deeply concerned about North Korea, especially at a time when some believe that the US is wearied by a decade of conflict and not prepared for stand-offs in Asia. It’s possible to read the US’s latest interest in ballistic missile defence for its west coast as part of a new wave of US domestic prioritisation in defence matters. But it would still pay us to keep a wary eye on the Iranian nuclear issue—if containing and deterring Iran really isn’t an option, some difficult times lie ahead.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at the ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.