A persistent criticism of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program has been that talks just allow Tehran to stall for time as it races towards building a nuclear weapon. Although this criticism always rested on faulty logic, it has become completely untenable given the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program since December 2011.
The argument that Iran would use diplomatic talks to stall for time emerged in 2003 when the EU3 (France, the U.K. and Germany) first undertook its nuclear diplomacy with Iran following the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program being revealed by the political arm of the Iranian terrorist group, Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), in late 2002.
Although the argument that Iran was using talks to stall for time couldn’t be entirely dismissed at this time, it at the very least seemed implausible. This was because that, even putting aside the nuclear work done under the Shah, the Islamic Republic had restarted Iran’s nuclear program two decades ago by the time diplomacy with the EU3 got underway. At that point Iran wasn’t operating a large scale uranium enrichment plant and had at most enriched a couple of kilograms of uranium to 3-5 percent levels, far below the 90 percent levels needed for a nuclear bomb.
Given the slow rate of progress Iran had thus far achieved in twenty years of working on the nuclear program, it was difficult to understand the utility Iran would gain from the additional months or possibly a year that would come from talking to the EU powers. This became especially true after Iran agreed to suspend enrichment activities for the duration of the talks.
Ten years after the EU3-Iran talks the argument that engaging in nuclear diplomacy with Iran just gives the Islamic Republic more time to build a nuclear bomb continues to be made. For instance, after the first round of the Almaty talks between Iran and the P5+1 powers in February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that Iran was “running out the clock” and said that “It has used negotiations, including the most recent ones, in order to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear program.”
Although Iran has made notable progress on the nuclear front over the past decade, it is at least two or three years away from being capable of building a nuclear weapon, according to the latest estimates of the Israeli intelligence agencies.
More to the point, Iran cannot reasonably said to be rushing towards a nuclear weapon. In fact, over the past year and a half it has been taking actions that inhibit its ability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon. According to the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), since late 2011 Iran has been converting its stockpile of 20 percent uranium into metal fuel plates for use in the Tehran Research Reactor. In fact, between December 2011 and June 2012 it converted one-third of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium into these fuel rods, which in that form cannot be enriched further to make bomb grade fuel.
This was not a one-time occurrence but in fact has continued ever since. According to the most recent IAEA report, over the course of its nuclear program Iran has enriched 280 kg of uranium to 20 percent levels, but had already converted all but 167 kg of it for use in its research reactors. Furthermore, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, recently pledged to increase the conversion rate of its 20 percent stockpiles in the future. The Washington Post editorial board this week wrote an editorial arguing that Iran has indeed been accelerating the rate by which it is converting its stockpile into nuclear fuel plates.
None of this behavior is at all consistent with a country that is using talks to stall for time while it races towards acquiring the capability to build a nuclear weapon. In fact, these actions suggest that Iran is at least holding out the possibility that a deal with the United States and its allies can be reached.
Zachary Keck serves as assistant editor of The Diplomat.