The west may have been looking in all the wrong places for Iran's nuclear weapons development activity. Image: iStock

Picture this: In the middle of the night a drunken man is crawling under a streetlight. Another man walks by and asks what is going on. “I am looking for my keys,” says the drunken man. “I lost them further down the road.” The other man is perplexed. “If you have lost your keys over there, why are you looking for them here?” he asks. To which the drunken man replies: “Because the light is better here.”

This old story neatly captures the West’s flawed approach to Iran’s nuclear program: like the drunken man looking for his keys, the West always looked for Iran’s nuclear activities in the wrong places.

The now-defunct Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had sought to curtail work at the officially declared enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo, and a few others. Yet these facilities, which were regularly inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), were never meant to do the dirty work. They were merely decoys – the streetlamp that would divert the attention of a West drunken with the prospect of a nuclear deal. The serious enrichment activities took place elsewhere: in secret facilities run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. To stay with the metaphor, the key was somewhere up the dark end of the street.

To be sure, US intelligence had known for quite some time that Iran was operating about a dozen secret facilities, with one or more of them enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. Israel, too, knew about them. As early as 2006, it was reported that the Mossad had determined the existence of two parallel nuclear programs in Iran – one officially declared to the IAEA and a second, secret program operated by the Iranian military and the Revolutionary Guards.

Given the existence of secret military installations, any serious nuclear deal with Iran would have sought to cap the activities at those sites. Yet Iran did not accept a reference to, let alone the inclusion of, its military sites in the JCPOA. The US backed off. Given Obama’s stated twin objective – no nuclear Iran and no war with Iran on his watch – any deal seemed better than no deal at all. The Obama Administration was content with kicking the can further down the road and letting successor administrations deal with the consequences.

Against this background, it is clear that the nuclear agreement with Iran was a charade from the very beginning. In terms of restrictions on uranium enrichment, the JCPOA applied only to those facilities that had been declared by Iran; accordingly, the IAEA was controlling only these. However, enrichment to weapons-grade levels proceeds in military facilities that are off-limits to inspectors. This means that the IAEA’s regular reports according to which Iran was complying with the agreement were both accurate – and pointless.

In the Western public debate, this massive flaw of the JCPOA is largely ignored. The mainstream view continues to hold that if the agreement were to lapse, Iran could restart enrichment in Natanz, produce weapons-grade uranium, and ultimately have “the bomb.” However, the JCPOA was never the only framework for restricting Iran’s nuclear activities. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is also subject to limits on its enrichment. The NPT permits Iran to enrich uranium to low levels for civilian use, for example, to operate Iran’s envisaged 20 future nuclear power plants, and a limited amount to a higher level in order to operate the Tehran research reactor.

Any attempt to enrich beyond these levels would immediately trigger the involvement of the IAEA and, ultimately, the UN Security Council. The idea that Iran could illegally produce highly-enriched uranium in the declared (and therefore IAEA-controlled) site of Natanz in a short period of time is thus just as far-fetched as are the many “breakout” calculations, according to which Iran could secretly produce enough weapons-grade uranium at Natanz for a bomb in eight to 12 months.

Even withdrawal from the NPT would not get Tehran off the hook: UN Security Council Resolution 1540 would allow the international community to label Iran’s production of weapons-grade uranium as a “threat to international peace and security” under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and take appropriate measures against that country.

Simply put, Iran cannot produce weapons-grade uranium in Natanz – neither legally nor secretly. For this one needs the secret facilities of the Revolutionary Guards. For Tehran, this remains a comfortable situation even after withdrawal from the nuclear agreement: while the Western public is distracted by a heated discussion on how long it will take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium in Natanz for a bomb, modern centrifuges are producing weapons-grade uranium in secret facilities of the Revolutionary Guards. As a result, Iran continues to inch closer to a genuine nuclear option.

The nuclear agreement thus would have led to the unimpeded nuclearization of Iran. By focusing on the Natanz facility rather than the sites that are producing weapons-grade uranium, the agreement was off the mark from its very beginning: it could not even have worked as a merely temporary measure to prevent a nuclear Iran. Iran knows this, and so now does the US. The Europeans, however, who are trying so hard to keep the agreement alive, are still crawling under the streetlight, looking for the key that isn’t there. It is time for them to lift their sights and sober up.

The author was head of the planning staff of the German Ministry of Defense from 1982 to 1988.

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