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The Wrong Red Line

Alan Dowty on why the international community needs to draw a new red line for Iran.

By: /
4 April, 2013
By: Alan Dowty
Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame

Drawing a line in the sand on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is a good idea.  But it’s been drawn in the wrong place.  We should draw it where we have the tactical advantage.

The Iranians swear that they are enriching uranium only for use as fuel: to the 3.5 per cent level for use in power reactors, and to the 20 per cent level for their research reactor in Tehran (supplied long ago to the Shah’s government by the United States, under the “Atoms for Peace” program). Both claims are clearly bogus.  Iran has only one power reactor, whose fuel is supplied and controlled by Russia; other projected reactors are years if not decades down the line.  Fuel for the research reactor can be supplied by a number of foreign sources.

But by sticking to their story, the Iranians are actually offering us the advantage: we can tie them to their story and thus prevent them from doing anything more than they’re already claiming to be doing.  International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors should be able to detect any higher level of enrichment at the two facilities (Natanz and Fordow); weapons-grade uranium requires a 90 per cent level of enrichment according to common estimates, and inspections could be strengthened to ensure that any further enrichment would be detected quickly.  Part of the deal, in fact, should be Iranian adherence to the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would give IAEA inspectors quick access to non-nuclear facilities possibly used in weaponization research (an access that Iran has so far denied).


On this basis, the international community could concede to Iran the full fuel cycle that it insists is its only motive for an enrichment program.  But this would come with a clear red line:  fuel-grade only (preferably at the 3.5 per cent level).  Any enrichment above this level would lose even the flimsy pretexts that Iran has been hiding behind.  The message would simply be, “You want low-enriched uranium (LEU) for which you have no credible need?  Knock yourselves out.  But should you move beyond this, it will be detected quickly and the consequences will be far worse than the sanctions that, by all indications, are already weakening your economy.”

Iran has used the “full fuel cycle” façade to hide from its own public as well as from nations looking for any excuse to hold back on international sanctions that might be effective against the Islamic Republic, notably Russia and China.  With the façade removed, there would be stronger international support (and perhaps even domestic support in Iran) for opposing a weapons program that could no longer be disguised, even to the most credulous, as anything else. 

Enrichment of uranium to low levels is not in itself illegal for countries that, like Iran, have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus enjoy the benefits of cooperation in peaceful nuclear activity.  This fact is one of the primary reasons for lack of support for international sanctions.  A deal conceding LEU to Iran, but with stronger IAEA verification as the quid pro quo that Iran would have to accept, would put the entire confrontation on more tenable ground from the West’s point of view.  Essentially, it makes use of Iran’s polite fiction to draw a better line in the sand.  Drawing a line behind the spot in which someone is already standing is always problematic tactically; it requires an embarrassing retreat.  Chances for success are much better with a line is drawn out front so as to allow one actor to back away with minimal humiliation.  Drawing a more realistic red line would allow Iran to save face and the international community to prevent another state from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

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