Iran follows N. Korea on nuke path

As finger-pointing begins and details slowly emerge from last week’s failed nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva, one can’t help but feel that we dodged a highly-enriched uranium bullet. Hungry for a foreign policy victory in the form of a long-elusive nuclear agreement with Iran, from reports it doesn’t appear the United States was driving that hard of a bargain. For example, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, in attendance at the talks, basically said Paris would be a “sucker” if it took the deal on the table. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was equally “complimentary.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the closed-door meetings.

The problem seems to be that the deal wasn’t comprehensive enough; it didn’t shut down all the possible pathways that Tehran might take to build a bomb.

Specifically, there seemed to be a laser-like focus on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Naturally, Tehran feels it needs to be able to enrich uranium to make nuclear fuel rods for its reactors rather than relying on a foreign supplier (e.g., Russia).

Outsiders’ concern over this is common sense: The process and facilities for enriching uranium for nuclear fuel rods for a power-producing civilian reactor and for making a uranium-based nuclear weapon are essentially the same.

So, by extension, if you grant Tehran the “inalienable right” under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to make nuclear fuel (despite a history of violation of the pact), in theory Iran could make nukes whenever it wants.

That is a sub-optimum outcome for sure, considering the possibility — OK, likelihood — of Persian perfidy. The other problem is that the negotiations reportedly didn’t address a second route to nuclear-weapon state status by putting the kibosh on Iran’s plutonium production plans.

For mature nuclear states, the preferred bomb material is plutonium rather than uranium; it’s cheaper and less is needed to make it go “boom!”

Iran is already moving down this road with the building of a heavy water reactor at Arak. Once operational, some experts say Arak has the capacity to pump out a couple of bombs’ worth of plutonium a year.

Alarmingly, the uranium-vs.-plutonium scenario with the Iranians smacks of our experience with the equally treacherous North Koreans.

Despite attempts beginning in the 1990s to capture North Korea’s known plutonium-based nuclear program in exchange for energy and fuel aid, the deal didn’t effectively block the other possible path to a nuke — through uranium enrichment.

Not surprisingly, in 2002, Washington discovered that Pyongyang had a secret uranium-based nuclear program. Indeed, North Korea’s latest nuke test (2013) may have been conducted with a uranium bomb.

The point is that cutting any deal isn’t necessarily a good deal.

Any agreement with Iran must be comprehensive of all the ayatollah’s atomic activities and fully verifiable, replete with intrusive inspections of known and suspect facilities. Dismantlement is an even better option.

Anything less than that means we’re likely to see the horror flick sequel to “North Korea Nukes: The Movie,” but this time with Iran in the starring role.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter.

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