11/04/2013 04:56 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A 'Syrian' Approach -- to Iran

The P5+1 (i.e., the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) are about to respond to Iran's hour-long presentation about how it plans to come clean about its nuclear program. The P5+1 should not respond by trying to modify the proposal Iran puts forward; rather, it should suggest that Iran follow the model just agreed to by Syria. Just as Syria was given only a few weeks to turn over a full list of its chemical armament sites and their contents, Iran should agree to provide in very short order a list of all the sites in which it is processing material for nuclear programs and other related activities, including details about how many centrifuges each site contains, lists of the locations of Iran's stockpiles of enriched uranium, and details on the amount of uranium stored in each and so on. If Syria could put such a list together within days covering some 45 sites, some of them in rebel-held territories, while entangled in a civil war--then Iran providing a list of a much smaller number of sites during a peaceful period should be a cake walk.

Next, given that Iran has repeatedly declared that "we have nothing to hide," and sworn up and down that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, indeed that making nukes violates its religious precepts -- the next step should be for a swarm of IAEA inspectors to descend on the sites Iran listed, those it previously denied access as it is required under NPT treaty, and, say, five others chosen by the P5+1. In addition, Iran will allow the inspectors unrestricted interviews with the scientists and engineers who work at the various sites.

Assuming these inspections -- to take place within weeks, and to be carried out by multiple teams -- verify that Iran's disclosures are reasonably complete (a conclusion that would mirror what has so far been found with respect to Syria), and there are no indications of a military program--then the time is right for a deal: the U.S. suspending key sanctions in exchange for Iran shutting down some centrifuges, locating some of its highly-enriched uranium outside of its borders, or some other such grand deal.

So far the focus has been on capabilities. It was assumed that if uranium is not enriched to a weapons grade level or only limited amounts of it will be available to Iran -- the world could rest assured that no nukes are in the making. (Disregarding for a moment the processing of plutonium and its bomb making potentials). However, uranium is a dual use material; that it can be said to be used for peaceful purposes. This in turn gets one into the highfalutin scholastic debates about how many centrifuges, spinning at what speed, and how much and what kind of unranium is peaceful various militaristic [sic].

The focus now should be on intentions. Is Iran seeking to stretch out the negotiations to complete its bomb making or at least get to a point it can sprint to do so -- or merely out to do medical research and provide energy, as it claims? This question can be answered in short order by looking for "smoking guns." These include evidence that Iran has been working on nuclear triggering technologies which experts attest can be used for only one purpose: setting off a nuclear weapon. Another would be if interviews of scientists and engineers reveal that Iran has been seeking computer-modeling that are used only for developing elements nuclear bombs need. Or -- evidence of tests involving "implosion," a technique where precisely-timed explosions generate a shockwave that compresses nuclear material into the dense state capable of generating a nuclear blast. Or -- working on miniaturization, that is to fit nuclear bombs into warheads that can be mounted in missiles. Or -- if Iran stashed away enriched uranium above and beyond what its inventory would show.

The main reason this approach is vastly superior to the Iranian proposal are as follows: The main concern of skeptics is that Iran is playing for time, to complete its preparations for a breakout. Already, two-and-a-half weeks passed between the first time Iran made its grand offer and the first meeting in Geneva. The next meeting is scheduled a few weeks thereafter. In Syria, it took less time to reach the point where inspectors started putting sledge hammers and blow torches to the equipment that makes chemical arms. Moreover, Iran is proposing a process that will take a year -- a timeframe that many suspect will buy it enough time to make nuclear bombs.

Experts differ in their assumptions about how many months remain before Iran can assembles a few bombs. However, most agree that the number is small. It is extremely unwise to rely on various intelligence estimates about this time frame given how drastically these estimates have been proven wrong in the past. Hence, finding out quickly if Iran has a nuclear military program is what should be the first priority -- not trimming its capacity to make enriched uranium or some other such limited steps. If Iran does have such a program -- which is to say that it lied through its teeth when it claimed to have no such capacities nor intentions -- then there is no need for another meeting in Geneva or any other place; instead, it is time to call for more sanctions if not the troops. If Iran is found out to have made no steps toward a military nuclear program, then a grand suspension of sanctions should indeed be provided posthaste while working out assurances that the dual use capacities will not be turned in the future to bomb making.