WASHINGTON — The debate about red lines on Iran appears to be over.
With its massive increase of operative centrifuges at a secured uranium enrichment site, Iran appears to have moved beyond the question of whether capability to build a nuclear weapon or actual acquisition of a nuclear weapon is the appropriate red line.
Iran has achieved nuclear weapons capability, according to Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Adler studied the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran, which was leaked earlier this month. It said that Iran soon could double the number of operating centrifuges at its underground Fordo nuclear site from 700 to 1,400. In all, the site has nearly 2,800 centrifuges in place, according to the report.
Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, is built into a mountainside. Israeli and Western officials say the site has been fortified against attack. “As always with Iran, as time goes on they increase the facts on the ground,” Adler said. “Let’s see what they do with the facts on the ground. What they do with their capability will determine whether they intend to be more threatening or reassuring.”
The notion of what constitutes capability to produce a nuclear weapon long has been controversial. Groups that oppose military engagement with Iran charge that the term itself is unclear and the aim of those promoting it as a red line was to encourage a military strike. Others argued that with evidence of uranium enriched to “medium” levels — just a step or two short of weapons grade —Iran already had capability.
A Gallup poll published last week found that Americans cited keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon as among the top three priorities of President Barack Obama’s second term, with 79 percent of respondents ranking the issue as “extremely” or “very” important.
For years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had led calls to set nuclear capability as the red line. Both parties in Congress backed that language, inserting it into a number of laws. The Obama administration resisted, instead seeking through diplomatic and economic pressures to persuade Iran to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Netanyahu appeared to back down in September following months of pressure from Obama administration officials seeking to head off an Israeli strike on Iran. In a U.N. speech, Netanyahu set the Israeli red line at the point where Iran has made the decision to manufacture a bomb — essentially the position Obama had staked out.
In that speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Netanyahu said that point might come as soon as spring, and Obama appears to agree. Last week, Obama said the window for diplomacy is several months.
“I’ll try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran, and not just us but the international community, to see if we can get this thing resolved,” the U.S. leader said. “I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk through, but that would be very much the preferable option.”
Western diplomats have said that such a dynamic likely would culminate in one-on-one talks between the United States and Iran. The New York Times recently reported that the Obama administration was seeking such talks, though the White House denied it.
Heather Hurlburt, a speechwriter during the Clinton administration who now directs the National Security Network, a liberal/realist foreign policy think tank, noted that administration officials did not reject outright the prospect of one-on-one talks.
“There’s this interesting dance about one-on-one talks,” she said. “It’s clear both sides are looking forward to having one on one.”
Obama, after his decisive election victory this month, has the mandate for such talks, Hurlburt said, partly because his challenger, Mitt Romney, toward the end of the campaign, aligned his Iran policy with Obama’s, emphasizing diplomacy as the best way forward.
“There are a number of areas where Romney adopted the president’s foreign policy, and Iran was one,” she said, adding that polling shows the public prefers a diplomatic option.
Polling also shows that the public sees Iran as a priority, which could spur urgency on the part of the Obama administration toward securing a deal.
Stephen Rademaker, a nuclear arms negotiator for the George W. Bush administration, said Obama deserves breathing space to explore such a deal — but that negotiations should be subject to close scrutiny.
“I would never fault the U.S. government for exploring whether Iran is prepared to reach a diplomatic settlement to suspend the enrichment program. Now is as good a time as any to test them on that,” said Rademaker, now with a lobbying outfit.
“My larger concern about negotiations with Iran is that the Iranians may say yes to what we see is a good deal, but the reverse is also true.”
One positive outcome, Rademaker said, would be a verifiable reduction in readily available enriched uranium, either through export or dedicated use in non-weapon capacities.