In 1993, South African president F.W. de Klerk acknowledged something the world had long suspected: South Africa had developed nuclear weapons and then destroyed them. De Klerk’s decision to come clean about South Africa’s activities — and to invite the International Atomic Energy Agency in to verify the claim — helped transform South Africa from an international pariah into a trusted actor on the world stage.
Today, Iran is in a similar situation. It wants to take its place as a respected regional power but finds itself hamstrung by crippling international sanctions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected on a pledge to remove those sanctions by clearing up suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program. It is hard to see how he can do that without admitting Iran’s past research into nuclear weapons. That acknowledgement — plus a series of concrete pledges and agreements to allow unannounced inspections — should be the centerpiece of any agreement between Iran and the United States.
Although Iran has always insisted that its nuclear activities are peaceful, it continues to install far more centrifuges than a peaceful program requires. And while Iran has been careful to keep its stockpile of enriched uranium under 250 kilograms — roughly the amount needed to produce enough weapons-grade fuel for one nuclear weapon — it still has far more than a civilian program needs. US intelligence agencies believe that Iran halted most of its work on building a bomb in 2003, amid international attention. But Iran’s habit of walking up to the red line, even without crossing it, suggests that the country could be hedging its bets.
The Iranian regime should remove doubts about its intentions by disclosing past efforts, agreeing to voluntary curbs on its uranium enrichment work, and providing greater transparency into its nuclear activities. In recent talks, Iranian officials were reportedly more candid and serious than they have been in years, raising hopes for a peaceful resolution to the stalemate.
That resolution should include quiet limits on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, an Iranian promise to deactivate thousands of newly installed centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, and Iran’s acceptance of the “additional protocol” of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which allows for unexpected, intrusive inspections. In exchange, the United States and its allies would affirm Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil and roll back sanctions that have been crippling the country.
It is worth remembering that the United States once supported Iran’s pursuit of peaceful nuclear power. In the 1970s, Iran was allowed to help finance a uranium enrichment facility in France that was supposed to produce fuel for Iran’s nuclear power plant. But after the 1979 Islamic revolution, France refused to give Iran the fuel. Since then, mastering uranium enrichment has been a matter of national pride in Iran. But Iranians must be shown that they have far more to gain by curbing these activities than ramping them up.