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As the United States and other world powers resume nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva, Barack Obama’s administration is pushing hard not only to wrap up a short-term nuclear deal with the rogue nation, but also to dissuade Congress from imposing any new sanctions on the Iranian nuclear program. In a rare move, President Obama personally made his case to key Democratic and Republican Senate leaders this week. U.S. diplomats have explained that the United States seeks a deal that “stops Iran’s nuclear program from moving forward,” but careful analysis suggests the pact’s reported terms fall alarmingly short of that stated goal.
First, the deal’s current measures fail to get Iran to completely open up its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While Iran announced this week that it will provide more transparency to the IAEA on specific declared nuclear sites, the well-timed announcement elides Iran’s ongoing refusal to let the world’s nuclear watchdog verify that the country has not just correctly, but also completely, declared all its nuclear materials and activities. Indeed, Iran has rejected nearly a decade’s worth of legally binding demands by the IAEA, the 35-country IAEA Board of Governors, and the U.N. Security Council for its full transparency and cooperation. That’s a big problem because Iran has a long, long, long, long, long history of hiding weapons-relevant nuclear activities from the world.
Second, the proposed deal still fails to fully freeze the growth of what’s known as Iran’s “nuclear weapons-making capability” — that is, Iran’s ability to rapidly build a nuclear explosive on increasingly short notice. To be sure, the short-term deal would stop some discrete elements of Iran’s nuclear program from advancing. Specifically, it would require Iran to halt the production of “20 percent” enriched uranium that (counterintuitively yet technically) represents nine-tenths of the effort required to produce “90 percent” bomb-grade uranium, and to convert at least some of its current inventory of 20 percent uranium into a form that creates technical — but far from impossible — hurdles to further enrichment. It would oblige Iran not to use advanced “second-generation” centrifuges that can enrich uranium much more efficiently than “first-generation” units. And it would temporarily prohibit Iran from bringing online a dangerous heavy-water nuclear reactor that’s ideal for producing plutonium optimized for a nuclear explosive.
That said, the pending interim pact would still allow other key elements of Iran’s nuclear program to move forward and expand. It would neither shrink Iran’s stockpile of “3.5 percent” low-enriched uranium that represents (again, counterintuitively yet technically) seven-tenths of the effort required to produce bomb-grade uranium. Nor would it prevent Iran from producing more. Moreover, the deal would not actually roll back or disassemble Iran’s fleet of over 19,000 installed “first-generation” centrifuges for enriching uranium (more than half of which are actively enriching), nor apparently prevent Iran from manufacturing more. And it would only delay, not dismantle, the plutonium-producing “heavy water” reactor that Robert Einhorn, a former nonproliferation official in Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s administrations, dubbed a “plutonium bomb factory.”
In other words, the deal would not require Iran to completely freeze its nuclear program, but rather allow Iran to keep — and, in fact, grow — key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability. Under the pact’s current terms — which would allow Iran to keep most, if not all, of its over 7,000 kilograms of 3.5 percent low-enriched uranium gas and its 19,000 installed centrifuges — Iran still could overtly “break out” of international inspections and build a nuclear bomb in as few as six weeks or less. This assessment is supported in a recent analysis from R. Scott Kemp, a respected MIT nuclear physicist and former science advisor in Obama’s State Department — in particular, by two charts in the analysis from Steve Fetter, former assistant director at large in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Even more alarmingly, if Iran has just one undeclared facility to enrich uranium, then many of the same experts estimate that Iran could covertly “sneak out” of international inspections and build a nuclear bomb in as few as 21 to 37 days. It’s a possibility that cannot be dismissed due to Iran’s record of stonewalling the world’s nuclear watchdog.
So, how would the proposed deal reward Iran’s token concessions? Let’s not mince words: with a bribe that would ease the pressure of U.S.-led international sanctions on Iran. These sanctions have nearly squeezed dry Iran’s foreign reserves and, according to a senior U.S. official in Geneva, “have been important to Iran’s coming to the table.” But an analysis by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz suggests that partial relief from sanctions could give Iran access to as much as $20 billion or more in hitherto blocked financial assets, gold imports, and petrochemical and auto industry exports.
To be sure, diplomats in the Obama administration claim they can “reverse” partial sanctions relief if Iran later violates the deal. But if it comes to that, many billions of dollars in previously blocked funds will have already flowed back into the coffers of the Iranian mullahs. In the meantime, there’d be a real risk that Iran — a country designated a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S. State Department — could use the freed-up money to fund Hezbollah and other proxy terrorist groups, further prop up the besieged regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, or, of course, advance its nuclear program.
As the debate over the merits of a short-term nuclear deal with Iran continues, the shadow of North Korea’s drive to nuclear weapons looms largely in the background. Starting with the Clinton administration’s 1994 “Agreed Framework,” North Korea used a series of quid pro quo agreements with the United States and partner countries to obtain sanctions relief or other sweeteners in return for promises to freeze or roll back elements of its nuclear weapons-making program — promises that Pyongyang eventually broke. With the North Korean precedent in mind, many critics of Obama’s diplomatic overtures today, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, want the United States to press harder for more significant Iranian nuclear concessions, or else walk away from a bad deal.
On both sides of the aisle, indeed, leading lawmakers — especially those who are the co-architects of the U.S.-led international sanctions regime that brought Iran back to the negotiating table — are signaling their own dissatisfaction with the deal’s apparent terms. For example, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: “What I do not understand is a negotiating posture in which we suspend our actions, we give them sanctions relief on existing sanctions, yet they continue to be able to enrich, to be able to have more sophisticated centrifuges.”
Moreover, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has drafted a legislative measure that, in his words, “would keep an interim deal from happening unless there is actual tangible changes that take place” to fully freeze Iran’s nuclear program. However, it is all but certain that the Senate’s Democratic leadership will not allow any votes this month on any Iran sanctions-related amendments or legislation.
The Obama administration is exceedingly eager to quickly get to “yes” on an interim agreement with Iran. Indeed, White House spokesman Jay Carney recently upped the rhetorical ante, implicitly accusing supporters of new sanctions aimed at pressuring Iran to accept a deal that actually freezes and rolls back its rapid nuclear weapons-making capability as being only on “a march to war.” In response, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying: “Sanctions remain the best way to avoid war and prevent a future of Iranian nuclear weapons. The American people should not be forced to choose between military action and a bad deal that accepts a nuclear Iran.”
Kirk’s quote points to why, in any short-term deal, the United States should only offer sanctions relief potentially worth billions to cash-starved Iranian mullahs if Iran, in return, gives something that’s truly worth the price — namely, serious concessions that meet the Obama administration’s stated goal of fully freezing Iran’s nuclear program and, at a minimum, leave Iran with the capability to make a nuclear explosive in no fewer than six months. Anything less would only paper over the grave and gathering danger that Iran’s growing nuclear weapons-making capability poses to the United States and the world — just as the Agreed Framework did with North Korea’s nuclear breakout efforts in the mid-1990s (and we all know how that turned out). The follow-on agreements with North Korea, negotiated through the six-party talks, also fell flat. While the United States jawed-jawed, North Korean armed-armed. Today it is a nuclear-armed state. It has attacked South Korea conventionally, knowing full well that it is protected by its nuclear weapons.
Leading U.S. lawmakers get that basic point and know North Korea’s record. So apparently do the United States’ partners, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as France. Japan and South Korea can only watch in horror as a bad movie is repeated in the Persian Gulf, a region they depend on for energy. We can only hope that Obama and his diplomats can grasp the global stakes.
Robert Zarate, a former congressional staffer, is policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. Daniel Blumenthal, a Shadow Government blogger, is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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