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Negotiations That Matter

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Since we don’t know what Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, said at the recent confab in Istanbul, we can’t be sure that Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu was right to dismiss the powwow as a “freebie” for Tehran. Also, the Islamic Republic is a theocracy: The most senior officials need to report face-to-face to their master. Jalili, an ill-tempered, narrow-minded, one-legged veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, lost face after a disastrous meeting in Geneva in October 2009, when he tentatively agreed to a nuclear-fuel swap, only to see the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, bat the deal down from Tehran. So no matter how well rehearsed, Jalili would need time for his boss to digest what was demanded and offered. In any case, as long as the Iranians were polite, we were going to have two meetings. And so there is another get-together scheduled for May 23 in Baghdad.

Iranian Man in Turban

The odds are high, however, that the next session will lead to no diplomatic yellow-brick road. Round two could be a success, and lead to a round three, if Khamenei agreed to do five things: (1) Stop all uranium enrichment to 20 percent purity, which is near bomb-grade; (2) ship abroad the entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium; (3) close the Fordow enrichment facility, which is buried under a mountain near the clerical city of Qom; (4) allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency immediate and unfettered access to any suspected nuclear site; and (5) permit the IAEA to install devices on centrifuges for monitoring uranium-enrichment levels. Khamenei is, to say the least, unlikely to agree to this.

It’s worth stressing that it is a serious mistake to allow Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards, who oversee terrorist operations and the nuclear program, any domestic enrichment capacity. This was the position of the Obama administration and our Western European allies. Now that consensus has apparently collapsed because Iranian agreement seems impossible. Khamenei’s determination to keep advancing uranium enrichment despite increasingly severe sanctions has paid off. Tehran has enough low-grade, 3.5 percent enriched uranium stockpiled to produce at least one, soon two, nuclear weapons. It also has a 163-pound stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. As Oli Heinonen, the former deputy director general of the IAEA, has pointed out, mastering 3.5 percent enrichment is 70 percent of the way to mastering the fuel cycle for an atomic weapon. Twenty percent enrichment is 90 percent of the process.

As of February, Iranian centrifuges were producing 256 pounds per month of 3.5 percent enriched uranium and 15 pounds per month of 20 percent enriched uranium (the Fordow facility accounted for 9.5 pounds of this total). The Iranian regime had 8,800 centrifuges spinning at Natanz and 696 at Fordow. Once the Islamic Republic can produce 44 pounds of highly enriched uranium per month, which is not that far off given the increasing rate of production, the supreme leader and his guards can have a nuclear weapon in their hands in as little as 43 days, provided Iran’s nuclear scientists have mastered the manufacture of a nuclear trigger (technically much less difficult than enrichment). Per the IAEA’s most recent report, “information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” In other words, Khamenei will win his race for a nuclear weapon unless something dramatic intervenes to stop him. 

The best that can be hoped from another round of negotiations with Tehran is that Khamenei is hooked into a process that enfeebles him. The cleric has consistently avoided any meaningful embrace of the negotiating process because he sees it as dangerous, a slippery slope where the Americans and Europeans dictate limitations on his nuclear program. Many American critics of negotiations have seen this process as the reverse, a slippery slope that has Western diplomacy enabling the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. Khamenei may have the stronger argument. But he shows no sign of yielding to pressure.

There is certainly a risk that continuing these negotiations puts Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak into a real pickle, since it’s more difficult for the Israelis to make the case for bombing Iran’s nuclear sites while the negotiations are going on. Nonetheless, the Israelis need to decide whether a preventive attack on the Islamic Republic can work. Their internal deliberations should not be constrained by a false promise of a diplomatic solution. Moving forward with negotiations now is actually more likely to free the Israelis to act in the summer, if they choose to, than to entrap them.

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