Predictably, President Barack Obama and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have decided to extend again the Joint Plan of Action, the interim nuclear deal they concluded in November 2013. Unlike the last extension, which was for four months, this one is for seven months; the “political” parts of the deal, Secretary of State John Kerry assures us, should be done by March, while further “technical and drafting” details may take until July.
This is an odd situation: Obama agreed to the first, shorter extension last July, when little progress on the big issues had been made. Yet after 10 rounds of negotiations and numerous side meetings, in which, per Secretary Kerry, “progress was indeed made on some of the most vexing challenges that we face,” we now need a longer extension? This is necessary, the secretary suggests, because the great progress made is just so “complex” that it requires, as he put it, an “incredible amount of rigorous technical analysis of concepts.”
Let us suggest a different narrative. More time is required for more complex negotiations because the Obama administration continues to make concessions to the Iranians that it attempts to justify with technical alchemy. Let us look at centrifuges, perhaps the hardest “technical” issue.
It really wouldn’t require long, rigorous negotiations if the American position were still the position the Obama administration inherited from the U.N. Security Council when it came into office: no enrichment of uranium. If Tehran could not maintain a single cascade of centrifuges to produce fissile material in bomb-grade quantity or stockpile enriched uranium, either as a gas or a reversible solid oxide, sufficient for a single nuclear weapon, matters would be relatively clear.
Constraining uranium enrichment becomes more complex when Washington starts conceding to the clerical regime thousands of centrifuges and a larger uranium stockpile. When Khamenei declines our offers—which it appears he’s done repeatedly since November 2013—President Obama’s response has been to allow Iran more centrifuges or SWUs (meas-ures of uranium enrichment). Both Western and Iranian media report a current American benchmark of around 4,500 machines; Revolutionary Guard-affiliated media have mentioned 6,000 centrifuges.
The recently leaked American plan to leave several thousand centrifuges spinning but disconnect the piping for most of the cascades at the Natanz enrichment sites and mothball these “excess” centrifuges was a pristine example of American technicians and diplomats trying to work around the supreme leader’s literalism. Since Khamenei had declared that not a single machine could be dismantled, then why not aim at the piping that makes a cascade? Such a plan could, of course, easily become a minefield of technical abuse. With the nuclear infrastructure of Natanz essentially intact, Iranian engineers could rapidly reconnect newer, much more efficient machines, thus presenting the United States with a shorter break-out time for a bomb.
Iranian press reports suggest that the piping proposal (fortunately) didn’t pass muster. It appears the supreme leader, who when it comes to all things American is neither curious nor forbearing, wasn’t sufficiently impressed. We hadn’t conceded enough. It’s a good guess that however many centrifuges we’d conceded as of November 24, the old deadline, the number will be increased in the next seven months, further complicating the challenge of devising a way to give Khamenei what he wants while maintaining a modicum of American integrity.
And what’s so complex and time-consuming about the heavy-water reactor at Arak? If it is converted to a light-water reactor, as the United States and Europe have requested, the extraction of plutonium becomes a very difficult task (though inspectors would still have to monitor closely the extremely hot, but extractable, spent fuel). Arak only becomes diplomatically complex and time-consuming when the Iranians refuse to accept this downgrade, thereby preserving the possibility of more easily producing a weapon. The plutonium path to an A-bomb has probably been a secondary concern for Iranian nuclear engineers since the clandestine facility was revealed in 2002, as a plutonium break-out is difficult to conceal. And yet the Iranians have proven decidedly obstreperous on Arak.