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A Bad Deal

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The administration has also rigorously avoided treating as a major issue in the negotiations the profound concerns of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, about weaponization research. The Americans, though perhaps not the French, have apparently dropped the demand that Arak’s plutonium-producing heavy-water facility be converted to a bomb-safe light-water reactor. The “compromise” advanced by the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi—a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from MIT who was probably once, and may still be, instrumental in the country’s illicit trade in nuclear technologies—would leave Iran with a reactor still capable of producing bomb-grade plutonium. The Iranians would just agree to inject less fuel into the reactor—thereby making frequent inspections the only brake on Arak’s weapons potential. And the White House has also dropped the idea of bringing Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program into these talks, even though there’s not a single country that has ever developed ICBMs to carry conventional warheads. Iran’s ballistic missile program is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. 

President Obama has gotten himself into a real pickle: He has essentially conceded Khamenei the bomb. The only thing really being discussed now in Vienna is timing. As long as the Iranians can engage in centrifuge research and development at Fordow and can maintain a sizable cascade of spinning centrifuges at Natanz, they can perfect centrifuges and cascades. Without an Additional Protocol Plus harassing them, they will be able to build smaller, hard-to-detect enrichment sites. With a deal, the White House surely knows that the European embargo of Iranian oil, which was a near-miracle given the politics within the European Union, is likely to end much sooner than American financial sanctions, which can be calibrated. Once the oil embargo falls, the odds that the Europeans will again have the will and consensus to raise it, even in response to massive cheating by the Iranians, are low. Without the embargo, extraterritorial American sanctions will be much more difficult to maintain, especially against European companies wanting to do business in Iran. Rouhani, who loves to opine about the need to play Europeans against Americans, may prove right: The Joint Plan of Action, signed by the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Iran in Geneva last November, was the beginning of the end of the sanctions arrayed against the nuclear program. Tehran in effect has won the economic tug of war with the West with all of its nuclear-weapons infrastructure intact. 

If Iran were caught in gross violation of a nuclear deal, President Obama, assuming he were still in office, might bomb. But what if the Iranians go slow on Arak while gradually increasing the number of centrifuges? If the administration has accepted 19,000 installed centrifuges at Natanz, it’s likely it will accept 38,000 centrifuges. The Iranians don’t need to increase the enrichment rate of uranium—a 20 percent stockpile is irrelevant if they are increasing the number and quality of their centrifuges and don’t care about rapidly manufacturing nuclear weapons right now. Diversion will become much easier, even at monitored sites, as centrifuge numbers go up; clandestine production will become a fait accompli if nuclear technicians can continue to improve enrichment efficiency and accordingly shrink the size of cascades. 

So what is to be done? Khamenei could still reject any Western compromise that doesn’t meet his demands. The supreme leader loves to stick it to the Americans. The Persian fable of the tortoise and the scorpion captures Khamenei’s disposition to damn national interests for the survival of his more compelling religious ones. The scorpion can’t resist striking the tortoise that has agreed to give it a ride across a river. The tortoise’s neck is too close; the instinct to attack is too strong. Yet there is a limit to American and French acquiescence to Iranian demands. It’s not clear exactly what that limit is, but it’s a good guess that President Obama can’t compromise much more on the number of centrifuges spinning or on a “sunset” clause. If Khamenei says no, then the president can try to revamp his coercive diplomacy. 

But it’s probably impossible for the president to credibly reassert the threat of force in these negotiations even if he wanted to. Given what’s happened in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine, the only thing that would rebuild fear of Washington now would be a military operation of significant size. A preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear sites would do it. But barring gross stupidity on Khamenei’s part, that’s not happening. 

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