We are in an odd situation. President Barack Obama is trying to coerce and cajole Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to compromise on his nuclear quest without using America’s only possible trumps: more sanctions and a serious threat of force. These negotiations are unlikely to end well, unless one deems any deal better than the possibility of American preemptive strikes.
It’s certainly possible that neither more sanctions nor the threat of preemptive attacks will now work with Khamenei, who has shepherded the nuclear-weapons program since he became supreme leader in 1989. He is a cleric of revolutionary faith. He loathes the United States. His religious identity, let alone the Islamic Republic’s entire defensive strategy since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, is wound around the nuclear program. Kowtowing to America and Europe on anything, let alone the centerpiece of the revolution’s defense, would surely be in his eyes an act of monumental cowardice.
It’s possible the administration knows this, which is why President Obama has given ground on every single issue of importance in the nuclear talks. If a bad deal is better than no deal, then it’s best not to provoke Khamenei’s ire, which could torpedo everything. Fear of the supreme leader and his Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who oversee the regime’s atomic aspirations, has fed a vaguely expressed belief among some senior administration officials that Western compromises help the cause of the “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Muhammad-Javad Zarif. This sentiment is never explained, perhaps because Rouhani’s own history in Iran’s nuclear-weapons program—he and his former mentor Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani were the primary drivers of the program during its formative period in the 1990s—doesn’t suggest that the man is antinuclear today. It is a delicious irony that so many folks who lambasted the Reagan administration’s Iran-contra outreach to so-called moderates now applaud President Obama’s outreach to the same men. Rouhani, if we recall, tried to extort as many Hawk missiles as possible for American hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s. It’s a good guess that in the current negotiations his penchant for extortion and mendacity continues.
Let us see where the talks have taken us. Americans and Europeans have moved from insisting on a rollback of Iran’s atomic program to recognizing almost all of Tehran’s nuclear progress. The West has now recognized the clerical regime’s “right” to uranium enrichment. It has bridled at accepting all of Tehran’s currently spinning centrifuges (around 10,000). But Washington appears ready to accept several thousand operational machines, along with Iran’s “right” to continue centrifuge research and development at the buried-in-the-mountain Fordow site, which President Obama once demanded be closed. The White House hasn’t demanded that the Iranians fess up about their massive smuggling and engineering efforts behind the production of their ever-improving centrifuges; Obama appears satisfied with frequent inspections at acknowledged nuclear facilities—no need to challenge the Revolutionary Guards, who oversee all of the now-known-but-formerly-hidden sites. The Additional Protocol Plus, which allows for spot inspections of any suspicious facility belonging to a refractory signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty such as Iran, appears too provocative for the White House.
The West has also accepted the idea of a “sunset clause” on any restrictions on the clerical regime’s nuclear infrastructure (Tehran has suggested 3 to 7 years; Washington would like at least 10), which means that after the stated period, Iran could legally develop an industrial-sized program with a nuclear-weapon breakout time dropping to a matter of days. President Obama is practicing a novel form of appeasement: Behave now and we promise to surrender later. Perhaps the White House believes that in a decade the Islamic Republic as we have known it will have collapsed.
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.
Congress could try again to push more sanctions. There is, however, near zero chance of that before the new November deadline for the Joint Plan of Action. Even a staunch Iranian-skeptic and sanctions-backer like Democratic senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey got spooked when the administration and its left-wing allies led a warmongering charge against Democratic senators who wanted new sanctions to be triggered by a failure of the nuclear talks. That will unquestionably be the White House’s game plan if Khamenei decides to let the administration surrender with some face. Nonetheless, Congress can and should harass the administration if it continues to go south in these nuclear talks. It might make a difference. And any agreement could well fall apart after it’s signed: The Iranians may find even a sweetheart deal difficult to accept over time.
Republicans and Democrats have so far assiduously avoided the great debate: Are they willing to support preemptive military strikes against the Iranian regime’s nuclear sites? This debate would have surely raged sooner had President Obama not neutralized much of the left by his assertion that he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Many on the left who have ardently backed nuclear negotiations would have been arguing that nuclear weapons in Khamenei’s hands are less dangerous than American preemption. Both Democrats and Republicans have wanted to believe that sanctions might solve this conundrum, that economic warfare could be the answer to our post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan angst. But the modern Middle East hasn’t been kind to those who see economics as the primary driver of men.
This debate may heat up come November. It depends on Khamenei. Can he accept victory slowly delivered? Just a few thousand centrifuges and just a few years separate him from a rather impressive triumph over the West. He recently enjoyed his seventy-fifth birthday. Old men can go either way. They can see a long way out; they can also be acutely impatient given their onrushing mortality. With Khamenei, it’s best to bet on the scorpion: President Obama has become such a tempting target.