PATH TO DISASTER

Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran puts the world’s safety at risk

Obsession
Energy Shocks
Obsession
Energy Shocks

On April 2 officials announced they had agreed on “key parameters” for the long-anticipated nuclear deal between the United States, its allies, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Coincidentally, just as the Obama administration’s Middle East policy is in complete meltdown, with Sunni and Iranian-backed Shiite extremists murdering their way through Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Worried yet? The Obama administration isn’t.

It has a single-minded focus best summed up by a senior State Department official: “The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what everyone agrees is the biggest threat to the region.”

“Game-changing” and “legacy-setting”? Let’s examine:

Only a year ago, senior officials were on record committing to “dismantle” “a lot” or “significant” portions of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Now the administration has mostly abandoned these commitments and is nearing a final deal that will permit Tehran to retain much of its known nuclear infrastructure, but keep it one year away from being able to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium—known as a “breakout” period.

To accomplish this, the Obama administration fact sheet (which is being seriously disputed by the Iranians) says that Iran will reduce its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium to less than a bomb’s worth. That’s a good thing. A key detail, however, on how that reduction will occur is still missing. Will Iran export the fuel to Russia, as was previously reported, making Vladimir Putin responsible for weapons-proofing Iranian uranium? Or will Iran convert it to some other uranium form, allowing Iran to increase its uranium stockpiles for further enrichment at some future point to weapon-grade? Iran seems unlikely to fully address outstanding weaponization issues after sanctions begin unwinding.  

The deal also will still leave Tehran with an enrichment infrastructure of six thousand centrifuges, a 12-fold increase from what the Obama administration initially promised when it abandoned long-standing US and UN Security Council prohibitions against Iranian enrichment. This is too small for peaceful civilian energy but the right size for producing weapon-grade uranium. (Iran’s long-range, nuclear-warhead-capable, ballistic missile program, prohibited under Security Council resolutions, also quickly fell off the table when Iran declared them non-negotiable.)

At Fordow, a fuel-enrichment plant buried under a mountain, located on a Revolutionary Guard military base, the Obama administration is permitting Iran to operate almost 1,000 centrifuges that, even with prohibitions on using uranium today, could spin uranium tomorrow. The administration previously committed to dismantling Fordow, then to shutter it, then to convert it to a research facility. Now, it is satisfied with limiting it to producing isotopes for scientific purposes. Don’t be fooled by the language in the fact sheet. Iran agreed that Fordow wouldn’t be used for “uranium enrichment.” Enrichment of other elements is permitted, and Iran may be able to reconvert the centrifuges back for uranium enrichment purposes. Did we mention that Fordow is said to be impregnable to Israeli military attacks, and perhaps even American?

The deal also will be of limited duration, with key constraints “sunsetting” in about a decade and the rest in 15 years, after which there will be no more limits on the production of nuclear fuel. This means that Iran could then operate hundreds of thousands of centrifuges and rapidly decrease the one-year breakout period. By then, the hardline leaders of Tehran’s clerical-military establishment, if they are still in power, will be treated no differently than any other country under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That will put it in the same nuclear club as other threats to world peace, such as Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands.

When that happens, even though Iran will be under some enhanced inspection requirements, Iran will be able to build a massive, industrially sized nuclear program—with easier-to-hide, advanced centrifuges—presenting weapons inspectors with enormous challenges even under a heightened monitoring regime.

(L-R) German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifat, Russian Deputy Political Director Alexey Karpov and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond are seen following nuclear talks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) April 2, 2015. Iran and world powers reached a framework on curbing Iran's nuclear programme at marathon talks in Switzerland on Thursday that will allow further negotiations towards a final agreement.
Iran and world powers say they have reached a framework on curbing Iran’s nuclear program. (Reuters/Brendan Smialowski)

Not to worry. If Tehran does engage in a “breakout” in these known facilities, a “sneak-out” in clandestine sites, or incrementally cheats through an “inch-out,” the administration promises to catch them, and come down on the Islamic Republic like a ton of bricks.

This is a big bet, relying on verification and inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and backed by Western intelligence. It also relies on so-called “snap-back” sanctions as a tool of coercive enforcement.

The problem: We don’t have the best track record stopping countries from developing nukes (we didn’t stop the Soviet Union, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and we seriously underestimated Iraq’s nuclear weapons development in 1990 and then went to war when we seriously overestimated it in 2003); and our current abilities, according to Obama’s own Defense Department, are “either inadequate, or more often, do not exist.” To make it worse, negotiators reportedly may allow Iran to sidestep the IAEA’s outstanding concerns about the possible military dimensions of its program until later in the deal, after certain sanctions are suspended.

Iran reportedly agreed to “regular access” for the IAEA to nuclear facilities but not necessarily to military and Revolutionary Guard facilities—this includes the Parchin military complex, where the IAEA suspects that weaponization activities took place. Without “go-anywhere, go-anytime” access to any Iranian site, including Revolutionary Guard military bases, as well as the people, equipment, and documents involved in all suspicious nuclear-related activities, the IAEA will be unable to establish a proper baseline. “You can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what everyone agrees is the biggest threat to the region.” 

Such a baseline would be critical in assessing whether or not Iran’s nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. And Iran seems unlikely to fully address outstanding weaponization issues after sanctions begin unwinding when it hasn’t been willing to do so for years under the most severe economic sanctions.

Undercutting this further, in a recent op-ed, a former CIA director, former deputy director general of the IAEA, and former Obama administration Iran expert questioned if the one-year breakout target provides sufficient time for the US government, the IAEA, and the UN—with Russia and China running cover for Iran—to detect, verify, agree upon, and respond to Iranian violations. The Obama administration has yet to explain why it will.

This one-year breakout goal also assumes that Iran doesn’t engage in “inch-out” prior to its dash to a bomb. Iran has a history of cheating incrementally, not egregiously. But no American president would bomb over incremental cheating. If the past is a prologue, Iran will exploit ambiguities and gaps in the agreement to creep its way to breakout or, more likely, to sneak-out at a small, hard-to-detect, covert facility.

Another problem: In response to Iranian cheating, re-imposing sanctions is harder than it sounds. The snapback of sanctions, which the Russians reportedly now are resisting with respect to U.N. measures, is likely to involve significant disputes between the US, the European Union, and the Russians and Chinese. When sanctions were first implemented, it took years to have a meaningful impact on Iran’s economy and political decision-making. Once strictures are loosened, it will be difficult to put the sanctions back together again. Western economic leverage will be sharply reduced, leaving military strikes as America’s only real option to stop an Iranian bomb.

Once upon a time, the administration insisted that no deal was better than a bad deal. The parameters of the nuclear deal that have emerged look like we are headed toward a seriously flawed one. This will leave Iran as a threshold nuclear weapons state increasingly immune to economic pressure, further supercharge Iranian aggression in the region, fan the flames of sectarian warfare, and possibly even encourage Iran’s Sunni adversaries to develop their own nuke capabilities. Indeed, “game-changing, legacy-setting” it will be.

Follow Mark on Twitter at @mdubowitz. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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