Wednesday’s meeting on Iran’s nuclear program will be a competition of fears. Who is sufficiently terrified of an atom bomb in Iranian hands to credibly threaten military action? Who fears the immediate economic consequences of Persian petroleum coming off the market more than the longer-term menace of a nuclear-armed state that supports terrorism? Who dreads above all else an Israeli preemptive strike?
The West’s sanctions — the reason the Iranians are showing up in Iraq — have been an alternative to war. Those who want these talks to go on will be enormously tempted to make concessions to Tehran. Stand too firm and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, might walk. Like his former patron Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the true father of Iran’s nuclear program, Khamenei has supported the atomic quest since the mid-1980s, when it was still covert. He has spent billions to develop what appears to be every component of a nuclear-armed missile.
Yet Western negotiators want to hope that sanctions have caused enough pain — and threaten more — that the supreme leader will have no choice but to view nuclear weapons as harmful to his rule. President Obama and his Western European counterparts have adopted a strategy of quasi-regime change: They don’t really intend to overturn Khamenei’s dominion, but they want Tehran’s power players to think they will.
But given how advanced Iran’s nuclear program is, the West’s approach seems wildly underwhelming. As the tactician Anthony Cordesman recently noted, “the threat Iran’s nuclear efforts pose [is] not simply a matter of its present ability to enrich uranium to 20 percent. . . . [The regime] can pursue nuclear weapons development through a range of compartmented and easily concealable programs without a formal weapons program, and even if it suspends enrichment activity.” If the West cannot stop Iran’s technological advances in centrifuge production — and it remains unclear whether Western intelligence services know where the Iranian regime is manufacturing these machines — then even shutting down the known enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow offers, at best, a pause. Increasingly proficient centrifuges will allow for much smaller, hard-to-detect facilities that can rapidly process low-enriched uranium into bomb-grade material.
The Americans and the Europeans have chosen not to underscore, Cordesman also points out, the fact that Tehran’s entire military strategy for a quarter-century has been to develop atomic weapons to compensate for an irreversible lack of conventional power. Take away the nuclear program, and Khamenei’s stewardship of his country and creed looks enfeebled. Nuclear weapons are the supreme leader’s legacy.
Given the enormity of the task, one would think that war-averse Western leaders would go in one of two directions. They would try to bribe Iran’s ruling elite with really big, sanctions-ending “carrots.” This approach, while likely to fail, would at least match the scope of the challenge with the reward. Or they would crater the Islamic Republic’s economy and then offer to negotiate, presuming that financial desperation would perhaps match the determination and duplicity of Iran’s pro-nuke elite.
But the West appears poised to, once again, take the easy way out. Despite U.N. Security Council resolutions saying the opposite, Western powers seem ready to concede to Khamenei the “right” to enrich uranium to 5 percent, which would, according to Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, put Iran two-thirds of the way toward making bomb-grade uranium. By drawing the red line on enrichment at the higher level of 20 percent, the West will leave Tehran with about 13,000 pounds of lowenriched uranium today, enough to make five nuclear weapons. Iran would be free to continue its 5 percent stockpile and its centrifuge development, the real key to an undetectable breakout.
Americans and Europeans certainly don’t want to appear to cave — pride, politics and fear of the Israelis all matter. So they are likely to attempt to give Tehran economic relief by not strictly enforcing sanctions — on financial transfers between banks, technical assistance to the energy industry, shipping, insurance and imports of Iranian crude — already on the books. The Europeans could significantly diminish their embargo, slated to take full effect July 1, by ignoring “reflagged” Iranian crude shipped to Europe via Chinese-owned and -insured tankers. These steps could save Iran billions of dollars; they would clearly signal that the West wants the negotiations to continue.
Which brings us back to the Israelis, who are the primary reason everyone is so anxious. As long as the talks continue, the Israeli government would find it politically difficult to attack. It’s unclear whether Jerusalem has the capacity to preemptively strike. But if the Israelis, or the Americans, know the location of Iran’s centrifuge production facilities, air raids that could seriously retard the weapons program become more likely. A new red line at 20 percent enrichment would leave Jerusalem two options: strike or give up. The euphoria in Western and certain Israeli circles that Judgment Day has been avoided will vanish rapidly as it becomes obvious how much Khamenei can cheat with this new standard. For those who fear another conflagration in the Middle East, that ought to be a compelling reason to hang tough in Baghdad. Odds are, however, we won’t.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian specialist in the CIA’s clandestine service, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the foundation and head of its Iran Energy Project.