November 28, 2014 | The Weekly Standard
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.
And is Fordow difficult to solve? Buried beneath a mountain, this site was clandestine until 2009. The president once insisted that it be shut down. Apparently, no longer. As a centrifuge research and development facility, Fordow is likely to become for inspectors a cavernous tarpit, where the Iranians constantly push the envelope of what is allowed and what is stoppable under any nuclear deal. The recent incident at the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, when the Iranians loaded an advanced IR-5 centrifuge with uranium hexafluoride gas—almost certainly a violation of the Joint Plan of Action—was a small foretaste of what is coming. (Note: The administration has intentionally made it very difficult for Congress to review the classified annexes to the Joint Plan of Action, so it is challenging to know what is, and is not, a violation.) The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency discovered the action and lodged a protest, and the Iranians backed off. Secretary Kerry and his minions, by contrast, doggedly maintain that Tehran hasn’t violated the interim accord, while it’s pretty clear that it did. This is to be expected. The requisite sanctity and momentum of the process encourage good men to fib.
In all probability, Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, who is close to the supreme leader, meant to test the IAEA and the West. The IAEA passed; Washington failed. It’s quite likely that Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, under whose amiable spell Secretary Kerry and the other American principals have all fallen, knew nothing of Salehi’s activities. For cause: Zarif, who has no power in the Iranian political system beyond what the supreme leader gives him, is irrelevant to, and probably mostly ignorant of, his country’s nuclear-weapons program. The IR-5 incident, like the recent illicit installation of an advanced IR-8 centrifuge, suggests Fordow’s future as an R&D site. Secretary Kerry is right to underscore the “complexity” of his diplomacy: He is birthing a nightmare.
And we haven’t even gotten to the Additional Protocol Plus, an inspections regime derived from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and IAEA practice that would allow IAEA inspectors to go anywhere, anytime without negotiating access with the clerical regime. Without such monitoring authority, any agreement isn’t worth its weight in wood pulp. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps oversees the nuclear program. It has been the primary organization responsible for concealing nuclear-weapons research since the 1980s. Salehi’s Atomic Energy Organization deserves honorable mention for its mendacity, especially with IAEA inspectors, who are often on precarious ground when they are inside Iran trying to ferret out the truth. But it’s the Corps that physically controls the sites. Parchin, where the IAEA and Western intelligence services are pretty sure that Tehran has experimented with nuclear triggers, is a Revolutionary Guard Corps base. Iran’s ballistic-missile programs are also under the control of the guards. The administration has already agreed not to bring up intercontinental ballistic-missile research and development in the nuclear negotiations, instead making the development of nuclear warheads its primary concern. The lead nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, hasn’t yet explained how Washington can verify that Iran isn’t developing a nuclear warhead—and no country has ever experimented with ICBMs and not developed an atomic warhead to put on them—without access to Revolutionary Guard sites, ballistic-missile engineers, and the piles of paperwork behind these projects. She should.
Olli Heinonen, the former number two at the IAEA and now at Harvard, is convinced Iran has illicitly imported enough carbon fiber to manufacture 5,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges, more than enough for a rapid, clandestine nuclear “sneak-out.” The IAEA doesn’t know where this carbon fiber is; the regime refuses to reveal verifiably its location and use. Without an Additional Protocol Plus married to full disclosure by Tehran of its research and development into the militarization of its nuclear work (the IAEA calls this the “PMDs,” or “possible military dimensions,” of the atomic program), the United States is simply incapable of ascertaining whether and how Tehran may be cheating. Yet Iran’s former foreign minister and current adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Velayati, and the deputy to foreign minister Zarif in the nuclear negotiations, Abbas Araghchi, have both made it crystal clear that Iran will not allow anytime, anywhere inspections. Needless to say, since Khamenei has said that the Islamic Republic isn’t developing a nuclear weapon, he’s unlikely to say now, “Oops, I forgot.”
All of this Iranian negativity, of course, makes the nuclear negotiations more “complex,” requiring considerable American ingenuity to explain how it’s possible to verify Iranian compliance. This is why the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, General Michael Hayden, is on record that he could not, if he were still in office, verify the intelligence integrity of a final agreement unless an Additional Protocol Plus and PMDs were included. The Iranians’ refusal to countenance effective verification all by itself would, if the administration were serious, collapse these talks.
Secretary Kerry offered an ingenious solution to this conundrum in his Vienna press conference: “We’re not telling.” The administration is attempting to maintain total secrecy about what has transpired in the negotiations, claiming that such secrecy is absolutely essential to the success of its diplomacy.
But how exactly is this true? On the Iranian side, the supreme leader and senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards know all. They hold Zarif’s leash. They, and they alone, determine the red lines. For them there are no nuclear surprises, no compromises that need to be hidden from a hostile, veto-rendering parliament. Secrecy in these negotiations is intended to hobble only one party: Congress.
And Congress so far has taken it. Hardly a word came out of the institution when the White House established CIA-like ground rules for the perusal of the Joint Plan of Action, which prohibit congressmen from having their own copies of the classified annexes, where the juicy details are buried. This may change when the Republicans assume control of both houses in January. It should. A thorough public debate can only help clarify the good and the bad of what has transpired.
It’s pretty clear now that the administration would like to extend the interim accord to the end of Obama’s presidency—if it can figure out a way to do so. So let us publicly, on the floors of Congress, debate whether that’s a good idea. No matter what happens, a united American front is surely preferable tactically for dealing with Tehran. The Iranians have been adamant throughout the talks that they want sanctions lifted quickly. The president has so far wisely resisted these demands, knowing full well that sanctions are the only real leverage he has. The president may fear that, if he denies Congress a say on one of the most important national-security questions confronting the country, he won’t hold the Democrats necessary to override a veto. His discretionary authority to waive sanctions in these negotiations might get clipped. An ugly Iran debate could actually break what’s left of the president’s reputation and power overseas. If the president can win on the Hill, however, he and the country will be a lot better off.
President Hassan Rouhani, in whose “moderation” the administration has placed all its hopes, does offer a way out. In his nuclear memoirs and in his many speeches defending his time as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, Rouhani tells us clearly that the Western threat of sanctions and the Iranian fear of war with the United States spooked Tehran, rendering the clerical regime amenable to negotiations and a pause in its push for nuclear weapons. Congress and the president need to follow Rouhani’s advice. Increase the pressure. Don’t be scared of Ali Khamenei. We still hold the high ground. Use it—or lose it. Iranian research and development continue to advance.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.