By Joshua Shinbrot
Since the August 2002 revelation of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, efforts have been made to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by the Iranians. Initial attempts to curtail the Iranian nuclear program were led by the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. In 2006, the United States, China, and Russia joined the Europeans in their endeavor to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, forming the P5 + 1 (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).
In March 2013, the United States held secret, direct talks with Iranian officials in Oman. Only three months away from Iranian presidential elections, the Islamic Republic seemed unwilling to budge due to domestic political considerations. The Obama administration became more hopeful about talks after Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in June 2013.
Since Rouhani’s approval of talks, two deadlines for the conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear agreement have passed, but no final agreement has been reached and deadline extensions have been repeatedly granted. Most recently, in November 2014, the P5 + 1 and Iran agreed to extend the deadline for concluding a final deal until June 2015. As part of the extension agreement, the US and Iran were supposed to produce a “framework understanding” by the end of March. Despite its release two days past the limit set by negotiators, a framework was agreed upon on April 2.
Ever since the release of this framework agreement, media pundits on every major US news network have been praising or condemning the Iran deal. At this point, however, there really is no deal. What exactly was reached, then, after the most recent marathon round of negotiations between the US and Iran hosted in Lausanne, Switzerland? In his April 2, 2015 speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the outcome of these talks as a “political understanding with details.” For those readers not fluent in ‘Bureaucrat’ who are wondering what a “political understanding with details” actually is, so am I. But, when I attempt to translate from Bureaucrat-speak to English it means something like, “we have a handshake agreement on the outline of a possible deal.”
What are the actual “details” contained within Secretary Kerry’s “political understanding?” Iran must reduce the number of centrifuges it is spinning to 5,060 for the next ten years. The Islamic Republic is only allowed to spin its first generation centrifuges. All centrifuges remaining beyond the first 6,104 are to be placed in “IAEA monitored storage.” This means that the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, will have access to the facility where Iran’s 12,896 remaining centrifuges are stored. All 19,000 of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges (devices used to produce and enrich fissile material) will remain on Iranian soil. Iran is only obliged to limit the number of centrifuges it is spinning for ten years. Leaving all 19,000 centrifuges on Iranian soil ensures Iran retains all the components needed to reignite an industrial sized nuclear weapons program the moment this agreement expires.
The Impermanent Portions of the Deal
In fairness, not all aspects of this “political understanding with details” will expire after ten years. The President of the United States, Secretary Kerry, and other members of the Obama administration have attempted to reassure skeptics by stating that some components of this deal will remain in place indefinitely. What exactly are those indefinite components of the deal?
“Iran has committed indefinitely to not conduct reprocessing or reprocessing research and development on spent nuclear fuel.” Iran has a heavy water reactor at Arak. The spent fuel from this reactor could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The detail of Kerry’s “political understanding” quoted above seems designed to prevent Iran’s ability to weaponize spent fuel from the Arak reactor, which must be modified according to the terms of the agreement. In addition to the ban on research and development, Iran must not build any additional heavy water reactors for fifteen years.
While the Obama administration is correct in asserting that some aspects of the “political understanding with details” are indefinite, a deal based on this “political understanding with details” is simply inadequate to reassure skeptics that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon. Iran’s “indefinite” moratorium on research and development simply means that it agrees to halt this research for a period of time that is undetermined. It would be unreasonable to assume that this agreement is so ambiguous that Iran could resume reprocessing research on spent fuel from its nuclear reactors tomorrow. Nevertheless, it is much less unreasonable to assume that Iran will resume reprocessing and reprocessing research after the expiration of Iran’s fifteen-year commitment to refrain from building additional heavy water reactors. In fact, according to an agreement based on this outline, in ten or fifteen years Iran could resume reprocessing and reprocessing research while claiming it is still abiding by the terms of its agreement with the P5 + 1. According to its understanding with the P5 + 1, the ban on reprocessing and associated research is not permanent. It is only indefinite.
This is not merely playing semantics. The word “permanent” does appear in another portion of the text of the political understanding between the US and Iran released by the State Department. According to the text of the agreement, “Iran’s adherence to the Additional Protocol of the IAEA is permanent, including its significant access and transparency obligations.”
Iran has invested copious resources to develop an industrial-size military nuclear program, even under severe economic sanctions. An agreement with Iran must be specific regarding the limits that are placed on research and development. Prohibitions on research and development that could allow Iran to better understand how to build a bomb should be permanent and any final nuclear deal should specifically delineate those unending restrictions.
Is No Enrichment Really Unreasonable to Ask of Iran?
Some have insisted that in order for a nuclear deal with Iran to be acceptable, Iran must not be allowed to enrich any Uranium. In other words, some have insisted that an acceptable deal could allow Iran to have a civilian nuclear energy program. However, given Iran’s support of terrorist organizations, bellicose rhetoric, and violent behavior, Iran should not be allowed to enrich its own Uranium. Instead, Iran could obtain the fissile material it needs for civilian nuclear power and medical purposes abroad.
Iran’s negotiating position calls for domestic enrichment. The Obama administration has generously sought to construct a deal that enables Iran to say that it is continuing to enrich Uranium, while the P5 + 1 can say that Iran will be unable to build a bomb. However, the President has not done anything to ensure the fearful Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and Jordanians that this deal does not “pave Iran’s way to the bomb,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated.
In his speech to the United State Congress that received much media coverage, Prime Minister Netanyahu notably did not call for a deal that prevents the Iranians from all nuclear enrichment. This seems to be an even more moderate position than the one taken by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states at their meeting with President Obama at Camp David in early May. At this meeting the Saudis and other Arab states have committed to match any enrichment program that the Iranians are allowed to retain.
When the United Arab Emirates decided to act upon its desire for a peaceful nuclear program, it signed a cooperation agreement with the United States that prevents domestic nuclear enrichment. Instead, the UAE is assured a supply of needed nuclear fuel from outside sources.
Iran is one of four countries on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The United Arab Emirates is not on that list. According to the State Department’s 2013 Country Report on Terrorism, Iran has armed Houthi rebel groups in Yemen and Shia rebels in Bahrian. Iran has continued to sponsor Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In Syria, Iran has continued to actively support Assad, even after he used chemical weapons on his own people. Iran has also aided Al-Qaeda and used its proxy, Hezbollah, to train Shiite militants who have killed Americans in Iraq.
Why is Iran, perhaps the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, allowed to enrich Uranium while the United Arab Emirates is not? The United Arab Emirates is not on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List and the UAE did not plan a raid in Iraq in which five American soldiers were killed. This is not to argue that the UAE should be allowed to enrich Uranium. It shouldn’t be permitted to enrich its own Uranium and it seems perfectly happy to be obtaining its own Uranium abroad.
Perhaps the case of the UAE illustrates the clear difference in the intentions between the Iranians and the Emiratis. The Emiratis want nuclear power for civilian purposes. They are willing to forgo domestic enrichment and obtain nuclear fuel abroad. Despite maintaining that it only seeks a peaceful nuclear program, Iran has all the components of a military nuclear program. Beyond its industrial-sized and extensive nuclear enrichment program, Iran has a vast ballistic missile program. It is important to mention that the other components of Iran’s military nuclear program, including its ballistic missile program are not limited in any capacity according to the “political understanding with details” between the P5 + 1 and Iran. Unlike the UAE, Iran insists on enriching its own Uranium and on keeping the 13,940 centrifuges that it is not permitted to use within its borders.
The “political understanding with details” that the Obama administration has produced is not a framework for an agreement that ensures that the only type of nuclear program Iran maintains is a peaceful one. Any Iran deal that Obama signs based on this framework is one that merely kicks the can down the road and will leave a future American President with no option to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb but military intervention. As Iran is allowed to continue nuclear research and development, its breakout time will be continually reduced. President Obama himself has said that in a mere thirteen years, Iranian breakout time will be near zero.
In 2028, with an Iranian breakout time of zero, the President of the United States will not have the luxury that President Obama has now of extending deadline after deadline in the hope of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. The President will be faced with the choice of either eliminating Iran’s nuclear program or permitting the development of nuclear weapons by the world’s largest state sponsor of terror and allowing for the outbreak of a massive nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region.
Negotiating a Better Deal
At present, the US has a tremendous opportunity to alter its negotiating tactics and lock down a better deal with Iran that ensures any Iranian nuclear program will be a peaceful nuclear program. Realities of the negotiating situation have changed. Although Iran needs a nuclear deal more than the US, the Obama administration has negotiated as if it wants a deal more than the Iranians. On May 21, the President signed a bi-partisan law granting Congress the power to review any deal he makes with the Iranians. Regardless of whether or not the President wants a deal more than Iran does, the President will only get a deal, if any, that Congress can accept. Moreover, the insistence by Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that they will match any enrichment capability that Iran retains provides the US with additional bargaining power and it may change the president’s calculations.
Can President Obama accept responsibility for Iran as a threshold nuclear power in the Middle East if it does not develop a nuclear weapon on his watch? Perhaps. Can the crowning foreign policy achievement of Obama’s presidency be the creation of multiple threshold nuclear powers in the Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council? President Obama has coined himself as an opponent of nuclear proliferation and claims to be opposed to a nuclear Iran partly because of the arms-race that a nuclear Iran would initiate in the Middle East. If a deal with Iran based on the released framework guarantees the development of industrial sized nuclear programs within many Middle Eastern states, this will constitute a threat not only to American national security, but also to Obama’s legacy.
Americans need to reevaluate whether or not Iranian nuclear enrichment is tolerable if other Middle Eastern states intend to match that enrichment capacity. The United States should also re-examine whether or not it is really wise to allow Iran to keep all 19,000 of its centrifuges within its borders. Saudi Arabia has insisted that it will match Iranian enrichment capacity. This could mean that Saudi Arabia will decide to keep 19,000 centrifuges within its borders, but promises only to spin 5,060 of them. Could the United States really prohibit its Saudi friends from pursuing this type of enrichment program after approving it for the Iranians?
Would the United States be changing the rules in the middle of the game if it were to deviate from the understandings reached in the political framework? It may be more accurate to characterize such a move as an acceptance of the Iranian rules of negotiation, rather than a change of the rules by the US. After all, the adoption of a position insisting upon enrichment was a change in the middle of the process by the Iranians. In 2003, when the UK, France, and Germany threatened to bring Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program, Iran agreed to “cooperate fully with the IAEA and suspend all Uranium enrichment.” This demonstrates that in the past, the Iranians have been willing to accept a position of zero-enrichment in order to prevent possible sanctions.
Any deal with Iran must not only prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the short term, but assure the United States and its friends that Iran will never be able to develop a military nuclear program. This will involve strict limitations on the types of nuclear components and dual-use items that can be kept inside the country. Moreover, the world will not be confident that Iran only seeks a peaceful nuclear program until it demonstrates a change in its intentions. The P5 + 1 should craft a deal that compels Iran to restrain its ballistic missile program, forces it to abandon its sponsorship of terror, permanently limits Iranian nuclear research and development, and puts a comprehensive and intrusive nuclear inspections regime in place. Inspectors should be allowed to go anywhere in the country at any time. Failure to accept such a deal will reveal Iran’s true intentions and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program should be dealt with accordingly.