The negotiating end game with Iran is upon us. The Obama administration had no choice but to hold fast to the March 31st deadline, allowing further time only to add detail if an agreed framework can be reached. Restiveness on Capitol Hill is growing and Republican support is hard to detect. Extending these talks once again would whip up stronger opposition in Congress without providing any additional leverage on Iran’s Supreme Leader to make concessions. A firm deadline is needed to finalize an agreement that effectively constrains Iran’s bomb-making capabilities in verifiable ways.
Supporters and opponents of trying to reach an agreement with Iran have tried to move the goalposts for an acceptable agreement as the negotiations have progressed. U.N. Security Council resolutions beginning in 2006 have demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment program. The Government of Israel, vocal domestic critics, and Members of Congress who oppose an agreement now insist that Iran have no enrichment capability whatsoever. For its part, the Obama administration and its negotiating partners have shifted from suspension to allowing enrichment under observable constraints.
Critics, including the editorial board of the Washington Post, oppose the amount of enrichment that the Obama administration seems willing to accept. According to press leaks, the United States and its negotiating partners have upped the allowable number of first- generation centrifuges operating under an agreement from 1,500, to 3,000/4,500 to perhaps 6,500. Iran has around 19,000 centrifuges at two sites, with the production capacity to make more, and more efficient, machines.
Heavyweight and bellwether Henry Kissinger has criticized the administration’s negotiating tactics with this artful formulation, provided in congressional testimony on January 29th:
Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort, buttressed by six U.N. resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.
Moving away from unrealistic opening gambits in order to find mutually acceptable common ground is standard negotiating practice. Kissinger got hammered for doing just this by critics of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation accords. The most prominent exception to this practice – the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty – came as a disconcerting surprise to those anti-arms controllers in the Reagan administration who supported the “zero” option in the confident expectation that it would not be negotiable.
What matters most in Kissinger’s formulation – but not to die-hard critics of any agreement with Iran – are the particulars of the word “capability.” The Obama administration has defined this term as Iran’s ability to be in a position to have a usable nuclear weapon in a year’s time. The package of constraints now under negotiation is designed to address this “breakout” scenario, which David Albright and Houston Wood at the Institute for Science and International Security have done much to advance.
Some argue that designing an agreement against a breakout time of one year is too exacting; others that it is not nearly exacting enough. A third view holds that breakout from facilities under close scrutiny is unlikely, and that if Iran sprints for the Bomb, it will do so at secret sites. Provisions allowing access to undeclared facilities are needed to address this concern.
Current events in Ukraine lend support to designing an interlocking series of constraints around a one year timeline for breakout. The coalition of states required to work in tandem to implement an agreement with Iran will have different timelines and thresholds to make hard decisions, as is evident from the reluctance of Germany and France to draw a hard line against Vladimir Putin’s encroachments in the Donbas region. If Iran violates its commitments under an agreement, lining up the requisite will and support for remedial actions can take months.
Sanctions have been an effective tool to engage a deal-minded government in Iran, but sanctions, no matter how tough, will not shut down Iran’s enrichment activities. The ‘no enrichment’ camp, led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been handed even more of a megaphone by House Speaker John Boehner, seeks to stymie ongoing negotiations or kill any agreement reached. If Tehran responds to either of these eventualities with the expulsion of foreign observers at its nuclear facilities, tougher sanctions and bombing runs are likely to follow. Netanyahu would prefer the United States to undertake these air strikes, which would have to be repeated periodically, each time with diminished support. If the U.S. Congress blocks or rejects an agreement that effectively curtails Iranian enrichment, and if Israeli or U.S. air strikes follow, Washington would be placed in an untenable position globally.
Opponents of an agreement – assuming one can be reached that effectively establishes constraints commensurate to a one-year breakout capacity – are obligated to explain how blocking or rejecting it would advance U.S. national, regional, and international security interests. How, for example, would rejecting an agreement that curtails Iranian enrichment affect proliferation prospects in the greater Middle East? Instead of providing forthright answers to hard questions, opponents take refuge in legislation for tougher sanctions.
Constraining Iran’s enrichment capability in effective, verifiable ways is far better than leaving it unconstrained and unmonitored. Iran’s nuclear programs have already prompted hedging strategies in the greater Middle East, as is evident by plans to proceed with nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. The extent of these hedging strategies will depend on the extent to which Iran’s nuclear capacity can be effectively constrained.
There are serious risks ahead whether or not an agreement can be negotiated. The agreement the Obama administration seeks would have less pernicious proliferation consequences than by torpedoing it. Those who oppose an agreement with Iran unwittingly invite more nuclear proliferation in the region.
Michael Krepon is Co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, and the author of Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb. This essay appeared on armscontrolwonk.com. A shorter version was published by the Los Angeles Times on March 1st.
Photo credit: Aslan Media via flickr