Don’t Just Extend the Iran Talks

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The U.S.-led international negotiations with Iran regarding its illicit nuclear program were filled with drama Friday, as both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif canceled plans to leave the talks in Vienna. While media reports speculated that this was because the P5+1 countries and Iran could be making progress toward an agreement, the greater likelihood is that the negotiations will be extended yet again, possibly until March.

Though a diplomatic solution would be the preferred way to resolve Iran’s growing nuclear threat, it would be a mistake for the P5+1 to continue these talks without applying additional nonmilitary pressure on Tehran. Indeed, the longer the negotiations continue, the more Iran benefits: economically from additional sanctions relief, and militarily with more time to advance its nuclear program.

It’s worth recalling that the point of these negotiations is to diplomatically cut off Iran’s overt and covert avenues to a nuclear-weapons-making capability. As Secretary Kerry said at the press conference announcing the deal last year, “The purpose of this is very simple: to require Iran to prove the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and to ensure that it cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.” However, Iran has shown no signs over the past year that it is willing to comply with the deal. The only outcome that should be acceptable to the United States and the international community is for Iran to do so.

Instead, Iran has been advancing while the talks stall. Over the past year, as sanctions have been lifted, Tehran has significantly benefited. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Roubini Global Economics said in a joint report in October, Iran’s economy is expected to grow in FY 2014–2015 by 2.5 percent, after having fallen by 1.9 percent in FY 2013–2014 and 6.6 percent in FY 2012–2013, when the full weight of sanctions was imposed. Additional sanctions relief would only accelerate Iran’s economic recovery. The United States should not offer Tehran any more relief in order to keep talks going.

What’s more, as Iran’s economy has been recovering, its nuclear program has advanced considerably. United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a New York–based advocacy group, notes that Iran has a sufficient stockpile of low-enriched uranium for as many as seven nuclear weapons, and its stockpile continues to grow. This is deeply troubling, since enriching uranium to that grade represents 70 percent of the effort needed to produce weapons-grade uranium. In addition, Olli Heinonen, the former head of the Department of Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said this month that Iran could have up to 5,000 advanced-model IR-2 centrifuges, five times as many as it claims to have. UANI notes that if these centrifuges were installed, they could cut Iran’s “break-out” time — the amount of time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear device — to a matter of weeks, if not days.

These developments are particularly worrisome when one considers the extraordinary lengths to which Iran has gone to stall U.N. inspections of its nuclear program. Over the past three years, the IAEA has expressed its concern “about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” However, as the IAEA reported again this month, Iran has “not provided any explanations” that would enable the agency to clarify the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. The only way for Iran to demonstrate that its program is exclusively for peaceful purposes is to “cooperate fully with the agency on all outstanding issues . . . including by providing access without delay to all sites, equipment, persons, and documents requested by the Agency.”

Even more disconcerting is that the U.S.-led negotiators are shifting further and further toward Iran’s position. Earlier this fall, media reports indicated that the United States was considering a range of “creative solutions” that would allow the P5+1 to secure a deal that would leave Iran’s core nuclear capabilities intact, even as Tehran continues refusing to make any major reductions in its enrichment capability. In one of those “creative solutions,” Iran would not be required to dismantle its centrifuges, but would only be required to disconnect the piping that carries uranium from one centrifuge to another in the enrichment process. This action could be reversed within a matter of days.

The U.S.-led negotiators, meanwhile, are reportedly wrangling with Iran over the future of its heavy-water reactor at Arak. This facility is nearly 90 percent complete, and it constitutes Iran’s alternative path — alongside uranium enrichment — to a nuclear weapon. When finished, it would be a “plutonium bomb factory,” in the words of former Obama-administration official Robert Einhorn, capable of producing enough material for two nuclear weapons per year. Diplomats are reportedly trying to persuade Iran to modify the Arak heavy-water reactor so as to make it a light-water reactor, which would pose less of a proliferation risk. Iranian negotiators, however, appear to be unwilling to accept such a permanent alteration to the Arak reactor. In turn, the P5+1 has asked for changes in the reactor’s fuel-enrichment and power levels that would reduce the amount of plutonium produced. These changes, as Greg Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center wrote in September, “may easily be reversible,” and “will only temporarily prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon at the expense of ensuring its capability to produce such weapons in the long term.” Indeed, as David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security told Congress, if Iran were to reverse these temporary modifications to the Arak reactor, “its destruction via military means would be dangerous and highly risky, and on balance unlikely to occur. Then, at the time of its choosing, Iran could break out . . . in a matter of a few months.”

Any agreement that did not credibly deny Iran the capability to produce nuclear weapons is entirely at odds with America’s national-security requirements. Yet U.S.-led negotiators are on the verge of allowing Iran the capability to quickly resume large-scale enrichment. The negotiators’ willingness to consider this appears to be rooted in a belief among policymakers that maintaining the process of talks is more important than their outcome. As CNN reported November 19, “One senior administration official said a continuation of the talks was far preferable to a total collapse of the process. ‘We are striving for a final deal, but if that doesn’t happen, do we walk away and throw away all of the progress that has been made over these nine months?’ the official asked rhetorically. ‘We just can’t do that.’” (Emphasis added.)

If the Iran talks are to be extended again, then the United States will have to abandon its desperate desire to reach an agreement, any agreement, and instead insist on a deal that has a high standard for Iran to meet. Iran should be denied the ability to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. It should also be subjected to an intrusive and extensive inspection and verification regime to ensure that it does not have any covert facilities that could be used to “sneak out,” or achieve nuclear-weapons capability without the international community’s knowledge. This inspection regime should last for at least two decades, the amount of time it took for the IAEA to declare that South Africa’s nuclear program was peaceful; in that case, the agency’s inspections took place with the full cooperation of the South African government. Given Iran’s lengthy history of deceiving and stonewalling the international community, two decades should be considered the minimum period for this inspection regime.

For its part, the new Congress should insist that the Obama administration take a fresh approach to these international negotiations. Our lawmakers should approve crippling sanctions-in-waiting for use if Iran does not negotiate in good faith with the P5+1, and they should require the administration to submit any final deal to Congress for approval. This is critical in the light of the New York Times’s October report that the administration will use its power to “suspend” sanctions against Iran rather than seek approval from Congress to lift them. This threat from the administration contradicts Secretary Kerry’s pledge earlier this year that the administration would be “obligated” to seek congressional approval for lifting sanctions against Iran as part of a final deal, and that he and his colleagues understood that “what we do will have to pass muster with Congress.”

As the negotiations approach another deadline with the two sides still far apart, U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should remember that Iran has used negotiations as a cover to advance its nuclear program before. Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, said in 2006, while he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, that the government had used negotiations with European countries to advance its nuclear program. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan, but we still had a long way to go to complete the project,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work on Isfahan.”

It would be an extraordinary failure of American policy if a future Iranian president were able to similarly gloat about his government’s success in advancing its nuclear program while pretending to negotiate with the international community. The United States should do everything within its power to prevent that from occurring.

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