Ticking Toward Capitulation

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On April 8, Secretary of State John Kerry offered a blunt message to the Iranian regime. To reach a deal, he said, it must come clean about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program – diplomatic parlance for the regime's past efforts to weaponize nuclear material and develop other military hardware.

"They have to do it," he declared. "It will be done. If there's going to be a deal, it will be done."

On June 16, Kerry announced that it will not be done. Instead, he attempted to reframe the issue, arguing that Iran's future behavior constitutes the only relevant consideration. "What we're concerned about is going forward," he said. "It's critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way."

Unfortunately, the past clearly matters to Tehran. By concealing prior weaponization efforts, Iran also conceals the full scope of its present nuclear activities – and makes an effective verification regime, and hence an effective nuclear agreement, impossible.

As nuclear experts David Albright and Bruno Tertrais put it, failure to address possible military dimensions would enable the regime to establish "a powerful precedent of no-go zones for inspectors. Tehran could declare a suspect site a military base and thus off-limits. What better place to conduct clandestine, prohibited activities, such as uranium enrichment and weaponization?"

In the early stages of negotiations, the Obama administration appeared to understand this. In December 2013 congressional testimony, Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, said the United States aims "to support the [International Atomic Energy Agency] in its efforts to deal with possible military dimensions." In February 2014, she said that possible military dimensions "will have to be addressed."

Fourteen months later, the U.S. version of the framework for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action explicitly affirmed the possible military dimensions requirement. "Iran," it said, "will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA's concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program."

So what changed? According to Kerry's June 16 statement, it turns out the United States already harbors "absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in." In other words, the United States suddenly possesses all the information it needs. Yet just eight days before Kerry's announcement, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said the agency lacks the ability to verify "the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities" (emphasis his).

Did the United States abruptly acquire new intelligence that previously eluded the IAEA? That seems implausible. Rather, it's more likely that the Obama administration saw the clock ticking on a June 30 deadline for an historic nuclear deal – and desperately capitulated to Iranian demands lest negotiations collapse.

In this sense, the White House's reversal marks merely the latest in a swelling inventory of broken red lines, prompting Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to issue an unusually stinging rebuke. 

"It is breathtaking to see how far from your original goals and statements the P5+1 have come during negotiations with Iran," he wrote in a letter to President Barack Obama this week. "Under your leadership, six of the world's most important nations have allowed an isolated country with roguish policies to move from having its nuclear program dismantled to having its nuclear proliferation managed." Now, with even more concessions on the horizon, Corker urged the president "to please pause and consider rethinking the entire approach. Walking away from a bad deal at this point would take courage, but it would be the best thing for the United States, the region and the world."

After years of tortuous negotiations now perched on the one-yard line, it's improbable that Obama will take the senator's advice. As one senior administration official said in March, "we're one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord." 

The official is right. This agreement will be game-changing and legacy-setting – but not in the way the administration intends. By empowering Iran to continue its covert nuclear activities with impunity, the possible military dimensions concession ensures that the prevention of a nuclear-armed Iran – the core objective of negotiations – will not be done.

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