Friday, March 6, 2015

Tick, tick, tick...

“Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”
—President Obama, January 20 in his State of the Union address

“On the day before talks resumed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif last Wednesday, Tehran announced that construction has begun on two new nuclear reactors.”
The Washington Post, January 17

“I have a problem squaring the circle between a president who says, I can’t deal with Republicans, and a president who says, I can deal in good faith with the Iranians.”
National Journal’s Ron Fournier, November 23 on Fox News Sunday
We do not often see a spectacle such as we did this past week when the prime minister of Israel addressed the U.S. Congress in spite of the clear pique of the U.S. president.

The White House argued that Congress’s invitation was tantamount to a political endorsement of Benjamin Netanyahu because he and his party are standing for election on the 17th of this month. From the prime minister’s point of view, though, he did not have much choice if he wanted to have his say before the administration’s deadline of March 24 for concluding a framework agreement with Iran. The president’s domestic critics charged that Barack Obama was putting more effort into effecting regime change in democratic Israel than in the dictatorship of Iran.

To be sure, the president and the prime minister have the same stated goal—to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capability. Their disagreement is ostensibly only over how to achieve that goal. The worrying thing, however, is that the horse is probably already out of the barn when it comes to Iran going nuclear. If there was ever a chance of preventing it from happening—short of going to war—it most likely evaporated fourteen months ago when six world powers completed a deal with Iran which, as The New York Times put it, froze “much of Tehran’s nuclear program … in exchange for limited relief from Western economic sanctions.” It’s just the nature of these things that, once sanctions were eased, they were not likely to be strengthened again. Witness how the Obama administration seems to panic whenever Congress makes noises about strengthening sanctions—not immediately but only in the event of the nuclear talks failing. Hawks keep shaking their heads, wondering why the president is so opposed to having his negotiating hand strengthened.

Another reason to think that Iran getting its bomb is an inevitability is recent history. We can get an insight into the country’s approach by looking back at a nine-year-old news-analysis piece in The New York Times (March 14, 2006), in which former negotiator and current president Hassan Rowhani made a revealing boast:
 Under a November 2004 agreement with the Europeans, Iran pledged to freeze enrichment-related activities as long as the two sides were negotiating a long-term package of incentives for the country.
 But in a remarkable admission, Mr. Rowhani suggested in his speech that Iran had used the negotiations with the Europeans to dupe them. He boasted that while negotiations were continuing, Iran managed to master a key stage in the nuclear fuel process — the conversion of uranium yellowcake at its Isfahan plant.
 “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.”
Yet another reason is the fact that administration officials have been referring to the goal of talks as preventing Iran from getting a bomb—in contrast to the previously stated goal of ending Iran’s nuclear program altogether. Also, observers are nervous about recent reports from the Associated Press and The New York Times (and denied by the administration) that negotiators have given in to Iran’s demand that the agreement expire after ten years—effectively accepting Iran’s right to a bomb thereafter.

So what’s the big deal about Iran having a nuclear bomb anyway? These days lots of countries (including India, Pakistan and North Korea) have them and to date none have used them in anger. Is there reason to think Iran would be any different? Well, there is the business of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 comment about Israel being “wiped off the map.” In fairness, he didn’t actually say that Iran itself would do the wiping and, besides, lots of politicians use over-the-top rhetoric that they never mean to act on.

A main concern is what a nuclear Iran would do to the balance of power in the Middle East. It would quite likely set off an arms race in the region as Iran’s rivals attempt to keep up. It would also strengthen Iran’s hand as it continues to consolidate its influence. Hezbollah in Lebanon is an ally, and after the death of Hafez al-Assad in Syria, Iran made his son a client. It has also exploited the vacuum left in Iraq, and its Houthi rebel friends just recently took over Yemen.

Most worrying, though, may be new information only now coming to light from documents and storage devices seized in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden four years ago. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Stephen F. Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn describe, among many disturbing things, a striking level of cooperation between Iran and Al Qaeda.

Okay, you may say, but is there really any way to stop a country from acquiring a nuclear bomb if it is really determined to get one? After all, as various pundits keep saying on news programs, you can’t make the Iranians forget what they have already learned about the technology.

But, yes, there are examples of countries being stopped from going nuclear. Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions were well known, but the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq put an end to that—although many would question whether the cost was worth it. And a decade ago Syria was believed to be close to getting a bomb. That ended in 2007 when, soon after a shipment delivery by North Korea, a suspected reactor site was bombed by Israel.

But are there any examples of nuclear weapon development being curtailed purely through negotiations? The West’s experience with North Korea is not encouraging.

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