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The Talks with Iran, What Are the Odds?

Are extensions of the extensions leading anywhere?

Congress's resolve to influence any accord with Iran is born of deep skepticism over the negotiations so far. They have watched
the Obama administration and its five partners acquiesce to a succession of extensions in which Iran has yielded little.

With a final agreement nowhere in sight, negotiators had in November 2013 settled for a six-month "interim agreement" so that talks could continue. It gave Iran immediate rollbacks of some sanctions already in place and released an estimated $6 to $7 billion in frozen assets in return for only pledges that Iran would cut back its steady march to what appears to all as nuclear weapons capability.

The Joint Plan of Action, as it is more formally called, required Iran over six months from January 20 to July 20 of last year to cease installing new centrifuges, to halt most work on a heavy-water reactor meant to extract plutonium and to dilute its stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to the 20% level capable of arming a nuclear bomb. All of these cutbacks were quickly reversible if talks had collapsed, leaving the partners with nothing, whereas Iran had received tangible benefits. And by freeing Iran to continue uranium enrichment to a lower level, the agreement gave away what had always been on the list to take away. Nowhere in the talks are restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program considered. The Obama administration agreed not to bring it up despite no country lacking an atomic warhead ever having been interested in developing ICBMs. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani tweeted "In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation's will".

The six months passed and talks were extended another four months to late November last year with the interim rules still in place. That date came and went with little progress and another extension of the status quo was agreed to, this one to the end of June this year — unless, of course, more time is needed.

That explains why ten Democrats have joined all Republicans in the Senate to press for a tougher set of sanctions, which in their view is the only way to bring Iran to heel and end its stalling while, many assume, it secretly advances weapon development in undiscovered locations. The view in Congress is that Obama's policy is no more than hope that Iran will change and that he is willing to yield all the way to the next president to avoid the question of war. What the "president wants is to escape the 'binary choice' between accepting the unacceptable and launching a preemptive strike", writes Reuel Marc Gerecht at The Weekly Standard.


Fears that the Iranians would not live up to their pledges in the intermim agreement were unfounded, say inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who say they've been scrupulous about "blending down" bomb grade fuel. Last November, Obama said on ABC's "The Week" that the interim deal “has definitely stopped Iran’s nuclear program from advancing” while the negotiations continued. Secretary of State John Kerry said “the interim agreement wasn’t violated. Iran has held up its end of the bargain. And the sanctions regime has remained intact.”

poles apart

But interim rules and their good faith observance belie the minefield of intractable disagreements that lie ahead.

To begin with, the U.S. and negotiating partners Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are focused on lengthening the “breakout” time — the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fuel for a single bomb. They want to assure that if there were an accord and Iran chose to break it, at least a year would be needed.

That translates to converting the heavy-water reactor at Arak to a light-water facility incapable of producing plutonium. It means, according to a former U.N. weapons inspector, that 15,000 centrifuges currently whirring at enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow would have to be destroyed so as to leave behind only 4,000 first generation machines — enough to produce fuel for civilian use but not a bomb.

Try telling that to the Iranians, who say they will need 50,000 centrifuges for planned civilian reactors. They want the explicit right to make as much nuclear fuel as desired for peaceful purposes. The Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds the ultimate authority, has publicly spoken of a desire for a tenfold increase in enrichment capacity in years to come for the country's power sector — an unacceptable centrifuge population because Iran would have a “breakout time” of just weeks to produce weapons-grade fuel.

The allied nations demand a comprehensive inspection system to minimize the possibility of Iran building a nuclear weapon at undiscovered sites — or of their buying one from an outlaw nation like North Korea. A letter to Obama from Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) last summer said that for the Senate to sign off, inspection rights would have to last "at least 20 years” and would guarantee “access to any and all facilities, persons or documentation”, the last two stipulations derived from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran is a signatory, and standard practices of the IAEA. But Iranian officials have made it clear that the Islamic Republic will allow neither inspections of undeclared sites nor the freedom of inspectors to go anywhere, anytime.

A serious sticking point is that Iran is adamant that sanctions are to be lifted immediately and permanently as a condition of any final agreement. That won't fly with Obama, who will only suspend step by step as Iran complies with the terms of the deal. In that, he has the full support of Congress.

a matter of trust

The Iranian demand is based on distrust that the United States will honor its agreement. The clerics think we are trying to overthrow their regime. They are mindful of Qaddafi, who gave up his nuclear ambitions and was rewarded with death and the destruction of his regime. And they see past Obama that hard-liners in Congress ultimately must approve the revocation of sanctions.

Underlying all is an abiding hatred of America, "the Great Satan", that goes back to the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, a democratically elected prime minster, by Britain's MI5 and the CIA; followed by support of the brutally repressive Shah; and by America's siding with Iraq in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

The U.S. is of course equally distrustful of Iran. In 2009 we discovered Iran had secretly tunneled into a mountain outside the city of Qum to build an underground centrifuge facility, now known of as Fordow, so deep that only America’s largest bunker-busting bomb has a chance of reaching it.

Files and diagrams were found on a smuggled laptop a decade ago that provided evidence of weapons design, yet Iran continues to deny it seeks to develop a nuclear bomb.

For six years international nuclear weapons inspectors have demanded that Iran — in accordance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty — turn over experiments suspected to be attempts to solve the difficult science of detonating a bomb.

Despite Obama and Kerry assurances of compliance, Iran is known to be selling more than the monthly quota of a million barrels of oil allowed by the interim agreement's sanctions relief.

And the former number two at the IAEA is convinced that Iran has illicitly imported enough carbon fiber to manufacture 5,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges. Iran will not reveal its whereabouts or purpose.

For these reasons, even with a formal accord there will always be the suspicion that Iran will operate a parallel, covert track to develop highly enriched uranium for what is referred to as a "sneakout". Our once-classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded as much. Thus we go on searching with spy satellites for tunnel entrances, of which intelligence services think there are hundreds, perhaps thousands. That hunt explains why one of our drones crashed in Iran several years ago.

many cooks

Even if by some alchemy the negotiators come to agreement, hurdles remain. Obama will need to persuade a contentious Congress to revoke the sanctions. President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seem less interested than the hardliners in Tehran in the pride of joining the nuclear club and have worked to strike a deal, but they must win the approval of the Ayatollah Khamenei and the parallel clerical revolutionary government that has final authority. They also have to cope with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which runs the military side of the nuclear program and has no interest in giving it up. “Everyone is using the constraints they face back home as a reason to avoid compromise. And the fact of the matter is that there are many generals in Iran and many members of Congress in Washington who would like to see this whole effort collapse.” That was the outlook of an unnamed White House official quoted in The New York Times. In November, The Wall Street Journal said U.S. and European officials saw signs that hard-line politicians and security officials in Tehran were seeking to undermine Messrs. Rouhani and Zarif.

Given the seemingly insurmountable complications, it is hard to imagine a breakthrough. The Iranian rial has plunged some 60% relative to the dollar creating inflation at home at the same time as oil prices have been cut in half. Add the tougher sanctions that may replace failed talks and the multiple hardships could persuade the Ayatollah to relent out of the specter of public uprisings and fear for his regime's survival. It is doubtful that the threat of attack by the U.S. deters the Iranians, though, given Obama's clear signal of wanting to avoid war at all costs. The Iranians also have seen the U.S. stand idly by for years while North Korea tests its nuclear devices.

But Israel can't tolerate a nuclear weaponed Iran that has repeatedly threatened its existence, so it may fall to the Israelis after all to add the finishing touches to the chaos that is the Middle East. If that happens, will a Congress that even shies from a resolution to authorize force against ISIS vote to join in?

1 Comment for “The Talks with Iran, What Are the Odds?”

  1. Thanks. I’ve waited to get a balanced view of what is going on. Iranians (Persians) have been around for a long time and have been acknowledged throughout their world as master negotiators. Our representatives? So there is indeed a ground for
    concern by the war-guys, whose alternative is … what? This is a strange time in the development of humans and culture and we are fortunate that all governments (not to say economies) seem to be grinding to a halt. None of them know what to do anyway, and their inaction may save us all.

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