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Walking the Iran Deal to the Brink

"Break a leg" said to an actor entering on a stage is the peculiar wish for good luck in theater world. It's not meant literally, of course, which suggests that when one really does break a leg, it's a show in trouble. By that reading, the sight of Secretary of State John Kerry, hobbling about on crutches after his bicycle accident, should have told us that three months of negotiating since the verbal "framework" agreement of April 3rd between Iran and the six-nation alliance has still not produced a final written agreement. Instead, when the end-June due date arrived we heard Kerry saying, "we have to work through some difficult issues".

Really? Still? But no surprise, actually. Our article back in April was already titled "Cracks Develop in the Iran Deal’s Framework". So the question is whether these difficult issues can suddenly be resolved by the new deadline of July 7th?

As his title suggests, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say for Iran and he rattled the negotiators in a speech just a week before the June 30 deadline, drawing several red lines that he would not cross.

@ & Chr$(34) & Sanctions must be lifted on signing in their entirety. The Obama administration insists on a phased lifting in parallel with Iran honoring its pledges to allow free access to sites.

@ & Chr$(34) & Inspectors will be denied access to military sites. “It must absolutely not be allowed for them to infiltrate into the country’s defense and security domain under the pretext of inspections,” he had earlier said. This is a problem because Parchin, a major military site, is suspected of conducting nuclear weapons research.

@ & Chr$(34) & Scientists may not be interviewed. This to prevent the alliance from learning how far Iran has came in weapons capability.

@ & Chr$(34) & Nuclear research must be allowed to continue. After at first insisting that most of Iran's 19,000 centrifuges be destroyed, the alliance conceded that 5,060 less efficient, first generation machines can remain in service during a 10-year span and the rest need only be idled. But now Khamenei said, “Contrary to the Americans’ insistence, we do not accept long-term, 10-year and 12-year restrictions". He wants only a short moment before returning to research advanced centrifuges and fulfilling his dream of 190,000 centrifuges for — one can only assume — the very objective that the nuclear accord is meant to shut down.

Earlier, Iran went back on agreeing to ship its already enriched uranium out of the country. The alliance yielded provided the stocks be diluted and held for 15 years at an enriched level of no more than 3.67%.

Khamenei's truculence may be no more than a last minute attempt to unnerve the alliance and extract further concessions. In the face of widespread criticism that the alliance, and principally the U.S., has already made too many, President Obama says he will standing firm. "I will walk away from the negotiations if in fact it's a bad deal. If we can't provide assurances that the pathways for Iran of obtaining a nuclear weapon are closed, and if we can't verify that, if the verification regime is inadequate, then we're not going to get a deal".

The Ayatollah has just tweeted a photo of his negotiating team posing in spotless, white lab coats. And he has more than once expressed support for his crew that agreed on April 3rd to the terms he now rejects. That suggests to some that his bluster is bluff.

Across the table, skeptics think Obama's headlong drive to add trophies to his legacy will lead him to capitulate; few have doubts that he will go soft on some non-negotiables. Then again, maybe not. He may have been influenced by a letter signed by a mix of his own former advisors and the military that the accord "may fall short of the administration's own standard of a 'good agreement'" unless a list of recommended requirements are adhered to.

He has Congress to contend with. They have approval power. There's a reason for the one week push to July 7. Signing a final deal triggers a 30-day congressional review, which would end just before they take off for their summer break, which of course ranks higher than any nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran. Otherwise, consideration of the deal is delayed until fall, with the risk of entropy. If Congress votes disapproval, the President has 12 days to veto. Congress than has 10 days to override.

The key goal of the accord is to increase the "breakout" time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material needed for a bomb from three months to a year or more. There is disagreement on the alliance side whether the reduction to earlier model centrifuges and diluted uranium guarantees that.

New York Timescolumnist Tom Friedman finds it "stunning to me how well the Iranians...have played a weak hand" against what he calls the "great power partners". He has that backwards. The "powers" have only sanctions, which Iran has endured for six years while building its nuclear program. Pride is on their side and it is we who are desperate to make a deal. Our problem is that walking away means Iran will certainly return to full scale production of the nuclear weapons they claim to disavow and the United States (hard to imagine the other five joining in) facing either war or acquiescence.

Even if the deal goes through, the doubters expect that outcome. An op-ed appeared in the The New York Times by Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the University of Texas where he is coordinator of an anti-nuclear proliferation project, that says Iran's breakout time will remain at three months even if the deal goes forward. The centrifuges that we failed to destroy would be quickly brought up to speed as would the uranium we failed to export be reconstituted from its diluted state. For Kuperman and others, the deal accomplishes nothing. Worse, lifting the sanctions restores Iran's economy and sets them on a path of dominating the Middle East.

Said Amir Mohebbian, advisor to Iran's lead negotiator, "In the end, we want to lead the Muslim world". All indications are that they think intimidating weapons hold the key.

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