Despite President Obama’s triumphal assertions regarding progress in reduction of Iran’s nuclear research program, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) reached between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating team in late 2013 is clearly a sham. For more than a decade, Iran diffused Western opposition to its nuclear capability through a strategy of deceptions, stalls and illusory concessions learned from North Korea’s success in the same game. When the JPA expires in June without measurable benefit, the United States must finally confront the reality that Iran will not peaceably give up its nuclear ambitions.
History of Iran’s Nuclear Program
Western efforts to bring an end to Iran’s nuclear development, and Iran’s defeat of those efforts, are well documented. Iran’s nuclear program nominally dates to the 1960s, when the U.S. supplied the Shah with the Tehran research reactor, and 1970s, when work began on the Bushehr light-water reactor. That Bushehr project proceeded in fits and starts, halted at times by the Iran-Iraq war and contractual disputes between Iran and its various foreign sponsors and contractors.
But the story of Iran’s covert nuclear program and the world’s failed efforts to stop it begins in earnest the early 2000s. In 2002, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), an anti-Ayatollah, Iranian militant organization based in Iraq, revealed Iran’s Natanz centrifuge enrichment plant and the Arak heavy-water reactor. In 2005, the U.S. intelligence showed Iran was researching the process for weaponizing plutonium. In 2006, the plant producing heavy water needed to operate the Arak reactor opened. In 2009, Western powers discovered the Fordow uranium enrichment plant, deep under a mountain near Qum.
In February, 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formally reported that Iran had a program to develop a nuclear warhead. In February, 2011, the IAEA expanded on its 2010 report, saying Iran conducted “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” at its Parchin military base. Bushehr went online in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, Iran installed new, advanced centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow.
Iran has used misdirection, duplicity and faux concessions to make these advances despite active U.S. and international efforts to interrupt Iran’s nuclear capability. After IAEA inspectors found traces of highly-enriched uranium, and with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq, Iran agreed to suspend weapons-related research and uranium enrichment in October, 2003. In November, 2004, Iran demanded additional economic concessions in exchange for another temporary suspension of enrichment activity. In January, 2006, Iran nevertheless restarted enrichment at Natanz. Talks between Iran and various international mediators collapsed in July, 2008, and then again in May, 2012. In the meantime, successive rounds of ever harsher sanctions against Iran went into effect in 2006, 2011, 2012, and in three different tranches in 2013.
Iran’s nuclear development also came in the face of a series of paramilitary operations against it. Cyber-attacks in 2008 and 2010 caused significant damage to the centrifuge cascades used for uranium enrichment. In 2010 and 2012, key scientists in Iran’s nuclear program were assassinated, possibly by MEK operatives.
In short, diplomatic and covert efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program have failed. In ten years, Iran’s has turned a small, relatively fledgling nuclear program into an array of widespread, sophisticated and increasingly-hardened facilities across Iran. As the IAEA reported in 2013, Iran has made significant progress in all aspects of its nuclear program. This includes parallel weaponization routes through uranium enrichment at Natanz and Fordow and plutonium production expected to begin at Arak sometime in 2014 or 2015.
In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that the United States has no effective policy to address Iran’s drive for nuclear weaponry. In the next four years, the U.S. imposed a broad array of unilateral and multi-national sanctions to good effect. By the summer of 2013, Iran was cut-off from foreign markets and the economy was reeling under 40% inflation in the summer of 2013.
But in November, 2013, President Obama then announced that a deal had been struck. In the JPA, finalized in December, 2013, the parties agreed that Iran would receive economic inducements including six months of sanctions relief in exchange for putative concessions regarding its nuclear program.
Once the JPA’s final terms were announced, its flaws immediately obvious. Iran received substantial sanctions relief totaling approximately $20 billion, or a bit less than 4% of its GDP. Iran’s concessions were nominal. Iran did not close any facilities and did not give up its enriched uranium. Iran did not even agree to stop installing new, advanced centrifuges that will allow it to rapidly further enrich its existing stockpile of uranium to weapons grade when the JPA expires. Instead Iran merely agreed not to enrich more uranium above a certain level during the pendency of the six-month plan.
Nothing in the JPA provides any assurance that a final resolution will be reached.
To the contrary, Iran has received lasting sanctions relief whether or not negotiations proceed. The JPA lasts for six months (expiring in July, 2014), after which Iran’s meager obligations and the sanctions relief both expire. In reality, though, sanctions relief cannot be put back in place with the stroke of a pen or a phone call because those sanctions were built over the course of more than a decade and through a vast network of cooperating international public and private entities. European businesses in particular flocked to Tehran when sanctions relief was announced, and now they and their governments have a vested interest in permanently ending sanctions. Ranking officials within the Obama Administration have admitted as much, saying re-implementing sanctions would be a cumbersome process, if doable at all. Iran, on the other hand, can re-start its enrichment immediately and at higher rates than ever before.
In this light the JPA is an abject failure. From November, 2013, to June, 2014, Iran will have received $20 billion in direct economic relief, plus permanently reduced sanctions, in exchange for a six-month, partial enrichment pause. The structure and scope of Iranian nuclear facilities, plans, research and development are unchanged.
The State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy defended the JPA by saying it was a success because the parties would negotiate during the six-month window. The goal, according to this senior State Department official, was not to end Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, it was to talk to Iran about ending its nuclear program.
Now that the JPA is set to expire shortly and the parties have made no progress, Iran has reverted to stall tactics. Iran has just offered to produce a “comprehensive” report on its nuclear facilities, but warns the process will be “time-consuming” and they “hope to have it finished in eight months.” No doubt if sanctions ramp up again after the JPA expires, Iran will cry foul and bad faith, and refuse to proceed with its chimerical report.
Iran promises concessions and disclosure sometime in the indeterminate future, but will capitalize on the thinnest new provocation by reneging. The Obama Administration is left to decide either to believe the Iranian promise and withhold sanctions (freeing Iran from the penalties associated with the JPA’s failure), or to re-impose sanctions as far as possible and revert to pre-November, 2013, posture.
Obama will be sorely tempted to take the former option for purely political purposes. The Administration was roundly criticized for accepting a bad deal when the JPA and its predecessor agreement were announced in November and December, 2013, but justified the deal as a first step to a final resolution. Obama is under enormous pressure to ensure that some final resolution actually materializes, and there is significant risk that the political expediency of achieving a paper “final agreement” will overwhelm national security interests in neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat.
If President Obama fails to lead and take vigorous action against Iran, Congress must act instead. Congress threatened to pass additional sanctions when the JPA’s poor terms were announced, but demurred in deference to pressure from the administration. When the JPA expires Congress should pass measures not only restoring the sanctions ex ante, but imposing whatever new sanctions are possible. Better yet, Congress should pass the law now, with a trigger that additional sanctions go into effect simultaneously with the JPA’s expiration.
Further, Congress should authorize and subsidize sale of additional military equipment and munitions to Israel. President Obama has made any threat of military action by the United States implausible. Israeli warnings remain quite viable, though, and even more so if backed by the U.S.’s best bunker-busting munitions and additional airborne refueling tankers. The threat of Israeli action might spur Iran to make real, verifiable, permanent concessions.
The two core options are either to accept a nuclear Iran or to forcibly prevent it. The relative merits of these choices have been debated at length and deserve their own fulsome discussion not to be undertaken here. Suffice to say that the argument that Iran should be allowed to go nuclear and then contained is severely flawed because it imbues the Iranian regime with moral and rational norms it does not necessarily possess. Further, deterrence is inadequate to prevent a nuclear race among Iran’s regional rivals in, at a minimum, Saudi Arabia.
None of the above is new, or classified, or leaked information. This is all public. Yet somehow U.S. foreign policy makers have failed to grasp the fundamental fact that Iran cannot be coaxed into giving up its nuclear program. It is time to accept this basic fact and choose how to respond.