The Next Arms Race

The P5+1 negotiations with Iran should be over and done with and a final deal celebrated across the globe but this superbly scripted show must go on. The U.S. is so caught up in this drama of its own making that it’s loath to break character. Maybe Washington policymakers are counting on getting honored by the Academy Awards for the best acting off the silver screen? Their pretending that Iran has a rogue nuclear program in violation of the NPT and has to be sanctioned is surely Oscar-worthy. Actually I’m guessing the U.S. refused to close the narrow gaps because President Barack Obama is planning on “unexpectedly” (wink) reaching an agreement before the next deadline. He’s saving the diplomatic triumph as an October surprise which would swing the midterm elections in favor of the Democrats. “America–if you want this deal to stick, don’t vote in a Republican-majority Congress,” will go the slogan and it will resonate with a public that favors successful diplomacy.

Not that Republicans will thwart the proceedings. As opposed as they seem to the final deal, the Republican’s hawkishness on the deal is in truth influenced by midterm considerations. They know how good resisting Obama makes them look to their constituents. Trying to secure election victories is all that’s at play here because Republicans are well aware that if Congress undercuts the deal the EU will bid adieu to the U.S-led sanctions regime. Europe walking away is no empty threat either, as Benjamin Armbruster explains:

“Even if a deal is reached, it’s possible that Congress could play spoiler and refuse to repeal Iran sanctions legislation. In that scenario, a recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations recommended that the EU should not follow the U.S. lead and instead take a more “proactive” approach.

The EU “could do so by offering Iran a European economic package that in essence creates additional phases to the implementation process of a final deal. Europe could carry out this phase on its own, by taking a different stance in comparison to the US Congress regarding sanctions relief provided to Iran,” the report says. “This more active and independent strategy for détente with Iran is one that Europe should seriously debate if the position taken by Congress opposes not only the U.S. president but also European interests.”

Yeah, Europe potentially aligning itself with Iran would be a nightmare for the United States. The horror would mount as Russia and China rush to join Iran’s side too and then suddenly there’s a bloc that would pose a powerful check against the U.S.’s efforts to manage Iran’s rise in the world. That’s why the Republican and Democrat “opponents” of diplomacy have every intention of relenting when presented with the comprehensive agreement. They wouldn’t dare risk such a tectonic geopolitical shift. But Congress won’t be going away empty-handed. The Middle East has an unmatched appetite for weaponry and a revived Iran would drive the demand up all the more. I can already hear the legislators’ collective drooling (Homer Simpson-like) over the juicy opportunities to deliver scads of contracts to the arms manufacturers in their districts. And–who knows?–we might start arming Iran too fueling the next regional arms race. America has supported both sides simultaneously before.

Final Deal Postponed on Account of Politics

Four more months of talks over Iran’s civilian nuclear ambitions and all because the P5+1 thought it would be most propitious if the final deal was reached with the earth in the exact same location it was the last time there was a successful deal with Tehran. The extension ends on November 24th, a year to the day since the interim agreement was signed. Sure it makes for a neat, little narrative but there was no need to add more sand to the hourglass. As Barbara Slavin writes, “That the sides cannot quite close all the gaps is as much a function of politics as are technical concerns over aspects of the Iranian nuclear program.” Actually those “technical concerns” can be easily addressed so postponing the final deal was a purely political decision. I’m guessing the U.S. refused to close the gaps because the Obama administration wants to use the negotiations as a campaign issue to bludgeon Republicans in the midterms.

Iran, on the other hand, was ready to have the final deal done in time and it was the P5+1 that did all the pushing for the extension, as Laura Rozen explains:

“The P5+1 “must convince us on the formula” for Iran to agree to an extension, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Iran had shown flexibility in a proposal presented to Kerry this week that would have held Iran’s enrichment capacity steady for up to seven years, among other measures. But if Iran hoped the more moderate 11th hour position would launch haggling over final deal terms to meet the July 20 interim deal deadline, it was disappointed.”

So will the Obama administration regret kicking the can down the road? Slavin, in outlining the liabilities of an extension, mentioned that it just gives more time for obstructionist, anti-Iran Republicans and Democrats to attempt the passing of deal-breaker sanctions. “Members of the U.S. Congress who appear to oppose a deal with Iran,” she writes, “are already threatening to try to pass new sanctions and sending letters to Obama that try to define an agreement in terms the Iranians will not accept.” But I don’t see the attempt to link unrelated issues to the lifting of sanctions working out. Some Republicans are doing as I foresaw and have come to realize that the U.S. must be flexible on sanctions lest the P5 coalition breaks apart and Europe lands the deal on its own. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) posed this question that the rest of the GOP will soon have to ponder: “What concerns are there that if we don’t continue that our allies will leave us behind and figure nothing will ever be good enough for the Americans, we’ll cut our own deal?”

The final deal therefore will not be imperiled by Congress passing sanctions that drive Iran from the table. But what about the sanctions already on the books that Congress insists will only be lifted gradually? Will the pace be too slow for Iran’s government, which isn’t about to wait decades to see Iran’s economy fully mend? As it turns out, Iran is giving leeway in their sanction’s stance. Instead of demanding immediate repeal, Paul Richter reported that Iran’s Deputy Foreign minister Abbas “Araqchi acknowledged…that Tehran now accepts the principle that as part of the deal sanctions on its economy would be gradually eased as Iran gradually complies with limits on its nuclear activities.” “It’s a big deal,” said Cliff Kupchan told Richter, adding “Araqchi’s statement lifts one barrier, a significant one, to a deal.” Iran gets that a lagging U.S. won’t matter much when Europe is on track to drop their sanctions in a more rapid fashion.

For Tehran to be so understanding on sanctions relief is indeed a big deal considering all of them ought to be junked at once and Iran’s nuclear file returned solely to the purview of the IAEA. The U.S. has been using this manufactured crisis to wage economic warfare on to keep Iran’s star from rising too quickly in the international firmament. In addition to gaining the cachet to join the BRICS, Washington is also worried about Iran heading the Non-Aligned Movement. Former Senator Mike Gravel said in an interview with Joshua Keating that Iran “will certainly be a leader of the non-aligned, and that’s not always in the United States’ best interests.” John Kerry also told the Qatari Emir in 2010 that “the United States recognizes Iran’s ambitions to be a regional player, and wants a dialogue about what sort of power it will be.” So Washington is taking the same approach with Iran as it is with China—i.e. it wants to ease the ascendant power into its future role.

What Gaps? Iran and P5+1 Closer Than They Appear

Iran and the P5+1 have less than a week to iron out the details of a comprehensive nuclear deal and–all this talk about significant gaps and an extension of talks notwithstanding—from all I’ve read I’d say there’s a real shot at settling this decade-long drama. First, there was Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini revealing last week that “the US goal at the nuclear talks is to convince Iran to limit its uranium enrichment capacity to 10,000 Separative Work Units.” This would–more or less–cap Iran’s nuclear program at its current level. Iran deserves as much, having never been in breach of the NPT and suffering the yoke of sanctions for no good reason. It’s a fair offer and one the Iranians are prepared to accept. The New York Times reports Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying “that Iran could accept a deal that essentially freezes its capacity to produce nuclear fuel at current levels for several years.”

Sounds to me as if we can check uranium enrichment off the list of remaining gaps but some are convinced that Khameini has boxed in his negotiating team when he announced that Iran will eventually need an enrichment capacity of 190,000 SWU. I fail to see how this impacts diplomacy. Ali Akbar Salehi has clarified that boosting their nuclear program to an industrial level wouldn’t apply until after the final deal expires. Washington surely wouldn’t have any objections to this as a senior Obama administration official explained to Paul Richter “What choices they make after they get to normal–that is, after a long duration of an agreement, when they will be treated as any other nonnuclear weapons state under the [NPT]–will, of course, be their choice.” So what’s the issue here? Former State Department non-proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick has made a valid point when he noted it “would be terribly unsafe for Iran to use domestically-fabricated fuel in Bushehr.” Fortunately, George Perkovich has found a way around this.

In an article where he takes on “the stickiest sticking point in the nuclear negotiations” he acknowledges that it would be problematic for Iran to fuel Bushehr:

“Iran does not possess the intellectual property necessary to design and produce the fuel [Bushehr] requires. If Iran did introduce self-made fuel into the reactor, its Russian warranties would no longer apply. While it is understandable that a proud country such as Iran would want to operate independently, no other country at such an early stage of nuclear development has been self-sufficient in this area.”

But just because Bushehr has to be fueled by Russia until at least 2021 doesn’t mean that Iran must sit on its heels. As Perkovich suggests, Iran can be guaranteed a multi-year supply of fuel in advance (Russian and European suppliers have been flaky in the past) and in the meantime develop their program until they’ve mastered the technology to enrich at domestic power plants:

“With fuel stockpiled, Iranian technicians could focus on research and development to produce more efficient centrifuges to make fuel for future, indigenously built Iranian power plants… Shifting from an unnecessary, impractical, premature industrial-scale enrichment program to a research and development program whose scale and pace coincide with demonstrated civilian needs would help validate this commitment. Based on the experience of other countries with peaceful nuclear programs, Iran would need at least 15 years to design, site, build and operate a modern nuclear power plant that conforms to international safety, security and liability guidelines. The comprehensive deal being negotiated in Vienna would be fully implemented by then.”

Alright, now we can check concerns about Iran expanding its nuclear program off the list. All that’s left is the duration of the final deal. Washington has said the time-frame has to be in the double digits with twenty years being a number commonly popping up in news reports. But former Iranian nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, insists “This is not realistic; nor does it play to the long-term interests of the P5+1,” because “a two-decade implementation period would endanger the entire arrangement, placing it at the mercy of political changes in Tehran and Washington.” Iran is looking for the accord to last three to seven years. Shorter would be better and I’m sure the Obama administration is sensitive about the possibility of its greatest foreign policy achievement coming undone and will heed Mousavian’s caveat. The length could also be affected by Iran building more trust with the international community by divulging the depth of its past nuclear weapons research.

So, there’s hardly a vast chasm to be bridged by the two sides and an extension definitely isn’t necessary. It could all be wrapped up by Sunday. And it should be put behind us because we can no longer afford to waste any more time and energy on a dispute that was created out of whole cloth by Washington. There are actual crises in the Middle East that cry out for resolution and as soon as we shake hands with Tehran we can begin dousing the sectarian blaze and stabilizing the region.

Let’s Get Serious About Non-Proliferation

Not a day into the marathon two week talks with Iran leading up to the July 20th deadline and the U.S. has threatened to reject any extension beyond that if Iran doesn’t start making concessions. The Iranian negotiators can safely stand pat because this is the bluff of all bluffs. Washington knows full well that calling off the talks would only prompt the other nations in the P5+1 to regroup and land the deal anyway. What’s more, the U.S. can ill afford to lose this opportunity to get on better terms with Iran as the revived caliphate turns the Middle East into such a sectarian tinderbox that pivoting away from it will be impossible. So, having no good options for diplomatic failure, I can see the the U.S. dropping this asinine bad cop routine at two minutes to midnight and agreeing to add more time on the clock even if Iran’s concessions come up short.

The tough line on Iran can be dumped because it’s no longer needed to throw off the congressional hawks as even they would privately recognize how strategically beneficial inking the final deal will be. The hawks are more concerned with the deal becoming a stepping stone towards rapprochement, which would mean a lessened Pentagon budget. That’s why President George H.W. Bush never made good on his word to improve ties with Iran and why President Bill Clinton followed suit by finding a [dire] threat in Iran’s nuclear program. As Sheldon Richman explains, “Clinton’s advisers saw the threat of nuclear proliferation as the path to beefing up the national-security apparatus. It was perfect for justifying new weapons systems and a continuing role as world policeman.” Naturally, Iran became the crux of the U.S.’s non-proliferation crusade and has remained so to this day.

Robert Einhorn told Bloomberg’s Nicole Gaouette that “Iran is so crucial in the health of the whole nonproliferation regime and policy, it’s kind of the centerpiece.” Iran is the star of the show because, as William Luers and Thomas Pickering write “Obama has personally believed that an opening with Tehran was not only possible but crucial to his commitment to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons” Jacob Edelist quoted Martin Indyk repeating the same line to Tali Lipkin-Shachak in an interview on IDF Radio, revealing a shocker in the process:

“In reference to the idea that the world is accepting the possibility that Iran may become a nuclear power, Indyk commented: “The world can accept this, but Barak Obama absolutely cannot. We’re engaged in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and the assessment is that once Iran develops nuclear weapons, our efforts to prevent their spread all over the entire world will collapse. This is the responsibility of the president. He will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power.”

Did everybody catch that? “The world can accept this,”—i.e. an Iranian bomb. If Indyk recognizes this, then the rest of D.C. does as well, meaning any threats about the U.S. scuttling the talks if their outcome isn’t up to snuff are extra empty. The U.S. has zero leverage on Iran and all the pressure falls on the administration’s team to conclude this deal because the international community could have it either way. Our partners in the P5+1 just might re-think their stance on Iran’s nuclear aspirations as it becomes clear to them that the U.S. was using non-proliferation as an excuse to keep Tehran as a major rival and avoiding any chances of reconciliation like the plague. If the U.S. was indeed serious about its non-proliferation goals and wanted to discourage Iran from getting nukes, reaching détente with Iran is the single most effective move to do so. And if Secretary of State John Kerry really believes that “As the nation that ushered in the nuclear age, we have an obligation to usher it out,” he and the rest of the U.S. government should remember its commitments under the NPT and start to disarm our arsenal rather than modernizing it.