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Learning from Iran’s Past Enrichment Suspensions

A pause in Iranian uranium enrichment seems to be the chief point upon which Secretary of State John Kerry will claim victory should Iranian and international diplomats hammer out an agreement. Celebration of any such agreement would be premature at best, not only because the American and Western goal was simply to entice Tehran to a second round of talks whose outcome would be far from certain, but also because Kerry’s triumph would be Pyrrhic at best given Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s history.

As Iran’s nuclear negotiator a decade ago, Rouhani also temporarily suspended uranium enrichment, a move for which he received hardline anger. In an interview with the state-run news website Aftab, he defended himself. His goal was “to counter global consensus against Iran,” he said, adding, “We did not accept suspension in construction of centrifuges and continued the effort. … We needed a greater number.” As I explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed at the time, what American and European diplomats considered progress, the Iranian government understood to be an opportunity to expand their program.

It was a strategy about which other Iranian officials also bragged: Talk softly, lull the West into complacency, and then import everything needed for a technological leap to the next nuclear level. Rouhani, himself, outlined a doctrine of surprise in a February 9, 2005 speech to Iranian leaders. What is the key reason Iran is successful against the West, Rouhani asks, before he answers:

Even after the victory of the revolution – in all phases – the plots and plans they had designed against the revolution or against the development of the regime and the nation were defeated.  Why?  Again it was because they were taken by surprise.  The actions of the regime took the world by surprise and they were usually unpredictable. 

Rather than aim for suspension of enrichment—or at least some levels of enrichment–during an interim period, an issue which should be a no-brainer given the fact that six unanimous or near-unanimous UN Security Council resolutions call for just that, Rouhani’s history suggest that anything short of a freeze on all work, equipment installation, and construction in every facility would be counterproductive. Celebrating a pause which the Iranian regime uses to modernize, reconfigure, and install equipment to increase the effectiveness of their enrichment program would be strategic malpractice. Unfortunately, it seems, we live in a world where diplomats believe any deal, no matter how bad, trumps utilizing economic leverage to achieve a far better solution.