Good news comes from Vienna today. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to think. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency met with representatives of Iran sent by its new President Hassan Rouhani, and the result was a “very productive meeting” according to a joint statement issued by the two parties. In contrast to their usual contempt for the IAEA, the Iranians made “constructive” noises about resuming the nuclear inspections they have been thwarting for years even though no details about what their new proposals might be were revealed. Though a slender reed upon which to base a policy of faith in Iran’s good intentions, it will likely strengthen the resolve of the United States to push ahead with the latest round of the P5+1 talks that will resume next week. Indeed, in defending the decision to allow the U.S. to be drawn into another lengthy negotiation with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech to a dinner for the Ploughshares Fund that he had no patience for those warning about the dangers of such a policy. As the Times of Israel reports:
“Some have suggested that somehow there’s something wrong with even putting that to the test,” the secretary of state continued. “I suggest that the idea that the United States of America as a responsible nation to all of humankind would not explore that possibility would be the height of irresponsibility and dangerous in itself, and we will not succumb to those fear tactics and forces that suggest otherwise.”
But lost amid the enthusiasm for diplomacy was yet another troubling statement that ought to chill those hopes for a quick resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran. Also speaking yesterday in Washington, Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director of the IAEA, said that Iran has, “in a certain way,” already reached the point of no return in its nuclear program. Heinonen confirmed the report released last week by the Institute for Science and International Security that said Iran could enrich enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb in about a month. That finding renders moot most of what is being discussed by Western diplomats with the Iranians. If the Iranians have reduced the “breakout time” needed to convert their vast stockpile of low-enriched uranium into nuclear fuel, then even if Tehran agreed to proposals about limiting their enrichment capacity, their path to a weapon is clear. If this is true, the administration’s arguments against tightening sanctions on Iran must be seen as a sign that it is, despite Kerry’s protestations that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” determined to reach an agreement with the ayatollahs that will not remove the threat of an Iranian bomb.
Throughout the debate about the nuclear threat from Iran, we have been assured by the administration that any danger of the Islamist regime cheating on a deal in order to procure a weapon that they had theoretically renounced was slim because of the lengthy “breakout” period that would be needed before they could complete the construction of a weapon. This is especially crucial since the terms of a proposed agreement seem to center on limiting the Iranians to uranium enrichment below the 20 percent that is required for a bomb. Should they break their word, the U.S. has believed that it would take so long for them to amass the required uranium that it would surely be discovered in the meantime. But if the Iranians only need two weeks to do the trick, those calculations go right out the window.
Given the vast number of centrifuges already enriching uranium in their facilities, this calculus may mean that anything short of Iran’s destruction of their nuclear plants and the export of all of their stockpile would not stop them from building a bomb. But since the Iranians have already stated that their “red line” in the talks is protection of their “right” to enrich and a refusal to give up any of their uranium, it’s difficult to understand what Kerry is talking about when he speaks so enthusiastically about the talks and makes veiled references to Israeli fear-mongering about Iran.
It also means that Iran’s willingness to talk about talking further about letting the IAEA monitor some of its facilities tells us nothing about their behavior or their intentions.
Even more important, this means that Congress should ignore administration pleading not to pass new sanctions against Iran. As even former Obama administration staffer Dennis Ross wrote today in a Los Angeles Times op-ed with Eric Edelman and Michael Makovsky, if the U.S. is really serious about stopping Iran via diplomacy rather than force, it must, among other things:
Intensify sanctions and incentivize other countries to do the same, issue more forceful and credible statements that all options are on the table, initiate new military deployments and make clear the support for Israeli military action if conducted.
The time for eyewash from the administration about the “window of diplomacy” with Iran is over. Having wasted five years on feckless engagement and dead-end diplomacy, the recent information about Iran’s breakout capacity may mean it is already too late to stop them by means short of force. But if the president and Kerry allow themselves to be sucked into another Iranian attempt to run out the clock on nuclear talks, no one should be deceived as to the meaning of such a decision or the potentially lethal consequences for Israel, the Arab nations of the Middle East (that are just as worried about the Iranian threat as the Israelis), and the entire world.