Commentary Magazine


Enrichment Leaves Iran Path to the Bomb

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment has been adamant in its support for President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. They believe criticism of the accord reached in Geneva from Israel and Americans who worry the president has thrown away the West’s economic leverage in pursuit of a foolish hope of détente with the Islamist regime is wrong because the deal is a reasonable first step toward ending the threat of a bomb. If America’s policy were actually to achieve that end and conclusively forestall any hope of an Iranian bomb, that establishment consensus will prove to be correct. But unfortunately the indications coming out of Washington make those assumptions look silly.

Though it didn’t make headlines, the confirmation that any follow-up deal with Iran will protect their “right” to enrich uranium is the worst sign that the ultimate conclusion to this story won’t wind up making Obama and his cheerleaders look too smart. The Washington Free Beacon first reported yesterday that the administration was exploring ways to craft a nuclear agreement that would give Iran its own “domestic” enrichment program:

“Over the next six months, we will explore, in practical terms, whether and how Iran might end up with a limited, tightly constrained, and intensively monitored civilian nuclear program, including domestic enrichment,” White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Caitlin Hayden told the Washington Free Beacon.

“Any such program,” she said, “would be subject to strict and verifiable curbs on its capacity and stockpiles of enriched uranium for a significant number of years and tied to practical energy needs that will remain minimal for years to come.”

But the problem with the curbs any such deal would put in place is that they could be easily and quickly evaded in any nuclear breakout toward a bomb. By leaving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place and giving them the ability to build up their stockpile of nuclear fuel, the West is relying on monitoring, inspections, and agreements to ensure that won’t happen. But the only way to ensure that it won’t is to insist on Iran dismantling its centrifuges and exporting its hoard of enriched uranium. By not only tacitly acknowledging Iran’s enrichment in the current deal and then also openly saying that it won’t insist on those practical measures in follow-up talks, the administration is dooming any hope that its strategy will achieve the objective of preventing an Islamist nuke.

Most of the discussion about uranium has focused on the efforts of Western negotiators to get the Iranians to agree not to enrich up to 20 percent or higher, the threshold at which the material becomes suited for military purposes rather than civilian energy production or research. Thus we are told that accords that limit Iranian enrichment to below five percent is the magic bullet that will prevent the nightmare of an Iranian bomb. But what those putting this message out consistently fail to say is that uranium enriched at low levels could be refined to get to the far higher percentage needed for a bomb. While the process to do this is not done in the snap of a finger, such a breakout is not a long-term project. With enough centrifuges—and the Iranians already have enough—it would only take a matter of weeks. The interim agreement President Obama got the Iranians to sign only lengthens that breakout period to a matter of weeks.

What all this means is that if the final agreement that the administration is hoping to get Iran to sign leaves them the ability to keep enriching uranium and the equipment to perform a breakout, the entire concept is based more on trusting the Iranians to keep their promises than anything else. Indeed, with the U.S. stating this openly now, there is no reason for the Iranians not to plan on breaking out whenever they think the time is right.

Perhaps President Obama is hoping that moment will come in 2017 or later when he is safely out of office and can hope to evade the blame for such a disaster. But whenever it happens—and given the importance the ayatollahs have placed on their nuclear quest, in the absence of measures that would actually prevent it, there is no reason to think it won’t eventually happen—there should be no doubt about what led to such a result.

The West entered negotiations with Iran with all the advantages on its side: tough economic sanctions that crippled its economy and a credible military threat from either the U.S. or Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities if the ayatollahs remained obdurate. But instead of using that edge to force the Iranians to dismantle their program, President Obama opted instead to act as if he had no choice but to bow to Iran’s demands. The alternative to appeasement wasn’t war but more pressure on Iran to get an outcome that would end the nuclear threat. Instead the president has chosen to leave the Iranians a path to a weapon in the hope that diplomacy could achieve a genuine détente with a terrorist-sponsoring regime that spews hate and hostility to the West. By agreeing to enrichment, Obama is leaving a loophole a mile wide for the Iranians to push through to a bomb.

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