With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference starting this weekend in Washington, the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat is back in the headlines. But, as the AIPAC activists know all too well, in their efforts to mobilize Congress to support increased sanctions on Iran the administration has effectively checkmated them on the issue by claiming the measure would derail diplomacy. Opponents of sanctions have falsely sought to frame the issue as being a choice between war and diplomacy even though the new sanctions, which would not go into effect until after the current negotiations with Iran are seen to have failed, would clearly strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks. But the problem with treating the diplomatic process as sacrosanct is that in doing so, the truth about the nature of the threat may be sacrificed without the West getting any closer to its goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.
That dilemma was illustrated this week when it was revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shelved a new report about Iran’s nuclear project because it was felt its publication would harm the diplomatic process. Sources told Reuters that the report would have been a wider review of the Iranian program including crucial analysis of Tehran’s military research. But the IAEA, whose reports over the last few years have raised awareness of the nuclear threat, ultimately decided that putting out more information about the topic now would, like the sanctions being debated in Washington, harm diplomacy.
After the Reuters report was published, Israel called on the IAEA to release the report. In response, the agency claimed today that it doesn’t exist. But all that tells us is that the decision to spike the report took place before it was formally prepared. The bottom line remains the same. Whatever new information the IAEA has obtained about military dimensions of Iran’s program is not going to be published because the more the Western public knows about the subject the less likely they are to give diplomats the leeway they need to craft a nuclear deal that will fall short of their stated goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
We don’t know what a new IAEA report on Iran would have said. Given that the interim nuclear deal signed by the U.S. in November did not provide for inspections of Iranian facilities where military research is being conducted, it may be that the agency has not learned of any breakthroughs or further evidence of Iran’s clear intent to build a bomb. But past IAEA reports have served an important purpose in clarifying the danger involved in letting Tehran continue to use diplomacy to run out the clock until they reach their nuclear goal. But whether the IAEA acted on its own or if it succumbed to pressure, the effect is the same. The Obama administration and its P5+1 partners understand that the more information is released about the ongoing Iranian efforts to circumvent the diplomatic process, the harder it is to silence criticism of their tactics or to prevent Congress from seeking to put more sanctions in place.
There is no disagreement between the administration and its critics about whether a diplomatic solution is the best way to resolve this issue. No one wants the U.S. to be forced into a position where its only choice really is between the use of force and accepting a situation in which Iran becomes a nuclear power. But the suppression of the free flow of information about the nature of that threat raises suspicions that what is going on now is more about preserving diplomacy for its own sake than anything else.
By agreeing to negotiations that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and loosened existing sanctions, the administration has allowed Tehran to believe that it will never have to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Having triumphed in the interim talks, it is little surprise that Iran’s leaders believe they will achieve their nuclear goal either through diplomacy or by stalling the process until the point where their bomb is a fait accompli. It is to be hoped that the administration means what it says about preventing an Iranian bomb. But the more President Obama seeks to suppress the truth about the Iranian threat and to silence debate about sanctions, the harder it is to believe that he will keep his promises. The goal must be to make it impossible for the Islamist regime to build a bomb, not detente. A diplomatic process that aims for anything less than that is not worth the effort or the sacrifices of the truth required for keeping it alive.