Listening to members of the administration talk about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s often difficult to tell quite what kind of timescale they think we’re on. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama gave the impression of having all the time in the world, and he has certainly used enough of it; during the course of which Iran has only lurched increasingly closer to having weapons capabilities. Understandably, countries in the region that are easily within range of a nuclear Iran—particularly Israel and the Sunni Gulf states—are a little more nervous. What is indeed concerning is the way that the administration’s estimates for when Iran could reach breakout capabilities keep on changing, and not for the better.
Secretary of State John Kerry is now saying that the U.S. believes Iran to be two months away from having breakout levels of enriched uranium. Yet, much less than a year ago the administration was claiming that we were at least a year or more away from that point. So either the administration’s estimates are inaccurate and unreliable or in the period since sanctions were partially lifted and negotiations began Iran has massively advanced in its program. Neither possibility will fill America’s allies–or anyone else for that matter–with any confidence about Obama and Kerry’s handling of the Iran threat, which may soon become the Iran crisis.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary Kerry reported the time-period for what he described as “so-called breakout” is “about two months.” Contrast this with the fact that back in October, shortly before the announcement of November’s interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries, Obama claimed that that same breakout point was at least a year or more away. The interim agreement awards Iran partial relief from sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to reduce its enrichment activities and its cooperation with both inspections and negotiations that are supposed to move us towards a final agreement with Iran. So are we to assume that, as had been feared by many, the interim period has allowed Iran a window in which to speed ahead with enrichment? There are only two other alternatives. One is that the administration’s own ability to assess Iran’s progress is dangerously limited, the other is that for political reasons Obama was intentionally underestimating Iran’s progress; most likely to undermine public and Congressional support for tougher action against Iran.
If all of that wasn’t alarming enough, then Kerry’s apparent lack of clarity about his objectives with Iran are all the more so. Obama has already been dropping hints about being “realistic” as far as a final deal is concerned; the implication being that it will be some kind of trade off that won’t definitively end Iran’s nuclear capacities. Time and time again Kerry has claimed that he would prefer no deal to a bad deal, yet speaking before the Senate committee it sounded a lot like a bad deal is precisely what is in the making.
When asked whether a breakout window of up to a year was now the goal of negotiations, the Secretary faltered, as if he had let something slip that he shouldn’t have. “So six months to 12 months is – I’m not saying that’s what we’d settle for, but even that is significantly more,” Kerry responded to the question. It seems that the administration thinks we should be grateful if they manage to drag Iran back to the six month point, half what they claimed we were looking at back in the fall. Kerry makes no commitment as to whether they would settle for that or not, but simply assures us that this is much better than what we have right now. The problem is that with the administration’s margin for error apparently so wide when it comes to these predictions, and with the period of time in play being so narrow, it seems plausible that Iran could cross the threshold to full breakout capabilities before anyone has time to sound the alarm and figure out what to do.
Amidst this latest round of negotiations to end Iran’s illegal nuclear program, this time taking place back in Vienna, Iran celebrated a rather curious national holiday; National Day of Nuclear Technology. During the festivities Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that Iran’s “nuclear achievements are unstoppable.” We live in disconcerting times when the words of Iran’s grand ayatollah are more convincing than those of the secretary of state.