Here, then, is where we are. When the world’s most powerful nations began their effort to negotiate away Iran’s nuclear program in 2003, the Islamic Republic had 130 centrifuges. These machines convert uranium into a form that can set off a chain reaction. That chain reaction in turn can either create nuclear energy or be set off to explode the most destructive bomb the world has ever seen. By November 2013, when Iran reached a so-called interim accord with the United States and other nations to limit its nuclear program in exchange for the relaxation of tough sanctions, the Islamic Republic had deployed nearly 20,000 centrifuges.
Estimates suggest those centrifuges could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb in as little as 45 days—the so-called breakout period. They have already generated a stockpile of low-enriched uranium sufficient to produce as many as seven nuclear bombs. Some believe that Iran could convert a bomb’s worth of uranium into the payload of a crude nuclear device in perhaps a few months.
Negotiators could not reach a final deal by the initial November 2014 deadline, so extensions were devised. The new deadline comes at the end of June. Press reports and administration statements are providing us with a picture of what America and the other nations in the negotiations are now hoping to achieve. They are trying to use various technical means and human oversight to slow down Iran’s breakout time from a few months to one year and ensure that a deal lasts at least a decade. In exchange for these concessions, they appear ready to enshrine Iran as a threshold nuclear state.
Over the course of the negotiations, America and the other nations have dropped their demand that Iran close the Arak and Fordow nuclear facilities—two of the four such installations we know of—and have gone from demanding that Iran keep only a few hundred centrifuges to permitting it to have more than 6,000. They have relaxed their request for information on Iran’s prior work on nuclear weaponization. And they have cut the envisioned length of the deal, from 20 years to what President Barack Obama confirmed, during a Reuters interview in early March, as “10 years or longer.”
These concessions fit a long-term pattern. If a nuclear deal is imminent, that is largely because over the past 13 years of on-and-off negotiations, the great powers of the world have slowly but surely given in to Iran’s demands. As Iran has flouted United Nations resolutions demanding a halt to its program, those nations have steadily softened their terms. Instead of ending the threat of Iranian nuclearization, negotiators have apparently limited their ambitions to an attempt to regulate it—an idea that, given the record of Iran’s lack of even rudimentary compliance with international law, is wishful thinking.
How did we get here? In speaking with nearly 30 experts and veterans of both the Bush and Obama administrations, I’ve found one core factor at the heart of this outcome: the desire to avoid military engagement with Iran at all costs—and, particularly during the Obama administration, the fear of even threatening it. Without a credible threat to use force, the United States has relied on tools that alone could never have compelled the Islamic Republic of Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
Convinced that the United States would not attack, Iran has largely dictated the terms. The history of negotiating with Iran suggests that no matter the result of the next round of diplomacy—full agreement, another extension, or collapse—the Iran talks have failed.
The ‘Bush Left Us with No Choice’ Explanation
Conversations with several former Obama officials intimately involved in the Iran negotiations suggest that one key justification for the current strategy is that the Bush administration left Obama with few options. They argue that a combination of the Iraq war morass and the Bush administration’s belated and half-hearted diplomacy allowed Iran to reach a point of no return in its nuclear program before Obama took office.
The world learned of the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear program in 2002. “From 2003 to 2005,” a former State Department official who worked in both the Bush and Obama administrations said, “the people making decisions were convinced that [Iraq] would stabilize, and then we’d look for the next bad guys to take down.” During that time, the Bush administration kept its distance from the negotiations between the Europeans and Iran. Only when “Iraq fell apart,” said the official, “and we realized there wasn’t going to be another military action, we decided to deal with what we had.”
Even after the administration decided to engage with Iran, it had a precondition: It would not negotiate until Tehran suspended enrichment. “It was a huge mistake,” the former State Department official told me. “It was an ultimatum that [the Bush administration] had no chance to sustain.” The Obama team believes that by holding such a hard line, the Bush administration missed several opportunities to pressure Iran into sacrificing its entire domestic enrichment program. “There was a point in time, with the pressure we had—even in 2005, before Iraq was at its worst—I think we could have stopped them,” the official added.
Former members of the Bush administration contend they initially avoided diplomacy because they believed that the Iranian regime might simply collapse. Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2001 to 2005, wrote in War and Decision that at the outset of the war on terror, “the Iranian regime looked unpopular and perhaps brittle.” Many in the Bush administration thought that the passage of time might sweep the mullahs away “through domestic political upheaval.” As a result, the Bush team feared that direct engagement with the ayatollahs could give them prestige and thus relieve their isolation.
Bush officials acknowledge that the Iraq war overshadowed their efforts on Iran. Asked where Iran ranked on the administration’s list of priorities, Philip Zelikow said it was “certainly in the top five or six issues.” But Eliot Cohen, who served in both the Pentagon and the State Department in the Bush years, told me, “There were so many other things going on” that Iran “wasn’t the central thing.” Said Cohen: “There was not enough energy left in the system to deal with Iran.” Other officials echoed this theme. Elliott Abrams, a deputy National Security Council director, said that “other issues at the top of the list” crowded out Iran. Another former National Security Council official put it succinctly: “Iran was very important but never urgent, which is a terrible place to be.”
Although the Bush administration remained skeptical of Iran’s intentions, the Iraq war clearly prevented it from seriously considering any kind of military action. When the insurgency mired the United States in Iraq, the Iranians “breathed a sigh of relief,” as a former senior Pentagon official said, because they recognized that “there was no tolerance for another war.” During the second term, Cohen said, “in terms of a military threat, the Bush administration was unpopular and so consumed with other matters that there wasn’t going to be enough energy” for a strike. And once Robert Gates had replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in late 2006 and Washington had launched the “surge” in Iraq in 2007, Abrams said, “it was tough to have a threat of military action” against Iran. In his memoirs, published in 2014, Gates repeatedly emphasizes that “avoiding new wars” constantly stood “at the top of my agenda.” So great was his fear that he told King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that if the president launched a war against Iran, “he would likely be impeached.”
But the history is more complicated than that. While America never seemed capable of aiming a direct threat at Iran when the nuclear program grew more substantial in the latter Bush years, the fact remains that the Iraq war itself initially aided Western efforts to halt Iran’s progress. According to several sources, U.S. intelligence indicated that in the months following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran was riven with anxiety that it might come next. That fear probably drove the Iranians into negotiations with Europe in 2003. In those so-called E3 talks, the Iranians agreed to suspend enrichment—the only time they have done so in more than a decade of negotiations.
Michael Singh, a senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2005 to 2008, claims that the E3 negotiations “were about ensuring that Iran escape the peril of an invasion unscathed.” This suggests that when the United States had a high degree of credibility as a forceful actor, Iran made some of its greatest concessions to date.
But from 2005 onward, the U.S. effort toward Iran took a different course: a two-track approach of sanctions and negotiations. Washington began framing the nuclear negotiations as part of a multitrack campaign across a number of fronts, from terrorism to human rights. “The strategy had three parts,” Zelikow told me. “Part one was to develop a sense of what the objectives were, part two was to put significant pressure on Iran that we knew would require a wide multilateral effort, and part three was to reinvigorate a diplomatic option that would be potentially interesting to Iran and would be seen by our allies as a legitimate diplomatic opportunity.”
By reviving diplomacy, Rice and Zelikow hoped, they would “create possibilities for support on plank two—you needed a real diplomatic effort to build a strong multilateral pressure strategy.” By pursuing negotiations, the Bush administration would either discover an Iran willing to bargain or expose its intransigence.
While Rice led the diplomatic push, the Treasury Department drove the second part of the strategy: financial pressure. The U.S. government launched an unprecedented sanctions campaign against Iran. Instead of levying a classic trade embargo that would harm Iranian civilians, the Treasury targeted Iran’s banks specifically. It sought to constrict Iran’s access to the international financial system by exposing how Tehran used its banks to advance its nuclear program. The sanctions, Treasury officials hoped, would scare private institutions away from Iran. Banks and businesses would fear the reputational and financial risks of operating in the Islamic Republic.
“Sanctions were an attempt at multiple strategic impacts,” said Juan Zarate, who as an official at the Treasury and the National Security Council helped coordinate them. “First, we aimed to constrain their budget and force them to make harder choices about what they’d spend on.” Second, he said, Washington sought to disrupt Iran’s nuclear development by preventing the regime from acquiring equipment. And most important, sanctions were designed to “impose enough costs on the economy to affect the internal calculus in Tehran” and convince the regime that its nuclear program was not worth the financial pain.
Iran met each wave of diplomatic outreach from the newly christened P5+1—the five nations of the U.N. Security Council and Germany—with continued intransigence, and the United States seized on each rejection to push for more sanctions. Over the next two years, from 2006 to 2008, the U.N. Security Council would pass three resolutions levying new sanctions. These measures legitimized a series of deepening U.S. and European sanctions that cut off Iran from the international financial system.
The strategy proved so appealing that the Obama administration largely embraced it. The continuity is striking. “There is a lot of similarity in the basic strategy through to Obama,” Zelikow told me. Obama officials agree. Said veteran Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross, who served as a special assistant to the president: “The Obama administration adopted the dual-track approach. The concept was the same: Be prepared to talk, but build pressure if Iran isn’t responsive.” Ray Takeyh, who served with Ross in the State Department, said that Obama “took Rice’s idea and has been spearheading that policy since.”
The Obama administration used the dual-track strategy to cripple the Iranian economy. Sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and its central bank probably contributed to the election of the man who is now its president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2013, and to Tehran’s increased willingness to negotiate. Thanks to U.S. efforts over the past five years, “we’re now in a situation where we are using our leverage to gain a negotiated solution,” one former negotiator in Obama’s State Department told me.
But if the P5+1 thought its financial leverage would produce a final settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue, it hasn’t worked. By signing the interim accord in November 2013, Iran took one step back from the nuclear brink—and was rewarded for it with roughly $700 million per month in sanctions relief and an improved business climate that helped revive its economy. Since then, despite endless rounds of late-night negotiating sessions, Iran has refused to reduce its nuclear capacity. As Iran extracts greater and greater concessions from the United States, it is clear, Takeyh told me, that the dual-track approach has become “unworkable.” As one former member of the Obama negotiating team put it, “I don’t think the leverage we have now will do it.”
The ‘Something Wonderful Is Going to Happen’ Explanation
Some Iran-watchers, on the other hand, think that the negotiations have worked well. They believe these talks may prove to be a crowning achievement, the opening to a wider reconciliation with Iran that could remake the Middle East.
Joseph Cirincione, a prominent non-proliferation activist in Washington, is one of them. “The nuclear deal is the beginning of a possible détente with Iran,” he told me. He compares it to the U.S. diplomatic opening to China in the 1970s and argues that the deal could affect “the geopolitical orientation of the United States” for decades to come. “The possibilities,” he said, “are quite sweeping.” Another ardent supporter of the negotiations, former U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar, has written that a deal could lead to “a more engaged Iran” that is “less likely to support terrorism and more likely to collaborate with the United States in ways that will serve American interests and the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East.” According to their perspective, a deal with Iran could represent a once-in-a-generation breakthrough in the most volatile region on the planet.
President Obama and some members of his inner circle have suggested that they share this view. Obama has said that Iran could become a “very successful regional power” in the wake of a deal—a statement he made after he told the New Yorker that if Iran began operating “in a responsible fashion,” it could underpin an “equilibrium” with Sunni Gulf states “in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not active or proxy warfare.”
Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, told reporters last fall that the United States and Iran “have the potential to do important business with each other” and that a nuclear deal “could begin a multigenerational process that could lead to a new relationship between our countries.” And in comments to a group of White House supporters last January, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said that the negotiations are “the best opportunity we’ve had to resolve the Iranian issue diplomatically” and the “biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy.” Dennis Ross confirmed to me that “there has always been a real constituency in the administration that has believed…that a nuclear deal could be a game changer.”
President Obama is the inspiration and probably the author of the rosy vision of what an Iran deal could bring. From the earliest days of his campaign, he spoke of engineering a new approach to Iran based on “aggressive personal diplomacy” and “carrots” to encourage a “change in behavior.” Indeed, officials with whom I spoke believed outreach to Iran was a foregone conclusion—one of the originating ideas of his foreign policy.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has demonstrated a yearning for compromise with the Islamic Republic. His Cairo speech in 2009 made this clear; Iran fit the mold of the regime rooted in Islam with which he sought to work. Around the time of the Cairo address, Obama sent the first of several letters he would write to the Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful figure, over the next six years, seeking an improvement in relations. The president’s silence during the Green Revolution also spoke to his desire, harking back to 2007, to forge a new relationship with Iran that would define regional order in the post–Iraq era.
From the Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS, Obama’s goal of reconciliation has been constant. Even as he increased pressure on Tehran, he never abandoned coaxing it into rapprochement. He greeted Iranian intransigence with private back channels, taking care not to encroach on Iranian spheres of interest, such as Syria. In the past two years, Washington and Tehran began tacitly cooperating in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, with U.S. forces working alongside Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iranian leaders ordering their Iraqi proxies not to attack U.S. bases. U.S. officials fear that supporting anti-Assad militants in Syria could harm such cooperation; one senior military official told the Wall Street Journal that the United States and Iran “have a common enemy, a common goal, everybody is moving in the same direction.” The president’s chief negotiator, Secretary of State John Kerry, has embodied the president’s zeal for friendly relations. Trading personal emails with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Kerry, as the New York Times put it, has become a “driving force” behind the nuclear negotiations.
The problem with the idea of bringing Iran into the community of nations is that Iran shows no interest whatsoever in being part of that community. Less than a decade ago, the Islamic Republic orchestrated an insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq that killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers. In 2011, the Justice Department accused Iran of a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington at Café Milano in the capital. Iran has not altered its behavior under the purportedly more moderate Rouhani, either. Even as it implicitly collaborates with Washington against ISIS, Tehran has fueled the sectarian strife that helped foster the Islamic State in the first place. Its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the Houthi tribe in Yemen has only worsened Shia–Sunni conflict across the Middle East and encouraged discord with Israel. In January, an Israeli helicopter strike killed six members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards—the unit responsible for Iran’s many acts of international terror—only miles from Syria’s border with the Jewish state.
The Case for the Talks
While Obama may have flirted with Iran as a partner throughout his presidency, his negotiators, seasoned by experience, began to doubt Iran’s intentions. So they were heartened by the election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, because they thought they might have found someone to talk with. “Rouhani was elected on the platform of getting sanctions lifted and putting the economy on track,” Robert Einhorn, who served on the U.S. negotiating team from 2009 to 2013, told me. “He understood that lifting sanctions required a nuclear agreement.”
With Rouhani in charge, the Iranians seemed more interested in negotiating. A former White House staffer recalls “being in New York in September 2013,” in the midst of negotiations over the interim accord, and finding that while “these were still Iranians, at the same time they were normal humans—we’d talk about the weather, our families.”
But as the nuclear negotiations continued past their first deadline in July 2014 and then their extended deadline last November, some members of the Obama team began to recognize that Rouhani would not deliver what they had hoped he might. Behind the reasonable veneer of the Iranian president and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, the Islamic Republic refused to compromise on its basic goal of retaining the ability to become an industrial-scale nuclear power.
Even so, several former Obama officials insist that even if Tehran won’t yield on its nuclear program to the extent that Washington hoped, the negotiating process is the best of bad options. They begin their argument by emphasizing that the interim accord has kept Iran’s nuclear program in check. “Iran has not outmaneuvered us,” Einhorn insisted to me. “It’s in a situation where its nuclear program is frozen in all important respects and sanctions remain in place.” Responding to criticism that the accord permits Iran to continue research and development, Einhorn explained that such work “is very constrained. They can do mechanical testing, but they can’t mass-produce any of their more advanced centrifuges” under the terms of the deal. As a result, he argued, time is on Washington’s side. With the sanctions largely in place, “Iran isn’t in a great spot.”
Zelikow, the former Bush administration State Department official, also believes that the interim accord put Iran in an uncomfortable position. “When you do the calculations on what they are losing, it’s enormous in comparison, and I think they know this,” he told me. By freezing the nuclear program in certain vital respects, he contended, the United States seized the advantage: “Either that will cause a fundamental change of some kind on the Iranian side, or let’s say Iran is irredeemable—we can contain the development of the program and try to limit their power for as long as possible.”
Einhorn admits that Washington would have preferred Tehran to accept better terms in the talks, such as a full suspension of enrichment. Yet he and others argue that there are no better alternatives: “They won’t do it. Should we walk away because of that?” If the administration were to leave the talks, he said, Iran would boost enrichment back to dangerously high levels, begin feeding uranium gas into its 10,000 idle centrifuges, and deploy more advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium more quickly. The United States would have to respond by increasing sanctions on crude oil, perhaps aiming for a total ban on the purchase of Iranian crude. But China would probably say “go jump in a lake, we’re not committing energy suicide for you.”
A former Obama State Department negotiator expanded on the point about lacking further sanctions leverage: “I think that we had imposed a lot of the most important sanctions that we could on Iran in 2011–2012,” he explained. “There are returns on leverage, but we’re in the curve of diminishing returns.”
What About the Threat of Force?
The alternative that no former negotiator mentioned is the use of force. Many of the former officials I spoke to assumed that the Obama administration is highly unlikely to approve a military strike of any kind against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
To be sure, President Obama has reiterated many times that when it comes to Iran, “all options are on the table” and that the United States “will not hesitate to use force.” This is hard to believe, and indeed, several senior officials in the administration emphasize the administration’s overwhelming reluctance to consider a military option. In 2010, for example, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that a strike “will only…bring together a divided nation, it will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons, and they will just go deeper and more covert.” A nonmilitary solution, he argued, is “the only long-term solution.”
That same year, Admiral Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a forum at Columbia: “Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome…In an area that’s so unstable right now, we just don’t need more of that.” In 2011, Leon Panetta, who succeeded Gates, said an attack might not result “in really deterring Iran from what they want to do” and warned of unintended consequences. “Our public talking points were always ‘force remains on the table,’ a former Obama NSC staffer told me, “but it was evident to anyone with a pulse that we wanted to avoid that.”
If the Obama administration superficially insisted that all options remained on the table before, it now appears ready to abandon even the pretense. “With respect to military action,” a senior U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal at the end of February, “a diplomatic resolution is the only verifiable way” to prevent an Iranian bomb. “The use of military action would likely ensure that Iran would break out and acquire nuclear weapons.” In recent weeks, the Journal reported, several other Obama officials have “voiced similar views.” Such comments suggest that even if the talks collapse, the Obama administration will fall back on new reasons to explain why the use of force doesn’t make sense.
The administration is undoubtedly correct in arguing that war with Iran could prove extraordinarily dangerous and perhaps even fruitless. Such a conflict could lead to a regional war in exchange for a relatively minor delay in Iran’s nuclear program, while driving Tehran’s effort further underground.
But Obama supporters and officials have often implied that there is only one option for the use of force: a large-scale knockout punch not only targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities but threatening the regime’s survival, one that might involve not only aerial attacks but naval and ground support. Such an operation, they argue, would probably invite a fierce response involving a strike on Israel and perhaps terrorist outbreaks in Europe and the targeting of American interests around the globe—a scenario they lay out with relish because it appears so unattractive that no one could possibly support it.
But this disregards another viable option: a surgical strike, relying on air power alone, that would seek only to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Members of the administration say they don’t believe this approach would work. In a 2012 Foreign Affairs debate, for example, administration official Colin Kahl argued that the United States shouldn’t merely “punch Iran in the nose and back off.” That would only give Iran the capability to respond more forcefully later and, he wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, “would not create a sufficient threat to the survival of the regime to compel it to dismantle its program completely.” That theory is perhaps too convenient. A successful surgical strike could cripple the program indefinitely if not dissuade Iran from resuming it entirely. It could in fact lead to the kind of wider war that the White House fears. But it exposes that the choice isn’t necessarily between continuing down this diplomatic debacle and waging a regional war with U.S. forces on the ground.
The issue isn’t so much how to use force but how best to threaten using it. The Obama administration may have been prudent to avoid suggesting that it would launch a comprehensive blow that could lead to full-scale war. Sending troops into Iran isn’t wise or viable—and therefore not particularly credible. A surgical strike, on the other hand, is a perfectly credible approach. Israel has demonstrated that twice, with strikes on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities. The United States used its air power alone to devastating effect in Bosnia to end the genocide there. Moreover, it clearly has the technological capability to deliver a crippling strike on Iran. In dismissing the surgical approach, members of the Obama administration have distorted the debate about military action and taken the most credible threat—the only one that gives the negotiations real teeth—off the table.
Assuming, as the Obama administration appears to do, that the consequences of any kind of strike outweigh the risks of an advancing Iranian nuclear program, the only remaining option is to buy time. Under that logic, the two-track approach becomes less a tool for pressure than a delaying tactic. The negotiations process becomes an end in itself. Keeping the talks alive means that further delay is possible; ending the talks means only capitulation or war.
What We Have Already Conceded
So this, then, is where we are.
For fear of ending the negotiations, or out of a desperate and unreasonable hope for a bright and friendly future, the White House has stopped short of steps that could increase pressure on Iran. We have accommodated and even welcomed Iranian domination of Iraq. We have largely ceded Syria and Lebanon as Iranian spheres of influence. We have all but ignored Iran’s continued enthusiasm for terrorism. And we have remained effectively silent about Iran’s atrocious human-rights record.
Even as several former Obama officials I spoke with insisted that they had no illusions about the character of the regime, they still predicted that a deal would magically lead to reform. “If you get a deal, hopefully relations begin to improve,” a former staffer explained, “and then Khamenei will die and we can get a different Supreme Leader, a more moderate leader” who might cooperate with the United States. Hoping that a 75-year-old man will die soon is not exactly a sound strategy.
Bush’s inability to use military action devolved into Obama’s unwillingness to consider it. It is a basic negotiating principle that diplomatic negotiations with a hostile actor must be backed by the threat of force if they are to prove effective. President Obama became so allergic to the idea of a strike that his team scorned it publicly and jettisoned options that could conceivably lead to it. In doing so, he reduced American leverage. Elevating process over substance, the administration defended each new concession with the same rhetorical resignation: “What’s the alternative?” And it liberated the Iranians to demand what amounts to a slow-motion acceptance of the Islamic Republic as a nuclear power. Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March, National Security Adviser Susan Rice described hopes of prohibiting Iran from enriching uranium as “neither realistic nor achievable.”
A successful negotiation, in the Obama administration’s terms, now risks allowing Iran the legal right to establish an industrial-scale nuclear program a decade from now and still be dominated by the same brutal, expansionist leadership. The world has little reason other than hope to think that Iran will stop short from going nuclear over the next decade if at any moment it believes it can do so at little or no cost. At which point our diplomatic failure will become a global disaster that might force the United States to fight—under far worse and far more dangerous circumstances—the very battles it has spent years trying to avoid.