In yesterday’s State of the Union address President Obama spoke stridently of how “American diplomacy … has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program—and rolled back parts of that program.” The president spoke with apparent pride of the “peaceful” efforts being taken to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. How then to explain the fact that less than twenty-four hours after that speech was given, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was being informed that Iran essentially already has breakout capacity for building the bomb should it wish to do so?

While presenting the annual report on the worldwide threat assessment before the committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spoke of Iran’s extensive progress in expanding its nuclear and military infrastructure, including further work on its heavy-water facility at Arak. Clapper stated that “these technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.” In a roundabout way, it would seem that we are being told that Iran is now ready and able to get the bomb, and all that remains to be seen is whether it is willing. With that comes the implication that this “political willingness” is the last thing that we might have any leverage over.

Under the current agreement, reached in Geneva last fall, Iran commits not to enrich uranium above five percent, rather than going to above twenty percent from which it is a quick and relatively simple process to reach the high weapons-grade materials needed for a bomb. The closest thing to good news that the annual report has on Iran is the claim that Iran would not be able to actually accomplish this final breakout without being detected. Cold comfort indeed, and not only for those countries within Iran’s immediate vicinity, but for all of us. For the annual report also stated that, in addition to its large stock of ballistic missiles, which have the capabilities for carrying a nuclear warhead, Iran’s space program gives it the ability to develop long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

What is perhaps most disheartening about this report is that because of the emphasis that it puts on the need to be able to monitor closely whether Iran is taking the final steps toward breakout, Clapper counsels that further sanctions would be counterproductive. In other words, the argument now seems to be that the U.S. must avoid imposing further sanctions, lest it disrupt the Iranians’ willingness to allow inspectors to monitor their ongoing and undismantled nuclear enrichment program. This sits in rather sharp contrast to the six United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a total halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment.

These sentiments essentially echo the argument being pushed by Obama himself when he says that he would veto Congress should it vote for the implementation of further sanctions against Iran. Having apparently gone to great lengths to prevent Israel from carrying out a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing that the military option threatened to jeopardize efforts on the negotiations and sanctions track, now we are told that sanctions too must be avoided because they threaten to jeopardize efforts on the monitoring track. In this way appeasement naturally necessitates more appeasement until the only thing that stands between Iran and genocidal weapons is Iran’s “political willingness,” or lack of it.

Even if we accept the assessment that places our last hope on our ability to closely monitor Iran’s nuclear activities, there remains the question of what would happen if inspectors discovered Iran to be in breach of any agreement. It would be too late to reassemble the sanctions in time for them to have any effect and by that point Iran’s nuclear network may have progressed beyond anything that could be destroyed by airstrikes. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable that our intelligence is flawed–it wouldn’t be the first time. If Iran has an unmonitored secret site where it is enriching to weapons-grade levels then all of Obama’s efforts to placate Iran by pulling apart the sanctions regime will have been in vain in any case.

It may, however, be worth noting that a poll by the Mellman group released yesterday revealed that 68 percent of American voters prefer the use of a military strike to the prospect of a nuclear Iran. They no doubt have made the commonsense assessment that leads one to conclude that if sanctions are not proving effective then a conventional military confrontation with Iran now, however unpleasant, is still preferable to a nuclear one later. It is sometimes hard to tell if the Obama administration has fully explored that same thought process.  

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