Chicanery and Resignation as Iran Nuclear Talks Approach Their Conclusion

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Amid growing speculation that the P-5 nuclear talks with Iran might be extended pass a November 24 deadline, there were several developments this week that further muddied the waters over the nuclear negotiations.

  1. NYT says Obama plans to sidestep Congress on an Iran deal

An October 19 New York Times article by David Sanger said the Obama administration “will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress have a vote” on a final nuclear deal with Iran. Sanger also said the president intends to suspend sanctions without Congressional consent.

Although some talking heads got worked up over Sanger’s article, none of this is news.

Since a nuclear agreement with Iran will not be a treaty, it will not be subject to Senate ratification. Last July, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) tried to give Congress a role in approving the agreement by submitting an amendment requiring congressional review of any final agreement with Iran. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to allow this amendment be put to a vote.

Concerning Iran sanctions, Congress has always given presidents the leeway to suspend sanctions if he believes this is in the interests of the United States. The president has already unilaterally suspended some Iran sanctions. Those of us who follow the Iranian nuclear issue have long known the president would unilaterally suspend most of the remaining sanctions after a final nuclear deal was reached.

Several members of Congress expressed their irritation with the Obama administration after the Sanger article. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said on Wednesday that the House will not sit idly by while the Obama administration negotiates a deal with Iran. House Foreign Affairs Committee member Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said “I disagree with the administration’s reported assertion that it does not need to come to Congress at this point during negotiations with Iran.”

Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) said “Congress will not permit the president to unilaterally unravel Iran sanctions that passed the Senate in a 99-to-0 vote.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) recently said “If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond. An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.” Menendez has said he may push new sanctions against Iran if a final agreement is not reached by November 24.

  1. Do Iran’s recent steps to dilute some of its enriched uranium mean Tehran is serious about reaching a deal on its nuclear program?

Reuters reported on Monday that a new IAEA report said Iran diluted 4,100 kg of 2% enriched uranium to the natural uranium level (0.7% uranium-235). While some may portray this as an important gesture indicating Tehran wants to negotiate a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program, this move actually will have little impact on the threat from Iran’s nuclear program because its large stockpile of reactor-grade uranium was unaffected. Where this batch 2% enriched uranium enriched came from is unclear. However, a September 2014 IAEA report specified this was a separate batch from Iran’s 12,464 kg of reactor-grade uranium (enriched to 3 to 5%). Iran can still make 7-8 nuclear weapons from its reactor-grade uranium stockpile if this uranium was further enriched to weapons-grade.

  1. New U.S. Concessions

The Iranian news service Mehr reported this week that the Obama administration has offered to allow Iran to operate 4,000 uranium centrifuges. Iran is using centrifuges to enrich uranium to reactor-grade and could easily adapt them to enrich to weapons-grade. Iran has 19,000 centrifuges but only about 9,000 are currently operational.

If this report is true it is consistent with previous reports of U.S. offers allowing Iran to operate 1,500-4,500 centrifuges if it converted any uranium it enriched to uranium power. As I explained in an October 2 National Review Online article, these previous concessions would do little to stop or slow Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Whether or not the U.S. actually made the offer reported by the Iranian news service, this report confirms what appears to be the disturbing direction of the nuclear talks: the United States has conceded to Iran the right to enrich uranium and is now negotiating the size of an Iranian enrichment program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got it right when he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell earlier this month that Iran’s centrifuges “are only good for one thing: to make bomb-grade material.” This is why Israel seeks the full dismantlement of Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure and its heavy-water plutonium reactor.

U.S. Iran policy has drifted further than most Americans realize under this administration.   While Obama officials and the foreign policy establishment dismissed Netanyahu‘s sobering words as unreasonable and extreme, he expressed what was the official U.S. position until January 2009.

  1. Dennis Ross Thinks There Could be a Partial Nuclear Deal with Iran

Dennis Ross, a former State Department officer who served as a special adviser to the Obama administration for the Persian Gulf, said in an October 15 Foreign Affairs article that “ultimately, there appears to be little likelihood of a comprehensive deal at the present time” because Iran is demanding a roll back of all sanctions and wants to operate industrial-scale uranium enrichment with limited transparency about its nuclear program. Ross claims the West will only permit a small enrichment program and wants full transparency.

Ross thinks a partial deal which “contains” Iran’s nuclear program and prevents Tehran from moving closer to a nuclear “breakout” capability – the ability to produce enough weapons-grade fuel for one nuclear weapon – would be a good outcome for the nuclear talks. Ross says this might also be achieved by a “muddling through” strategy under which Iran would agree to limit its nuclear program and the West would not impose additional sanctions. Under such a scenario, the nuclear talks would be suspended for a few months but bilateral talks with Tehran would continue.

Ross’ piece was probably a trial balloon by the Obama administration to weigh alternatives to a final deal with Iran.   His proposals are troubling because they perpetuate the fiction that last fall’s interim deal with Iran and the deal currently being negotiated push Iran back from a nuclear breakout. In fact, Iran passed that threshold years ago and can currently make enough nuclear fuel for one nuclear bomb in three to five weeks.

The current understandings with Iran allow Tehran to continue to enrich uranium and keep a huge stockpile of reactor-grade uranium which could be used to fuel 7-8 nuclear weapons if this uranium was enriched to weapons-grade. Iran also has been permitted during this year’s nuclear talks to install new centrifuge designs that may be four to 16 times more efficient. These are unacceptable concessions that Ross is proposing be made permanent under a partial deal with Iran or through a muddling through strategy.

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