WASHINGTON, November 24, 2014 — The November 24 deadline for a nuclear accord between Iran and the West came today with the two sides still divided by numerous technical issues. They agreed to push the deadline back by seven months.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that “real and substantial progress” has been made to a treaty, but “some significant points of disagreement” remain. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced on Iranian state television, “It is true that we could not reach an agreement but we can still say that big steps have been taken.”
The likelihood of success as been widely viewed as remote for several weeks, though both Kerry, President Obama and the Iranians have been anxious to see the deal struck.
The economic costs of sanctions to the United States and the EU have been high, though undoubtedly lower than the high-end estimates published by the National Iranian American Council. NIAC put lost export revenue to the U.S. between 1995 and 2012 at $175 billion, with 50,000 to 65,000 potential jobs lost every year. The estimate for 2008 was up to 279,000 potential jobs lost. EU losses are believed to be double those of the U.S.
If those numbers are high, independent experts believe that they are at least in the right ballpark. In terms of the overall U.S. economy, though, the impact is quite small. The more serious impact is on Iran.
If the impact on the U.S. is relatively slight, that raises the question of why Obama and Kerry are so anxious to reach an agreement. In Kerry’s case, the anxiety to sign an agreement has led him to accept personal humiliation and abuse at the hands of his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Zarif has been reported by several sources to shout at Western diplomats, including Kerry. At times the shouting has been furious enough to alarm the bodyguards outside the conference rooms. According to Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi as quoted in the Iranian press, Kerry’s response to the shouting on one occasion was to fall silent, except for “one or two very respectful sentences.”
Though Iran needs an agreement much more than the U.S. does, Obama and Kerry have staked much of their foreign policy prestige on an agreement. Iranian dissident Saeid Ghasseminejad told the Washington Free Beacon that, “The problem with the nuclear negotiations is that everybody knows how desperately this administration wants a deal.”
Administration desperation over an agreement is, as Ghasseminejad observes, widely known. This has given Iran the upper hand in a situation where it shouldn’t have it, and has led Obama’s team to concede some important points.
The most important of these is sanctions relief. The Obama Administration has offered to lift sanctions up front, before Iran has fulfilled its side of the deal. The administration argues that it can snapback the sanctions if Iran breaks the agreement, though once trade has been reestablished, there would be a great deal of political pressure not to do that.
A second issue has to do with centrifuges. Uranium is enriched by means of high-speed centrifuges which are able to separate the lighter, fissile U235 isotope from the heavier U238 isotope. Natural uranium is about 0.72 percent U235. Enriched uranium for nuclear power production is 3-5 percent U235. Nuclear weapons require uranium enriched to over 90 percent U235.
Iran has been enriching uranium to 20 percent with about 10,000 centrifuges. It could very quickly further enrich that uranium to weapon grade, especially if it takes the number of centrifuges to 18,000, as it has planned. If the number of centrifuges were cut to 4,000, breakout to enough weapon-grade uranium for bomb construction to begin would take almost a year.
American administrations have consistently demanded that Iran cease to enrich uranium and that it dismantle the centrifuges. The Obama Administration has recognized Iran’s inalienable right to enrich uranium and has shifted the demand from dismantling the centrifuges to unplugging them. It has also decided not to insist that the heavy-water reactor which Iran is building in Arak and which is suitable for the production of plutonium 239, another fissile material for making nuclear weapons, be converted to a light-water reactor.
In spite of these concessions, which are extraordinary, Iran wants more. Iran has a history of deception on its nuclear program, making verification a high priority. A Reuters report suggests that the Obama Administration is prepared to waive a demand that Iran disclose the history of its program, which will make verification an exercise in imagination.
If Obama and Kerry are determined to win an important foreign policy success, the nuclear negotiations with Iran would be an excellent place to do it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the administration defines success as actual nuclear non-proliferation or regional security, but as a signed agreement. Iran knows it, and so does every other country in the region, hence administration initiatives in this regard are as likely to end in chaos and heightened peril as its other foreign policies. Unless another nation acts, a nuclear Iran is a near inevitability.