Obama’s Iran deal: Better than nothing?

If Iran wants nuclear weapons, it will have them. The question is, will the Iran that gets nukes be an economic dynamo, or will its economy be crippled?

Nuclear centrifuge (for illustrative purposes only)
Nuclear centrifuge (for illustrative purposes only)

WASHINGTON, April 11, 2015 – American and Israeli critics of the Obama Administration are unhappy with the emerging framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran. In an April 7 Wall Street Journal column, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz wrote “Negotiations … to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability.”

President Obama’s goal in 2012 was “that they end their nuclear program” and “abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place.” His “key parameters” for an agreement have apparently been abandoned, as none of Iran’s nuclear facilities will be shut down. It will keep its centrifuges and its uranium stockpiles. Most of its centrifuges will enrich xenon and germanium rather than uranium for ten years, though 5,000 will continue to enrich uranium.

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In 15 years, all restrictions will be lifted.

Once a deal is reached, there will be no going back.

Obama claims we can snap back sanctions if Iran cheats, but that’s not true. It took a great deal of effort to get Russia, China, and the rest of the world on board with sanctions. Once they’re dropped, no one will want to lose business with Iran to reimpose them.

When sanctions are gone, they’ll be gone for good.

Obama has demanded of his critics that they give him some alternatives to a deal. Yet he himself has said that no deal would be better than a bad deal.

The framework is not the deal, and it could easily fall apart. One important reason is the technical details that those who celebrate the framework think will resolve into a dew and vanish in the sunlight. They won’t. The technical issues are formidable, and Obama’s team must resolve them sufficiently to allay concerns not just of the Senate, but of the Sunni states in the Middle East.

If Saudi Arabia is not convinced that an agreement will prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons rather than ensure that result, the agreement will spark nuclear proliferation, a result it is supposed to prevent.

The continuing wars in Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen could derail an agreement. Obama has dismissed his critics for preferring “the risk of another war in the Middle East” to an agreement, but the Middle East is already aflame with war.

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Iran’s role in those wars will strengthen the hand of those who want to punish Iran further rather than end sanctions.

But let’s suppose the framework becomes a deal, and Congress can’t find a way to veto it. Is the deal suggested by the framework better than nothing?

If it used just the 9,000 first generation centrifuges at its Natanz fuel enrichment plant, Iran could produce sufficient enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb in just under two months. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that Iran has about 1,000 of its more advanced IR-2m centrifuges at the same enrichment plant; those could do the job more quickly.

The IAEA believes that Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpiles (3.5 percent U235, the fissile isotope of uranium) total just over 14,000 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride. The amount ready for further enrichment, that is, stored in gaseous form, is just under 8,000 kg, with just over 1,000 kg sufficient to provide enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb.

Thus, Iran has enough gaseous uranium hexafluoride to build seven weapons in under a year.

If it were willing to build weapons no more powerful than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki using less uranium and more advanced designs, Iran could have 14 weapons or more within a year.quest

Iran has had the necessary uranium and gas centrifuges to enrich it into a bomb since 2009, and it has had access to nuclear weapons designs since then as well.

Are economic sanctions sufficient to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons? Obviously not. Iran’s breakout time to nuclear capability is already measured in months, not years, and it has been for about five years. If it hasn’t built a nuclear arsenal, it is because it hasn’t been in its interest to do so until now.

The point of diplomacy, negotiations and a treaty with Iran are to keep Iran’s non-nuclear status in place. Critics of the process are wrong in at least one important regard: A bad treaty won’t allow Iran to build nukes. The horses already fled that barn.

At issue then is what kind of Iran will or won’t be building those nukes.

With a GDP of about $1 trillion, Iran is the 19th largest economy in the world. It has a population of almost 80 million. With half a million men in uniform and the largest industrial base in the region, Iran is the most powerful nation in the Middle East, excepting Israel and its estimated arsenal of up to 400 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.

What Iran needs to emerge as an industrial and technological dynamo for the region is the end to sanctions and trade with the West. Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons to be the dominant force in the region. It doesn’t need nuclear weapons to be the Middle Eastern superpower. It needs the end to sanctions.

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The end of sanctions will leave Iran much more capable and much more dangerous than it is. The end of sanctions serves the strategic interests of Iran much more than the mere possession of nuclear weapons does.

The end of sanctions will leave us with a conventionally armed Iran more capable of committing mayhem than a sanctioned but nuclear Iran.

So is a bad agreement worse than no agreement? We could argue that without regime change in Iran, any agreement would be worse than no agreement. Any agreement will of necessity end sanctions, and Iran as a regional technological and economic superpower is worse than Iran with its economy kept shackled.

But that Iran will eventually be a nuclear power – an isolated, hostile and aggressive one. Obama is right that, unless we’re prepared to destroy Iran, we are better of engaging with it. He is also right when he says that Iran’s military will be no match for ours.

That will be no comfort to Iran’s neighbors, though. Iran doesn’t have to be able to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. in a shooting war in order to be a deadly threat to regional and world stability.

The U.S. is caught between Scylla and Charybdis. There are no safe choices. An isolated, nuclear Iran is a deadly threat. An Iranian regional superpower unfettered by sanctions under the current leadership poses a deadly threat. An unfettered Iran with nuclear weapons poses a deadly threat.

The question, then, is which of those deadly threats is the one we can best manage? Will anyone trust the U.S. to manage it?

The success of any deal with Iran ultimately rests less on the technical details of centrifuge numbers and verification regimes than with the credibility of the U.S. government. How Obama addresses his critics and reassures the Saudis and Israel of our wisdom and determination matters more than the location of Iran’s uranium. American resolve or the lack of it is more important to world security than the framework of a deal with Iran.

And from that perspective, the omens are cold and uncomforting.

The framework is flawed, but until we remember how to act like a superpower and convince the world that we understand that role, no framework will make us safer. The hard work of making the Middle East safer will not take place in Switzerland or Tehran, but here in the U.S.


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  • Thomas Brady

    In terms of understanding the various factions in the Middle East, I’ve found Martin Luther’s work on the Jews to be the best introduction to that particular tribe; especially for reading by those of us with a European heritage.

  • Andy Dufresne

    Obama’s claim that Al Qaeda and ISIS are somehow equivalent to a junior varsity basketball team seems rather delusional.

  • Hans Ohff

    We need to keep in mind that the only difference between a Planned Parenthood abortionist and a Sharia Executioner is the tools they use.