As everyone seems to be saying, there is less than a fortnight to go before we hit the Nov. 24 deadline for a final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. And as more and more people are forecasting, things aren't looking too good.
The issue isn't whether we get an agreement, but what kind of agreement we get. Moreover, if we don't get an agreement, what happens next?
Fundamentally, Western negotiators are being hampered by the same knowledge and intelligence gaps that have dogged the entire Iranian nuclear saga for more than a decade. Put simply, the Iranian regime's deliberately obstructive strategy has been to prevent inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from building up a true, verifiable picture of Iran's nuclear installations and capabilities. While IAEA experts are frequently very good at guessing what they haven't been told, the fact remains that the Obama administration is pushing for a deal without the critical data on which success depends.
Indeed, so unreliable have the Iranians been that the Joint of Plan of Action agreed to in Geneva on Nov. 24 last year wasn't actually implemented until January of this year, leaving Iran's uranium and plutonium production programs "significantly closer to breakout capacity than if the Joint Plan of Action had been implemented on Nov. 24, 2013," according to former IAEA deputy director general Dr. Olli Heinonen,
When I conducted a long interview with Heinonen earlier this year, he sounded a warning that may come to haunt those seeking an Iranian deal at almost any cost. "Everything that happens [with Iran's nuclear program] is at a known, declared place," he said. "There is no assurance that there isn't another enrichment plant under construction somewhere else."
This week, Heinonen was again highlighting Iran's duplicity with regard to what's known diplomatically as the PMD (Possible Military Dimensions) of the Iranian nuclear program. Speaking to the Sunday Times in London, Heinonen offered an independent assessment of Iran's nuclear capacity — specifically that Iran could have up to 5,000 IR-2m centrifuges, rather than the 1,008 it has claimed. The IR-2m devices are up to five times more effective in enriching uranium than their predecessor model.
Then, on a conference call organized by The Israel Project, Heinonen explained that with just 1,000 IR-2m centrifuges, Iran could enrich enough natural uranium to make a weapon in just one year. Were the Iranians to use their stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, the same number of centrifuges could produce the same result in six months. The addition of more centrifuges would simply speed up this process.
None of that exactly suggests that a forthcoming deal would arrest the mullahs' desire — which they insist they don't have! — to weaponize their nuclear program. Even the looming Nov. 24 deadline hasn't curbed the Iranian determination to circumvent restrictions on any nuclear activities that they are able to. And we are compelled to ask not just how insistent the Obama administration is being with the Iranians, but whether they are now engaged in outright wishful thinking.
Take recent Reuters report that stated, "Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham gave no indication that Iran had stopped feeding natural uranium gas into the so-called IR-5 centrifuge" — a more advanced device that also speeds up the enrichment process. Yet the same report says "Washington said on Monday Tehran had ceased" that activity.
Frankly, that is just flabbergasting. Our own administration is confirming Iranian compliance before the Iranians themselves do so.
If you read what the Iranians have to say, you will learn that they regard the whole centrifuge problem as an irritating irrelevance. As regime mouthpiece Press TV reported, "sources close to the Iranian negotiating team say the main stumbling block in the way of resolving the Western dispute over Iran's nuclear energy program remains to be the removal of all the bans imposed on the country, and not the number of centrifuges or the level of uranium enrichment."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — long-feted as a moderate despite his own shadowy role in the development of the Iranian nuclear program, not to mention the appalling human rights abuses that have marked his time in office — is also getting fed up with anything that sounds like a demand from Western negotiators. On Wednesday, he told his cabinet, "Iran has made its utmost efforts and made the necessary adjustments to its demands and we hope that all the P5+1 countries, particularly the U.S., which occasionally seeks excessive demands in the nuclear talks, will understand the circumstances."
In other words, shut up and make a deal.
President Barack Obama, sadly, may not need much convincing. By writing secret letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Obama has proved that he wants a final accord, and getting one on Nov. 24 will, he calculates, limit the damage that might be done once the Republicans take control of the Senate in January.
Republicans, however, have launched an immediate push to secure the approval of Congress for any deal. We can also expect a fight if the president decides to use any of his executive powers to override congressional pressure.
In that sense, failure to reach a deal on Nov. 24 should be welcomed, because the only deal that can be made in the limited time remaining is a bad one. True, it would mean that Obama's ambition of a historic peace with Iran falls by the wayside. But what the president understands as peace will — for other countries in the region like Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — be interpreted as the green light for further Iranian expansion in the Middle East. It would also be a game-changing shift in the regional balance of power that an eventual Iranian nuclear weapon would usher in.
Thankfully, our federal legislators seem to understand the stakes involved here. For the time being, then, the main brake on Iran's further accumulation of power and influence lies in the U.S. Congress.