The debate over whether the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran were on track toward a good deal, bad deal or no deal, took center stage earlier this week.
A three-legged checks and balances system of the White House, Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken shape, as the various sides are quarrelling over their interpretation of leaks from the P5+1 negotiations with Iran about the number of nuclear enrichment centrifuges Iran will be allowed to keep in a final deal, and whether negotiators will agree on a definite end date for restrictions.
Netanyahu – the negotiations’ biggest international critic – took a stern, anti-negotiation stance Tuesday when he addressed a largely enthusiastic crowd at a joint meeting of Congress.
“Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America,” Netanyahu told the cheering audience in the chamber of the House of Representatives, referring to an unofficial U.S.-Iranian coordination to facilitate airstrikes against the radical Sunni jihadists known as the Islamic State, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
“So when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy…” he said. “To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war. We can’t let that happen.”
Netanyahu’s criticism is based on recently reported information, which some observers believe was leaked by the Israeli government through its intelligence services.
Although President Barack Obama, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and other high level administration officials have publicly intoned that the information being discussed is inaccurate – pointing out that there is no deal yet – their speeches have not denied, but rather defended, the specific leaked details from the secretive negotiations.
“While the final deal has not yet been signed, certain elements of any potential deal are now a matter of public record,” said Netanyahu. “You don’t need intelligence agencies and secret information to know this. You can Google it.”
Netanyahu, who last week spoke to both Congress and Israel supporters at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference 2015 – which dedicated this year’s conference to discussing Iran – focused on two major alleged U.S. concessions.
His first concern was that the deal currently being composed would allow Iran to keep most of its nuclear infrastructure and continue to operate more than 6,000 centrifuges for nuclear
“Because Iran’s nuclear program would be left largely intact, Iran’s break-out time would be very short – about a year by U.S. assessment, even shorter by Israel’s,” said Netanyahu. “[And if] Iran’s work on advanced centrifuges, faster and faster centrifuges, is not stopped, that breakout time could still be shorter, a lot shorter.”
During the first two months of this year, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his rounds as a witness in front of various committees on Capitol Hill, attempting to convince lawmakers to delay their support for any Iran sanctions legislation. One such bill is the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015 (S. 269), better known as the Kirk-Menendez bill, which calls for gradual sanctions increases against Iran if a final deal is not reached.
With the new Republican Senate majority, the administration feared that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would try to get the Kirk-Menendez bill on the floor for a full Senate vote as quickly as possible.
Blinken, along with administration pressure, was successful in this respect. Their appeals caused Senate Democrats to back away from urging an immediate vote on Iran sanctions legislation for the second year in a row and slowed the Republicans who aim for the bill to pass with a veto-proof majority.
But this lobbying came at the price of having to confirm certain rumors from the negotiations in order to answer the committee members’ questions.
Senators from both sides of the aisle appeared dismayed to hear Blinken respond that negotiators have reached a point where they are no longer negotiating whether Iran would be allowed to continue limited enrichment of fissile material like uranium or plutonium, but that now it was a question of scale and level of transparency they can coax Iran to accept.
Blinken also confirmed that the administration was focused on ensuring that the amount of time it would take for Iran to enrich enough fissile material to make one nuclear weapon, known as the “breakout period,” would give the United States and its allies at least one year to respond.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has spent much of his Capitol Hill career focused on Iranian military nuclear ambitions, was livid at the U.S. negotiators’ concessions that Blinken hinted at.
Menendez repeated his disapproval during his enthusiastically received address to a packed convention hall at AIPAC’s policy conference.
“Here we are, near the end of negotiations, and the goal posts have moved from dismantlement to reconfiguration, from a peaceful nuclear program to just enough to detect breakout, from no right-to-enrichment to getting an alarm system,” said Menendez.
Speaking on a panel in one of the policy conference’s breakout sessions, Gary Samore, executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and a former Obama administration official, confirmed that the one year breakout period would only
benefit the United States if Iran’s cheating on its commitments is detected immediately.
Detection would assume that inspectors would know where high level nuclear enrichment is being conducted. But Samore believes it is unlikely Iran would risk losing the sanctions relief it receives under a potential agreement to attempt to “break out” from a declared nuclear enrichment facility — but more likely that it would come from smaller, clandestine facilities not yet known to U.S. intelligence. Samore called this scenario “sneak-out” and noted that the enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow had once been secret.
“This is not going to be like Iraq. You may remember that after the first war in Iraq, we imposed on them an unbelievably intrusive inspection regime that basically allowed inspectors to travel anywhere around the country they wanted to. Go into any facility and talk to anybody,” said Samore. “We’re not going to get that kind of an inspection regime out of this negotiation. At the end of the day we’re going to have to depend on intelligence. This is going to be a potential weakness in any agreement.”
Netanyahu also told Congress that his second concern – one he feels may be even more important – was that the negotiators appeared willing to agree on a specific date to sunset the invasive nuclear inspection regimen that will be conducted by International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspectors. Although the specific time period is unknown, Rice said it would be “at least a decade.”
During the decade or more that the agreement is in effect, Iran is required to give IAEA inspectors uninhibited access to all of its declared nuclear facilities. But after this period, Iran would be required to comply only with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran, being a party to the agreement, has repeatedly violated since the treaty went into effect in 1970. The NPT and IAEA Additional Protocol – which in 1993 added requirements for governments to provide IAEA inspectors with more detailed information – would be the only safeguards available to the international community to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
If information about the potential deal – more details about which are expected to be released by the administration on March 24 – are accurate, Iran would then be held to the same standards and levels of inspection as other NPT parties, despite Iran’s history of cheating on its international
“We all have a responsibility to consider what will happen when Iran’s nuclear capabilities are virtually unrestricted and all the sanctions will have been lifted. Iran would then be free to build a huge nuclear capacity that could produce many, many nuclear bombs,” said Netanyahu. “Iran’s supreme leader says that openly. He says, Iran plans to have 190,000 centrifuges, not 6,000 or even the 19,000 that Iran has today, but 10 times that amount — 190,000 centrifuges enriching uranium. With this massive capacity, Iran could make the fuel for an entire nuclear arsenal… in a matter of weeks, once it makes that decision.”
The pomp and circumstance reminiscent of a State of the Union address of Netanyahu’s speech sharply contrasted with the environment of President Barack Obama’s rebuttal that afternoon.
Speaking to a pool of reporters in the Oval Office before a private meeting with new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Obama said that the prime minister didn’t offer details or viable alternatives on the “core issue, which is how do we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon….”
“…[T]he alternative that the prime minister offers is no deal, in which case Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program, accelerate its nuclear program, without us having any insight into what they’re doing, and without constraint,” Obama said. “And his essential argument is that if we just double down on sanctions, Iran won’t want to do that.
“Well, we have evidence from the past decade that sanctions alone are not sufficient to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. And if it, in fact, does not have some sense that sanctions will be removed, it will not have an interest in avoiding the path that it’s currently on.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro