The negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran are beginning to resemble amateur night at a standup comedy club. The sets go on too long and the monologues aren’t funny. But these negotiations may have an April Fool’s Day kicker, the diplomatic version of a Whoopee Cushion. If news reports are correct, the P5+1 has already given so much away that an agreement with Iran not only won’t really impede that country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, but is likely to make it easier for it to acquire them without being detected much less stopped. As the negotiations extend past the March 31 deadline, now to April 1, it is time to begin wondering if the world is being set up for a massive April Fool’s Joke.
The framework of the agreement is already well publicized. Iran will be allowed to retain some or even all of its enriched uranium, maintain a relatively large number of operational centrifuges and continue development of advanced centrifuges, operate a heavy water reactor capable of producing plutonium, restrict access by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to critical sites, limit or refuse so-called unannounced challenge inspections (those needed to uncover hidden illicit nuclear activities) and will not have to come clean about the military aspects of its nuclear program until sometime down the road. Virtually all of these concessions are in contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – to which Iran is a signatory – and numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions.
Last week, we were treated to a scene in which Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking before a large crowd responded to orchestrated chants of death to America with the line “Yes, death to America.” Even the proletarian leaders of the Soviet Politburo had the good manners not to chant death to America while negotiating the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. The joke’s on us.
There is another major joke at the heart of the U.S. negotiating position: the one year breakout period. Our entire negotiating position is predicated on ensuring that it will take Iran at least a year to acquire a nuclear weapon should it violate an agreement or the ten year clock clicks down to zero. Why that magic number? Because it is assumed that with a year’s warning, the West can respond effectively to short circuit Iran’s efforts, say by re-imposing sanctions or initiating military operations. But built into this scenario are many highly dubious assumptions given the history of U.S. responses to arms control treaty violations. It presumes that we will have unambiguous intelligence of Iran’s initial steps to violate an agreement, that there will be no disagreements either within the U.S. government or among the P5+1 as to the validity of the intelligence, that we will not seek to negotiate with Iran over its alleged violations before taking action and that after all this back and forth we will have sufficient time and wherewithal to effectively counter Iran’s moves in the available time. Not likely.
This agreement is an April Fool’s Joke that will keep on giving. It could actually make it easier for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. According to Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general for safeguards at the IAEA, the current agreement could produce a breakout timeline of as little as a few months. This would particularly be the case if IAEA inspections are restricted. The one year to a breakout formula ignores our long and often unhappy history with respect to arms control treaty violations. The United States spent years dithering internally and then arguing with the Soviet Union over what were clear violations of a host of conventional and nuclear arms control agreements. For example, Moscow built an illegal twenty-stories-tall missile defense radar smack in the middle of the Soviet Union, easily seen by our intelligence collectors, and then lied about it for years. The U.S. spent decades in fruitless discussions with Soviet officials while this and other violations continued. Recently, the Obama Administration accused Russia of violating not one, but two arms control treaties: the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaties. The INF Treaty violations began almost seven years ago. Heinonen along with former CIA Director Michael Hayden and Iran expert Raymond Takeyh published an editorial in the Washington Post that concluded, “A careful assessment, however, reveals that a one-year breakout time may not be sufficient to detect and reverse Iranian violations.”
Sounding like a bad takeoff from a Seinfeld episode, administration officials have sought to argue that a bad agreement is better than none at all. Really? I wonder if Prime Minister Chamberlain could make the same argument were he alive. A bad agreement, one that provides the illusion of a safer world, even encourages Iran to continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons and creates obstacles to swift and effective action should Iran be found in violation of its terms isn’t just a bad agreement. It is a bad joke.
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