Even as the Obama administration has backed away from its previously-stated goals in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, it still has the ability to deter Iran by making clear “in advance what the consequences are” for violating any deal and developing a nuclear weapon, “and that they will be high,” former Obama administration official Ambassador Dennis Ross wrote in an analysis yesterday in Politico Magazine.
It is noteworthy that the agreement that the administration still hopes to finalize with the Iranians by June 30 does not reflect the objective we had hoped to achieve for much of President Barack Obama’s first term. At that point, when I was in the administration, our aim was to transform the character of the Iranian nuclear program so that the peaceful intent of its capabilities would be demonstrated unmistakably to the international community. Necessarily, that meant that Iran could not have a large nuclear infrastructure. If permitted enrichment, it would have to be highly circumscribed and limited to small numbers for the purposes of research or production of medical isotopes. If Iran wanted additional nuclear reactors to generate electricity, it would receive its fuel from international fuel banks and its spent fuel would be sent out of the country—much like is done with the Bushehr reactor today. Similarly, there would be little or no stockpile of enriched uranium in the country that the Iranians might surreptitiously seek to purify to weapons grade. And, the questions about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program—a euphemism for Iran’s efforts to create a nuclear weapon—would have been satisfactorily answered.
At some point, the Obama administration changed its objective from one of transforming the Iranian nuclear program to one of ensuring that Iran could not have a breakout time of less than one year. The former was guided by our determination to press Iran to change its intent about pursuing or at least preserving the option of having a nuclear weapon. The latter clearly reflects a very different judgment: that we were not able to alter the Iranian intentions, so instead we needed to focus on constraining their capabilities.
Even acknowledging this retreat, Ross nonetheless argued that if the inspections regime is intrusive enough to detect any overt or covert attempts by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, and if the process for responding to violations to the agreement is clear and streamlined, the agreement being negotiated could be effective. Moreover, Ross writes:
Assuming an agreement is finalized by June 30, the administration may well be right that this was the best one possible—and that it is better than the other alternatives. That, of course, does not make it a good agreement. Even a bad agreement might be better than the available alternatives, but if the administration wants to prove that the eventual agreement is acceptable, it will need to show that it has produced the bare minimum of the outcome that we once hoped for: that there will be a breakout time of at least one year; that the Iranians cannot deny inspectors access to any site, including those on military or Revolutionary Guard facilities; and that it has anticipated a full range of different Iranian violations and won’t wait for others to respond to them. In reality, if we are to deter Iranian violations, they must know in advance what the consequences are and that they will be high.
Ross’ concern about ensuring a quick response to any Iranian violations echoes that of Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who argued that the deal was shaping up to allow Iran a breakout time of only seven or eight months, which would not be enough time to respond to possible Iranian violations. Ross’ observations about Iran’s nuclear infrastructure were recently addressed by Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Previously, Ross has said that the administration needs to address the concerns of its Middle Eastern allies regarding the nuclear talks with Iran. He has also observed that Iran has not matched American concessions by refusing to become any more flexible in its nuclear ambitions. Last month, Ross also argued, similar to his argument in Politico, that the responses to, and consequences of, Iranian nuclear violations must be spelled out in any future agreement if that agreement is to be effective.
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