Losin’ in Lausanne (2)

Omri Ceren writes by email from Lausanne to elaborate on the AP story reporting that the United States is considering letting Tehran run hundreds of centrifuges at a once-secret, fortified underground bunker in exchange for limits on centrifuge work and research and development at other sites. Omri writes:

And just like that, PMDs and Yemen are those things we were talking about in the last news cycle. For the rest of tonight and probably into tomorrow, the buzz is going to be about the monster scoop the AP just published. Washington is apparently ready to let the Iranians continue enrichment activities at Fordow, the underground military bunker – built into the side of a mountain and all but impervious to air attack – that they converted into a clandestine enrichment facility.

The policy implications of this concession more or less write themselves. Allowing the Iranians to enrich at Fordow means they could kick out inspectors at any time and have a fully-functioning enrichment facility hardened against military intervention. Since sanctions will be unraveled by design at the beginning of a deal, that means the West would have literally zero options to stop a breakout. The administration’s early pushback is that the breakout time will still be a year, so they could in theory reimpose sanctions, but it takes more than a year for sanctions to take an economic toll. So: zero options to stop a breakout.

But there’s an insidery history about Fordow’s role in negotiations that makes it into a political problem for the administration as well, alongside the policy problems. Timeline:

— The Iranians declared very early into the JPOA that shuttering Fordow was a red line for them. Zarif publicly berated Sherman on the issue and instructed her to “stick to the reality and stop speaking of impossible things” (http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Rejecting-US-comments-on-its-nuclear-program-Iran-FM-says-Fordo-Arak-are-non-negotiable-340458). This was during the first few months of the JPOA, where every other week the Iranians were declaring that something else was non-negotiable: dismantling centrifuges, downgrading their heavy water reactor at Arak, halting ballistic missile development, etc. The red lines were dismissed by administration spokespeople as the Iranians posturing for domestic benefit – but throughout the first half of 2014 Washington systematically collapsed on 100% of those asks.

— Except: last summer the Iranians floated a compromise proposal that would keep Fordow open but convert it into a research facility (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-07-09/news/sns-rt-us-iran-nuclear-fordow-20140709_1_fordow-enriched-uranium-interim-nuclear-deal). The move was widely hailed as a sign the Iranians were willing to meet the Americans halfway. Robert Einhorn from Brookings – a top State nonproliferation official stretching back to the Clinton era – had suggested the compromise in a widely-read whitepaper on negotiations (http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/03/31-nuclear-armed-iran-einhorn). Now the Iranians were willing to compromise! The proposal was used to silence skeptics of Iranian intentions and boosted the momentum of negotiations.

— Except: now that concession has been reversed.

The role Fordow has played means that this development will be a double gut-punch. It’s now just a policy trainwreck, but it’s politically toxic because it seems like the administration got played again (or that it misled lawmakers again). The White House started out promising that Fordow would be shuttered, then that it would be converted into an R&D plant where no enrichment would take place, and now they’ve collapsed. Criticism is already being heard from the Hill – for a taste see < a href=" https://twitter.com/SpeakerBoehner/status/581140844863983618">this tweet from Boehner – and the afternoon cable shows out of New York and DC are still several hours away.

At this rate it just might be easier to turn over our nuclear arsenal to Iran for safekeeping.