How to understand Obama’s Iran diplomacy

I think the easiest way to understand Obama’s diplomacy is this. Assume that Obama believes Iran should have nuclear weapons and would like to facilitate the mullahs’ nuclear weapons program. This assumption is the Occam’s Razor that clarifies what might otherwise be obscure. The assumption may not be correct, but it should prove a handy guide to coming attractions.

Obama bids against himself chasing after the mullahs. You can say that he doesn’t know how to negotiate, and it’s a plausible hypothesis. As Michael Rubin explains, “Desperation is not a good negotiating position” (unless you want to give it away).

But how explain Obama’s vehement opposition in the past to the imposition of sanctions against Iran by Congress, or the threat of such sanctions in the future in the case no final deal were to be reached?

How explain his concession up front (in the P5+1 interim agreement with Iran) to Iran’s nuclear enrichment?

How explain the offer to agree to an ever increasing number of centrifuges for enrichment?

How explain the apparent acceptance of a prospective deal without proof that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful in nature, which is in itself an absurd and unbelievable proposition?

And so on, and so on.

When Obama makes the famously false promise that he is from the government and he is here to help, he means it in the case of the mullahs.

Today’s page-one story in the Wall Street Journal reveals Obama’s fourth secret letter to the mullahs in search of a deal. He is pleading with them. He will not take no for an answer. See Michael Rubin, “White House ignores Khameni response to letters.”

Obama’s most recent letter is already yesterday’s news. Today’s news comes via the IAEA. Omri Ceren summarizes it as follows in an email message this morning:

The new IAEA report went online about two hours ago. No changes from last time: not only are the Iranians continuing to block the Agency’s work, but they’re refusing to offer new ways of moving forward. Zero progress during the reporting period, and no sign that the next one will be any better.

The report is here The key lines are:

“The Agency is not in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities”

“Iran has not provided any explanations that enable the Agency to clarify the outstanding practical measures, nor has it proposed any new practical measures in the next step of the Framework for cooperation”

The Iranians seem to be betting that the West will eventually drop the demand that Tehran come clean about the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of its nuclear program. Negotiations will come down to the wire, all of the other issues will have been massaged, and Iranian negotiators will look up and say the equivalent of ‘you’re not really going to blow up this whole deal over something we did in the past, are you?’ Under that scenario the message will be echoed by a few advocates in the nonproliferation world, the P5+1 will latch on to the reasoning, and that’ll be that.

The problem is that the PMD issue has very little to do with the past and everything to do with future verification. Unless the Iranians disclose what they’ve been doing on the nuclear front – including whatever the military is doing to surreptitiously enrich and store uranium – there’s no way to verify that they’ve stopped doing those things.

Remember how we got here. The P5+1 was supposed to be working with Iran on uranium, plutonium, and ballitsic missiles. Underneath all of those issues, the IAEA was supposed to be working on getting Iran to come clean on the full scope of its program: both the civilian and the military aspects (i.e. the PMDs).

People often talk and write about the PMD issue as if it’s just about weapons work – suspected Iranian experiments with detonators, warheads, etc. Those things matter but the issue is much broader. The IAEA wants access to all the places where the Iranian military had its hand in any atomic work – uranium mining, centrifuge construction, enrichment, and so on. The goal is to get a full picture of everything the Iranians are doing, so that the IAEA can confirm that they’ve stopped.

When the Iranians jam the IAEA up on PMDs, it’s not just another fourth core issue that can be negotiated alongside uranium, plutonium, and ballistic missiles. Transparency is the prerequisite to creating any robust verification scheme on those other three issues. It’s not possible for Western negotiators to say something like: ‘ok, we’ll give you a little on PMDs, but you have to give us something back on centrifuges.’ Without disclosure, there’s no way to verify that the Iranians are actually living up to their half of the trade.

Isn’t this obviously true? That’s where my Occam’s Razor cuts through the fog to help us understand what is happening now and what will in all likelihood be happening soon.

In related news, see Adam Kredo, “Report: Iran nuclear program more advanced than previously believed” and “Pentagon: Iran giving ‘lethal aid to the Taliban’ to fight US.”

UPDATE: Omri Ceren writes to update his message with news of today’s State Department briefing:

The issue came up in today’s State Department press briefing between the AP’s Matt Lee and State spox Jen Psaki. It actually came up twice, with [AP State Department reporter] Matt [Lee] circling back to it….The [short] version is that Jen left open the possibility that the US will take a deal with Iran even if the Iranians continue to obstruct the IAEA, i.e. even if they refuse to come clean on their past nuclear activity including military atomic work. If that happens it would mark another erosion in the US position, alongside reported walkbacks in the other three core areas: uranium, plutonium, and ballistic missiles. More problematically, letting Iran slide on IAEA inspections now risks gutting any verification regime set up later.

It is “problematic,” however, only if your (our) goal is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

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