Omri Ceren writes by email from the negotiations in Lausanne:
After a bruising week for the Obama administration – where literally every news day started with a scoop about another Western concession or Iranian backtrack – things are limping to a close. The AP says there will be something by tonight, which the wire gingerly describes it as “a statement that lacks specifics[.]”
It’ll take about 7 seconds for today’s announcement to get tagged as something like “an agreement to keep trying to agree,” which is effectively where the parties were 6 to 18 months ago, depending on how generous you want to be. At that point the administration will face questions about what it gave up over the last week to get just this announcement. The last week has been kind of a news cycle bloodbath in that regard:
Wednesday — WSJ scoop on PMDs concession — the WSJ revealed that the administration was willing to let Iran put off fully disclosing its nuclear program until after sanctions relief had been granted, a concession that would gut any verification regime.
Thursday — AP scoop on Fordow concession — the AP revealed that the administration was willing to let Iran continue spinning centrifuges in its underground military enrichment bunker at Fordow, ensuring that Iran would be allowed to maintain nuclear infrastructure completely impervious to Western intervention if they decided to break out.
Monday — NYT scoop on Iran stockpile bait-and-switch — the NYT revealed that the Iranians had backed away from suggestions they would ship their enriched uranium to Russia, a scenario they had used for months to secure concessions on the number of centrifuges they’d be allowed to run.
Congress gets back into session April 13.
In a subsequent email previewing a conference call this morning with former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen — Omri cites his paper “Iran’s nuclear breakout time: A fact sheet” — Omri writes:
There are two levels to the debate that’s going on right now. The top level has to do with whether the Obama administration even has the right goal in the Iran talks, i.e. whether a 1 year breakout time is adequate to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons acquisition. Then after that, there’s the question of whether whatever deal the parties work out meets that goal, i.e. whether, after all of the concessions that the West has made to Iran, the final deal really guarantees a 1 year breakout time.
Heinonen has taken up both of these questions in recent weeks.
A 1 year breakout is not enough – The Heinonen/Hayden/Takeyh overview on this question is a short read. There are theoretical scenarios that say the US could detect and reverse an Iranian breakout, but none of them hold up when you start talking about real-world constraints: the international bureaucratic process to confirm cheating, the political process to move the intelligence to the President, the diplomatic process to mobilize international action, etc. And then at the end of it, the go-to option would be sanctions – which take more than a year to cause pain anyway (see here).
The deal won’t even achieve a 1 year breakout – Heinonen subsequently published a longer version of the argument, that has both a a primer on breaakout calculations and a calculation that shows the actual breakout time secured by the rumored deal is about 7-9 months. That piece also elaborates on the bureaucratic process for detecting and acting in the wake of Iranian cheating, and suggests that the deal could not stop an Iranian breakout or sneakout (Heinonen’s paper is here).