Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has had no impact on the ongoing negotiations over the Iranian nuclear agreement in Geneva, at least according to Iranian foreign minster Javad Zarif.
But that doesn’t mean that the Obama administration isn’t concerned about the address’s possible consequences. And it gave a vigorous and direct rebuttal.
The night of the speech, Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor who once likened a nuclear with Iran to Obamacare in its importance as a political objective, was interviewed on the Charlie Rose show by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Goldberg pressed Obama’s close aide on the points that Netanyahu raised during his speech, during which the Israeli leader cited a 10-15 year “sunset” clause and the emerging agreement’s perceived insufficient limits on Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure as reasons to oppose the accord.
When pressed on the sunset clause, Rhodes asserts that the US president in 2025 or 2030 will have the same financial tools of coercion that are currently available.
“The fact of the matter is the same type of options that we have in place today to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will be available to the president of the United States in 10, 15 years — whenever the conclusion of the duration of the deal is,” Rhodes said.
The trouble with that claim is that an agreement itself would require the US, the 5 permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany to cease the enforcement of most of the sanctions against Iran.
And the current sanctions took decades to implement, and required the reluctant and often politically challenging cooperation of a number of Iran’s foreign oil purchasers — countries like India, South Korea, China, and Brazil.
Basically, the US gained its negotiating leverage through a process that may be impossible to reproduce when there’s already a deal in place, business ties have been restored, and the world is inclined to think of the Iranian nuclear program as a settled issue.
“In a decade, if Iran is not Japan, a democratic, nuclear-transparent country with an industrial program, the US president in 2025 will have a severe national challenge on his or her hands,” Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, explained to Business Insider.
“That President will also have only one option to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a military one,” Dubowitz said. “It took Clinton, Bush and Obama almost twenty years to build an effective sanctions regime against an illicit nuclear program and to persuade companies to terminate their business ties with Iran. Once the deal expires in a decade, Iran will have a legal program and it will be impossible to reconstitute an effective sanctions regime in time to block an Iranian industrial-size program from producing multiple nuclear bombs.”
By that point, the fragile political consensus that led to the sanctions regime will be nearly impossible to piece back together if Iran ramps up its program.
Significantly, Rhodes also demonstrated that the administration is no longer aiming to reach an agreement that would permanently solve the nuclear issue.
“The fact of the matter is, Iran is going to have less facilities, less centrifuges, longer breakout time during the duration of this agreement,” Rhodes said. “So what we would say to them is we are actually preventing Iran from getting the nuclear weapon that you’re concerned about.”
Goldberg countered by noting that this negotiating position meant the administration wasn’t “guaranteeing permanent non-nuclearization” — only delaying Iran’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon in less than year (if all protocols are followed).
Rhodes replied that the administration “will continue as a matter of policy to oppose Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” and that “we can make a judgment on the back end of the agreement about where things stand.”
So the deal being negotiated by the Obama administration assumes that the US will emerge from the agreement with the same leverage over the Tehran that it currently enjoys. That is, if it turns out Iran views an agreement as a decade-long time-out on the way to a nuclear weapons capability, the US would have the ability to counter it after the sunset clause expires.
History implies that might be wishful thinking. Most recently, as the experience with North Korea demonstrates, it’s easy for a country to reverse its commitments if its nuclear infrastructure is left standing.
In 2007, Pyongyang shut down its 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, during the time between North Korea’s provocative low-yield nuclear test in 2006 and the breakdown of the six-party talks in 2008. In 2013, long after disarmament talks had collapsed, it simply upgraded the reactor and switched it back on again.
It’s much easier for a country to reactivate existing nuclear infrastructure than it is for its rivals to build an international consensus towards doing something about it. The deal Rhodes defended against Netanyahu’s objections may leave Iran with the option of ramping up its program once the agreement expires — and the US with few options for stopping Tehran if it ever needed to.
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