Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., left, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., leave a Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 2, 2011.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., left, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., leave a Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 2, 2011. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Will Politics Kill a Deal on Iran?

Impossibly high Republican demands are just a partisan attack to prevent Obama from achieving anything resembling a victory. By Joe Cirincione

If it were left to the negotiators, we would have a deal already. Those close to the talks say that they have crafted technical solutions that can prevent Iran from using its program to build a bomb and verify any attempt to cheat.

The track record is encouraging. Iran has fully complied with the interim agreement negotiated last November. For the first time in a decade, progress on the program has been halted and even reversed. Iran has stopped enriching uranium over 5 percent and eliminated the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned 2 years ago could give Iran the core material for a bomb within “weeks.”

Iran is further away from a bomb today than before this interim deal. The nuclear sites are under unprecedented inspections. Some issues of compliance have arisen, but have been resolved. A comprehensive agreement could provide verifiable assurance that Iran’s program remains non-military, and impose intrusive inspections to provide substantial warning of cheating, break-out or “sneak-out.”

The main problems are political. Hardliners in Iran and the United States remain opposed to any deal.

The favored approach to Iran’s program is reminiscent of Rome’s approach to Carthage: the entire program must be razed to the ground, never to grow again... The problem is that you cannot get that deal.

“My brothers, we are in danger,” one Iranian hardliner told a conference audience as they watched a video portraying Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his negotiators “as gullible tools of the United States,” reports Thomas Erdrink for The New York Times. They fear that a deal would be the beginning of a fundamental shift in society, triggering other reforms. This, indeed, is precisely why many Iranian human rights advocates support a deal as a critical first step to realize their reform goals.

There are signs that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may have reined in this opposition, at least for now. Revolutionary Guard leaders have recently expressed support for the negotiators.

President Obama could only wish for such power. His political opponents seem a mirror image of Rouhani’s, portraying Obama as a vainglorious fool, desperate to get a deal. They are whipping up a frenzy of activity to block any agreement.

While some Democrats are critical of a deal, increasingly this is shaping up as a partisan attack to prevent Obama from achieving anything resembling a victory. This strategy brought the GOP control of the Senate and it might work to assure further gains in 2016.

Thus, 43 U.S. Senators wrote to Obama last week—all Republicans. The letter by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill, blasts an agreement that hasn’t even been written yet as “a weak and dangerous deal which will prove unacceptable to the American people.”

To be acceptable, they say, the agreement must require Iran “to dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure and completely disclose its past work on nuclear weaponization.”  

Eleven senators-elect also wrote the president. Again, all Republicans. They also demanded that the deal “eliminates their nuclear program and all future nuclear capabilities.”

The tactic of these attacks and similar ones raised by conservative and neoconservative groups is to raise impossibly high standards for the deal. The favored approach to Iran’s program is reminiscent of Rome’s approach to Carthage: the entire program must be razed to the ground, never to grow again.

I think [the Iran nuclear agreement] is the worst deal since Munich.
Charles Krauthammer

On the one hand, this demand is correct. The best way to avoid any military use of a civilian nuclear program is to eliminate the program entirely. The problem is that you cannot get that deal. There is not a politician in Iran that could agree to completely destroy the machines Iran has given up so much to build. If they did, they wouldn’t be in power very long. 

Opponents are now piling on more impossible demands, including that Iran confess to all suspected past activities as a precondition to any deal. Full disclosure is necessary eventually, but it will likely take years, as it has with other countries that have given up nuclear programs. Most experts believe it is more important to stop Iran’s program now, and more important to know what Iran will be able to do after 2014 than to know all they may have done before 2003. 

Some opponents are more direct about their ultimate aims. The White House could “give up on diplomacy and pre-emptively strike Iran’s nuclear sites,” say Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz. Ann Coulter thinks “Iraq was a magnificent war,” while Bill Kristol says the “one great failure of the Bush administration was its second-term fecklessness with respect to Iran,” and urges “regime change in Iran.”

They do not hesitate to play the appeasement card. “I think the deal is a catastrophe,” writes Charles Krauthammer, “I think it is the worst deal since Munich.”

This pressure is felt on the negotiators. One of the main sticking points is how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate. Iran seems willing to cut down from the 10,000 they now have operating, but they can’t go so low as to seem to have given up too much. The other nations, including the United States, are willing to allow several thousand to operate, but can’t go so high as to seem to have given too much.

This obsession with the numbers of centrifuges is misplaced, as Scott Peterson writes in the Christian Science Monitor. Iran’s centrifuges are based on an old 1970’s Pakistani design. If it ran all 19,000 centrifuges (the 10,000 operating, plus 9,000 installed but not operating now) for one full year, he says, “They would still only produce what the European nuclear fuel company Urenco yields in five hours.”

It is highly unlikely that Iran would use known, inspected centrifuges to produce material for a bomb. A far greater danger is a covert program, something a comprehensive deal that provides intrusive inspections would help detect.

(Related: This Is the Roadmap for Closing a Nuclear Deal With Iran)

“There is no logic to the parties’ positions,” International Crisis Group expert Ali Vaez tells Peterson.  “Would one consider 10,000 centrifuges that are under constant monitoring of the IAEA a threat to world peace? Absolutely not. What is the use of 10,000 centrifuges operating? Absolutely nothing.”

Logic and fair debate is little heard in Congress these days. Show hearings are packed with deal opponents. National security concerns are pushed aside for short-term political gain.

“Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes,” Carl Denham tells reporters at the end of King Kong, “It was beauty that killed the beast.”  If the talks in Vienna fail to reach an agreement to contain Iran’s nuclear program, it won’t be the fault of the negotiators. It will be politics that killed the deal.