US Secretary of State John Kerry, former EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meet for talks on the sidelines of nuclear talks with Iran aimed at settling a dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, former EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meet for talks on the sidelines of nuclear talks with Iran aimed at settling a dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Joe Klamer/AP

The Many Iranian Obstacles in the Way of a Strong Nuclear Deal

The military option isn't much of an option. But diplomacy could inadvertently pave the way to a nuclear Iran. By Jeffrey Goldberg

The other day I fell into conversation with a very smart congressman named Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Florida, about his minimum requirements for an Iran nuclear deal. Deutch, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is—like a large number of Democrats—fairly-to-very dubious about the possibility of a true breakthrough with Iran, and fairly-to-very worried about the consequences of a bad deal. (It seems likely, at this moment at least, that the Iran talks will be extended for several more months.)

Democrats such as Deutch will need to be convinced by the Obama administration that it hasn’t been outplayed by Iran. If an accord is eventually reached, and if Obama cannot convince the Democrats that he has delivered to them the toughest possible deal, then Congress will do everything in its power to undo the agreement. The Republicans, of course, are itching to subvert an Obama-negotiated deal, and Democratic support will be important to them as they make their case.

As I’ve written previously, I support a diplomatic solution to the challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear program because such a solution could theoretically achieve, without bloodshed, what a military strike might not achieve with bloodshed. But as I outline in this column, I don’t believe that either the diplomatic solution, or a solution that requires crushing sanctions and the credible threat of force, are overly likely to neutralize this threat. (And yes, it is a threat. An Iran with nuclear weapons would pose an acute challenge to pro-American moderates across the Middle East, and to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation, in particular in the world's most volatile region. And it would pose a genocidal threat to Israel; please see, in case you haven’t read it yet, John Kerry’s condemnation of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s recently tweeted nine-point plan for Israel’s destruction.)

(One more parenthetical: Of course the Iranian regime wants a nuclear capability. Iran is surrounded by enemies—imagined, in some cases, but real, in others—and it is completely rational for Iran’s leaders to want to deter these enemies with nuclear weapons. Its leaders see what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who didn’t have nuclear weapons. And these leaders also have pretensions of empire, by the way.)

The goal of a deal is to make it as hard as possible for Iran to reach the nuclear threshold. Deutch’s analysis focuses on three potential weaknesses. The first is the notion that any agreement to curtail Iranian uranium-enrichment activities would one day expire. “I worry about a time-limited deal, one which remains in place for a 10- or 15-year term,” he said. “What happens after that period? Does Iran then have a free path to a bomb?”

The answer is, yes, Iran would have a free path to the bomb. Ten or 15 or even 20 years might seem like a long time in the U.S., but the people of the Middle East are patient. Any agreement that contains an expiration date is an inadequate agreement, because it will, in essence, grant Iran time-delayed permission to build nuclear weapons. This could be mitigated, of course, by a multi-decade commitment to whatever framework agreement is negotiated. (ADDENDUM: Matt Duss points out that the statement "the people of the Middle East are patient" is overly broad and subject to easy misinterpretation. He's right. What I mean here is that many Middle Eastern leaders, and often the people they lead, have shown impressive strategic patience in various conflicts. The Israeli-Palestinian fight is a case in point. Many Palestinian leaders are committed to a multi-generational effort to bring about the end of Israel, and many Jewish settlers, and their leaders, believe that they can somehow outlast Palestinian nationalism. Certainly, the current Israeli prime minister is committed to thwarting and outlasting the U.S. president. In the Iranian context, it seems obvious that the country's unelected leader has been committed to maintaining a nuclear program even after a decade of sanctions, and I have no reason to believe that he's incapable of staying on his current course -- see this Ray Takeyh op-ed on the subject.)

Deutch’s second concern relates to sanctions relief: “I don't want to see the Iranian economy prematurely bolstered.” A legitimate fear on the part of skeptics is that the U.S. will agree to lift the most biting sanctions now in place before guaranteeing real progress in the deconstruction of Iran’s nuclear program. “The third issue,” Deutch went on to say, “concerns our ability to access any enrichment, research, or military sites.” He makes the point that the Iranian regime had kept hidden from the world at least two uranium-enrichment facilities, at Natanz and Fordow. “We need access to sites like Parchin which have military dimensions and which the Iranians prohibited us from seeing. If we can't become comfortable in our knowledge about what they're doing in nuclear-weapons development, then I'm not comfortable with a deal.”

It seems unlikely that the Iranians will share with the West the true scope of their nuclear-weapons development work. And unfortunately, it seems as if the West is willing to let Iran slide on this important issue. From Reuters:

World powers are pressing Iran to stop stonewalling a U.N. atomic bomb investigation as part of a wider nuclear accord, but look likely to stop short of demanding full disclosure of any secret weapon work by Tehran to avoid killing an historic deal.

Officially, the United States and its Western allies say it is vital that Iran fully cooperate with a U.N. nuclear agency investigation if it wants a diplomatic settlement that would end the sanctions severely hurting its oil-based economy. ...

A senior U.S. official stressed that the powers had not changed their position on Iran's past activities during this week's talks: "We've always said that any agreement must resolve the issue to our satisfaction. That has not changed."

Privately, however, some officials acknowledge that Iran may never be prepared to admit to what they believe it was guilty of: covertly working in the past to develop the ability to build a nuclear-armed missile—something it has always denied.

Deutch's position on the matter of Iranian concealment is not particularly hawkish for his party. He is fairly representative of a broad swath of Democratic thinking and, in fact, on important issues he scans less hawkish than the (putatively) most important Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Given what Clinton told me in an interview over the summer, I can't imagine that she's overjoyed by reports coming out of the nuclear talks this week. "I've always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment," she said. "Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position."

It will be near-impossible, especially after the immigration debate, to sell the Republican-controlled Congress on whatever Iran deal Obama negotiates. But the Democrats won't be an easy sell, either.