Did Hillary Clinton just throw in with the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby on the key sticking point in the Iran-P5+1 talks—namely, whether and how much Iran may enrich uranium on its own soil? In her appearance yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on CNN, it sure looks like it. Unless she misspoke, she said explicitly that she favors the idea of “so little enrichment or no enrichment,” a view that outright contradicts the position of the White House and the State Department, who’ve long ago agreed that Iran can maintain a civilian enrichment program to produce fuel for its current nuclear reactors and for a planned expansion of its nuclear program in the future.
In the interview, Zakaria notes that Iran argues that it has “the right to enrich just like every country that has a peaceful nuclear program,” and he then adds: “The Israeli position, as I understand it, is no, zero enrichment.” (Unfortunately, Zakaria doesn’t make clear that Iran, the United States and the P5+1 have all agreed that Iran may indeed continue to enrich uranium under the terms of whatever final accord is reached.) Clinton responds that she “worked very hard and led our efforts to get the sanctions” on Iran, and she adds:
I believe strongly that it’s really important for there to be so little enrichment or no enrichment, at least for a long period of time.
Since the talks have long ago passed the point at which “no enrichment” is part of the discussion, Clinton’s comments are confusing at best, besides being provocative and counterproductive. The main sticking point in the talks, whose first round concluded on July 20 and which have now been extended for four more months, concerns Iran’s civilian program and how many centrifuges, of what kind, with what capacity and producing how great a stockpile of low-enriched, non-weapons-grade uranium Iran may produce. By all accounts, concluding an agreement that satisfied both Iran and all of the P5+1’s members (the five members of the UN Security Council, including United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and the plus-one, Germany) is within reach.
On July 22, the State Department released a detailed summary of what’s been agreed to so far and what’s been accomplished already in the talks. In it, the State Department notes that already Iran “has carried out the very significant commitments it made, and has taken steps to address the international community’s greatest concerns.” In case you haven’t been following the talks closely, here’s the lengthy list of what’s already occurred as part of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreed to in January. Iran, says the State Department, has already:
Halted production of near-20 percent enriched uranium and disabled the configuration of the centrifuge cascades Iran had been using to produce it; completed the dilution of half of its near-20 percent enriched uranium stockpile that was in hexafluoride form, and the conversion of the rest to an oxide form not suitable for further enrichment; capped its stockpile of 5 percent enriched uranium; has not enriched uranium in roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz, including all next generation centrifuges, and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow; limited its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran was not able to use the six-month JPOA period to stockpile centrifuges; did not construct additional enrichment facilities; did not go beyond its enrichment R&D practices that were in place at the start of the JPOA.
In addition, says the State Department, Iran has taken significant steps to resolve the conflict over its light-water reactor at Arak, and it has avoided taking steps to build facilities for reconverting neutralized, 20 percent enriched uranium back into a form that might be further enriched. All of this represents positive accomplishments and signs of good will for the future talks.
Clinton’s unfortunate decision to associate herself with the no-enrichment idea is likely pure politics, designed to insulate herself from criticism from Republican and neoconservative hawks in preparation for her presidential bid. Needless to say, by the time she’s inaugurated in 2017, the Iran-P5+1 talks will be long concluded, and barring an unexpected reversal Iran and the United States may have reached a parallel accord to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies in Washington and Tehran. And the onerous sanctions on Iran will be in the process of gradually being phased out in concert with Iran’s implementation of whatever final accord is struck. However, by parroting the hawks and, as Zakaria notes, Israel’s view, Clinton will only strengthen the clamor in Congress and elsewhere in opposition to the Obama administration’s deal-making.
On Capitol Hill, various members of Congress are competing with each other to design monkey wrenches to throw into the machinery of the talks. None are likely to be successful. None of these measures is likely to get though the Senate, and were one to do so, President Obama will certainly veto it. But that’s not stopping the hawks, including several Democrats, from posturing. As reported by Al Monitor, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) is one of several senators demanding that Congress get the right to approve (read: vote down) a final agreement, while Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) is backing legislation that would make it difficult or impossible for the United States to relax its sanctions regime as part of a deal. And Mr. Shutdown, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), has a bill requiring “immediate re-implementation of sanctions, additional enforcement mechanisms, and an end to the failed negotiations.”
Despite trumpeting from the elephants in the peanut gallery, virtually the entire American establishment and nearly all media outlets (such as USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and even The Washington Post) support the extension of the talks, although The Wall Street Journal predictably joins the hawks.
But, as Secretary of State John Kerry said last week in announcing the extension of the talks:
We do so mindful not just of where we hope to arrive, but of how far we have come. One year ago, few would have predicted that Iran would have kept all its commitments under a first step nuclear agreement, and that we would be actively negotiating a long-term comprehensive agreement. Now we have four additional months to determine the next miles of this difficult diplomatic journey. Let’s all commit to seize this moment, and to use the additional time to make the fundamental choices necessary to conclude a comprehensive agreement that makes the entire world a safer place.