The drums of war are beating again over Iran, but sadly it’s a representative of the Obama administration who wielded the heaviest drumstick.
Glyn Davies, the US representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), delivered what can only be called a one-sided and alarmist opinion about Iran’s ongoing nuclear enrichment program:
“This ongoing enrichment activity … moves Iran closer to a dangerous and destabilizing possible breakout capacity. Taken in connection with Iran’s refusal to engage with the IAEA regarding its past nuclear warhead-related work, we have serious concerns that Iran is deliberately attempting, at a minimum, to preserve a nuclear weapons option.”
And the media piled on. Even though there was nothing new — the IAEA carefully monitors Iran’s enrichment efforts, and it keeps precise track of how much low-enriched uranium Iran has accumulated — the remarks from Davies triggered worrisome headlines across the board, from “US very concerned about Iran’s nuclear program” in the Washington Post to “Iran Rejects Compromise Over Its Nuclear Program” in the Wall Street Journal to “U.S. Says Iran Could Expedite Nuclear Bomb” in the New York Times.
Of all the stories, the Times piece — by William Broad, Mark Mazzetti, and David E. Sanger — was the most detailed. But it added to the alarm, writing in its first paragraph:
“American intelligence agencies have concluded in recent months that Iran has created enough nuclear fuel to make a rapid, if risky, sprint for a nuclear weapon.”
But then balancing that with:
“But new intelligence reports delivered to the White House say that the country has deliberately stopped short of the critical last steps to make a bomb.”
Way, way down in the Times story, and barely mentioned in the breathless coverage of the Iranian nuclear issue generally, is this important caveat:
“To create a bomb it would have to convert its existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium into bomb-grade material. International inspectors, who visit Natanz regularly, would presumably raise alarms. Iran would also have to produce or buy a working weapons design, complete with triggering devices, and make it small enough to fit in one of its missiles.”
In all of the hubbub over Iran’s nuclear program, there are several indisputable facts: (1) Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) is of no use at all for building a bomb; (2) in order to make a bomb, Iran would have to process all of its LEU into weapons-grade, high-enriched uranium, a not-so-easy thing to do; (3) even so, Iran only has enough LEU for a single bomb, even it could process it into HEU, and one bomb does not an arsenal make, especially since Iran would have to test its weapon, thereby using it all up; (4) any moves to produce HEU, as the Times correctly notes, would immediately be noticed by the IAEA inspectors, setting off alarms; (5) Iran probably doesn’t have the know-how at present to construct a working nuclear weapon, even if it acquired enough HEU; and (6) Iran doesn’t have a missile system capable of delivering a bomb. That doesn’t mean that President Ahmadinejad and some of his cohorts in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps wouldn’t dearly love to have a bomb, but it does mean that the world community, including the IAEA and the P5 + 1 group of negotiating countries has plenty of time to work out a diplomatic solution to the impasse.
Such a solution, of course, would almost definitely have to concede to Iran the right to enrich uranium, on its own soil and independently, in exchange for transparency and a strengthened regime of international inspections. In addition, I was told in Tehran by Iranian insiders in June, Iran might be willing to scale back its enrichment program, reducing the number of centrifuges it’s spinning (perhaps from 4,000 to 1,000), voluntarily, in the context of a deal. So far, however, the United States has not, repeat not, acknowledged Iran’s inherent right to an enrichment program, under appropriate safeguards. Yesterday, Iran put on the table its own position concerning the impasse. So far, the content of Iran’s proposal isn’t known, but it’s widely assumed that Iran is making no concessions in advance. But neither is the United States. It’s long past time that President Obama — as Senator John Kerry has already done — forthrightly admits that Iran has the right to enrich uranium. (So far, Obama has said that Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, but he has been silent on enrichment.)
Meanwhile, in advance of the September showdown with Iran, the hawks are taking wing. In a short op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, three representatives of the Bipartisan Policy Center, warned about the “shortening nuclear timetable” and openly suggested that the United States ought to consider war against Iran:
“We understand the reluctance of Americans to consider confronting the Iranian nuclear threat, given their weariness from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and continued economic hardships. But after eight months of diplomatic overtures, numerous rebuffs and a brutal crackdown on its own people, Tehran’s willingness to negotiate in good faith is subject to considerable doubt . Leadership will be critical, and it will require making hard, even unpopular, choices to protect the interests of our country.”
To its credit, and despite the bombast from its IAEA diplomat, the Obama administration is still willing to talk to Iran. And an editorial in the Los Angeles Times this week emphasized that talking just might work. It concluded:
“Some officials in Tehran have said the government is willing to talk about some global and regional issues, but not about its nuclear program. This is worrisome but should not be used as an obstacle to negotiations. Without accepting Iran’s preconditions — or imposing its own, for that matter — the U.S. and its partners should take the opportunity to sit down and talk. The two sides have to get to the table if they ever hope to put their cards on it.
“It would be naive to assume that negotiations are likely to be quick or easy. The likelihood of success is further clouded by the recent political upheaval in Iran, although it’s unclear whether that makes Tehran more likely to negotiate in order to reduce its isolation, or less likely to make concessions because it is wounded and weak. All the more reason to start negotiating, if only to learn.
“The question that naturally follows is what to do if talks fail. While reluctant to endorse measures that would hurt average Iranians or reunite the populace in an anti-American fury, this page recognizes that tough sanctions would be the obvious next step. We also realize that if China and Russia are ever going to agree to such a thing, it will be only after a serious effort to negotiate has been made.
“So now is the time to try, without threatening consequences for failure before the two sides even sit down.”
The paper makes the essential point that any talks won’t be “quick or easy,” meaning that all the talk from Hillary Clinton about “crippling sanctions” and from Obama about short-term deadlines for talks to succeed ought to be tossed out the window.