Fact Checking the Obama Strategy for Iran's Nukes

Experts offer their take on 'Is this a tacit approval of Iran's right to enrich? And can the U.S. still fight back?'

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman takes her seat on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, prior to testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing examining negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.

"We are willing to allow a very limited enrichment program, if it becomes a necessity,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said of Iran's nuclear program Tuesday.

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America’s chief negotiator with a reclusive and distrustful Iran said Tuesday that the U.S. is willing to allow the Islamic republic to have a limited nuclear program, provided it adheres to strict rules for enforcement and oversight.

Perhaps predictably, remarks from the State Department’s Wendy Sherman were met with fierce criticism and skepticism from some corners of Capitol Hill against what President Barack Obama's administration hopes to achieve. Sherman, the undersecretary for political affairs, was continuing the work first set forth by Secretary of State John Kerry to convince the American people that a nuclear Iran does not necessarily equate to a threat.

[READ: Iranian President Says Nuclear Deal Marks U.S. 'Surrender']  

At the forefront of the debate over the future of Iran’s nuclear program is the country's self-proclaimed “right to enrich” nuclear materials at home.

“Depending on where we get in the comprehensive agreement,” Sherman said Tuesday, “we are willing to allow a very limited enrichment program, if it becomes a necessity.”

It would be better for Iran to bring such energy in from outside its borders if it wants to pursue a civil nuclear program, she added.

“It may be that at the end of a comprehensive agreement, we have allowed for a consideration of a very small, limited enrichment program to meet practical needs that would be highly monitored, highly verified,” she said. “Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

Critics of this plan, including Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Rand Paul, R-Ky., point to what they believe are inconsistencies among the terms of these negotiations, and previous U.S. policy and U.N. resolutions designed to punish Iran for privately seeking nuclear capabilities.

Administration officials maintain now, and will likely always state, that these conditions do not amount to admitting Iran’s “right to enrich” nuclear materials. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, however, has described the potential deal as “recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights and safeguarding Iran’s nuclear achievements."

Rouhani's statements are what makes  conservative members of Congress nervous, and fuels their calls for continued sanctions until Iran ceases its nuclear capabilities entirely.

It leaves diplomats and foreign policy advisers with a quagmire: If the U.S., after decades of sanctions policy, formally allows Iran to have a nuclear program, could it spin out of control?

“This is the assumption we’ve always had about other countries: You squeeze and squeeze, and bring them to their knees and they’ll give up,” says William Luers, director of the Iran Project at the World Affairs Council and a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia. Iran, he says, will take “enormous pain and suffering for its own national dignity.”

Crippling banking, economic and trade sanctions against Iran are what brought them to the negotiating table, he says, adding  those involved should not back down now.

“When you negotiate, you negotiate, and you don’t change the rules of the game,” he says. “The only track left is they get a bomb or we bomb them. You don’t want to leave yourself with those alternatives.”

The Obama administration has maintained that the current deal under negotiation with Iran would allow weapons inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect Iran’s nuclear sites often enough to ensure no weaponized enrichment. If Iran fails to meet these requirements, the U.S. would be able to destroy these nuclear facilities militarily.

The U.S. military does have the capability to strike, but would be faced with dozens of targets spread out across the entire country roughly the size of Alaska. And as Sherman said Tuesday, Iranian nuclear scientists cannot “unlearn what they already know,” meaning a military campaign to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions would likely require continued strikes after the first salvo.

IAEA has experience detecting nefarious moves designed to cover up secret nuclear facilities. But no amount of negotiating or inspections will ever be able to ensure completely  that Iran is obeying the terms of the deal.

“That’s a problem,” says George Perkovich, a nuclear proliferation expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But that problem exists today. That problem exists no matter what.”

“Nobody trusts Iran. And by the way, Iran doesn’t trust us,” he says. “But compared to without a deal, compared to after a war -- with a deal we’d have much greater confidence whether Iran was going to make nuclear weapons.”

[ALSO: New Iran Sanctions Would 'Blow It All Up,' Robert Gates Says]

Perkovich believes the framework for a deal exists that would give high confidence and unprecedented access to Iran’s actions, and give them very strong incentives not to cheat through further sanctions.

The U.S. and its allies have come this far. Military experts warn that turning back could escalate what is already a tense situation.

“One has to be a little cautious about the uncertainty and the limits here,” says Anthony Cordesman, a former high-ranking official at the Defense, Energy and State departments, currently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t just affect whether the agreement works, but it also affects the military options: You can’t target what you don’t know exists.”

Pulling inspectors and other sources of intelligence out now would leave the U.S. in the dark if it ever needed to authorize a military strike, Cordesman says. The entire effort relies on compromise.

“If the price of agreement is to get some subtle face-saving gestures for Iran, 5 percent enrichment may be an acceptable trade-off,” he says of the current proposals for their enrichment levels. “No matter what happens, we can bomb them forever and there are still going to be things they can conceal and hide.”