On Iran and Nukes, Talk Has Been Costly

If the Obama administration truly wishes to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, it's time for a new, hard-nosed approach.

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President Barack Obama gestures during a speech about automatic defense budget cuts, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, at Newport News Shipbuilding in Newport News, Va.

Patrick Christy and Evan Moore are senior policy analysts at the Foreign Policy Initiative

For nearly a decade, the United States has tried to use both economic pressure and diplomatic engagement to persuade Iran to halt its drive to nuclear weapons-making capability. Yet, while Iran's ongoing refusal to honor its international obligations for nuclear transparency arguably calls for the imposition of harsher sanctions, the Obama administration appears to be doubling down on diplomacy. Here, the danger is that we'll be tempted to give up our end to obtain our means.

During the most recent round of multilateral negotiations with Iran, world powers—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, and Germany, known collectively as the "P5+1"—again gave ground, reversing their previous insistence that Iran shut down Fordow, a uranium enrichment facility built deep within a mountain near the city of Qom. While the move is intended to coax a more cooperative negotiating posture from the Islamic Republic, Tehran is more likely to simply pocket this preemptive concession, and insist it be used as new baseline for any further negotiations.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

If President Obama genuinely hopes the P5+1 talks will lead Iran to halt activities relevant to a nuclear weapons-making program, then retreating on key negotiating positions, in return for nothing substantive, is a terrible tactic. As the Washington Institute's Michael Singh observed, "negotiations are about perceptions, and continual, incremental shifts in one's bottom line can convey to the party across the table that your ‘true' bottom line has yet to be reached." It seems that the Obama administration's desire to pursue diplomacy with Iran has overridden the danger of hurriedly, if not also haphazardly, getting to yes on an agreement that meets none of America's policy goals.

Iran's leaders have repeatedly used negotiations to buy time as they improve their capability to produce nuclear weapons on shorter notice. Iran has amassed stockpiles of low enriched uranium of 3.5 percent purity, which—if further enriched—will be enough for at least two nuclear explosive devices. It has expanded its Fordow enrichment facility hidden inside a mountain. And it is deploying newer-model centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment site, which will facilitate production of low enriched uranium at twice the current rate. The expansion of Fordow and upgraded centrifuges at Natanz will dramatically decrease the time needed for Iran to overtly "breakout" or covertly "sneakout," and produce material usable in nuclear explosives.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?]

In addition, Iran recently diverted 10 kilograms of its 20 percent high enriched uranium into reactor fuel. High enriched uranium at 20 percent purity can be further enriched with relative ease and rapidly incorporated into a nuclear device, and this move keeps Iran's stockpile below the minimum quantity required for such a weapon. But while superficially this development can be interpreted as a step in the right direction, ulterior motives are evident. 

Tehran has made key advancements in the technical aspects of its nuclear program while scrupulously staying beneath the "red line" that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew during his speech at this year's United Nations General Assembly. This fits with what the United States believes to be Iran's strategy for achieving nuclear weapons-making capability: developing the components of the program (explosive material, warhead design, and the delivery system) contemporaneously, and then sprinting for weaponization at the supreme leader's command. By diverting a portion of its high enriched uranium stockpile into reactor fuel and simultaneously expanding its capacity to rapidly produce more, "Iran might be delaying the day when it is ready to make the dash to a nuclear weapon, but is ensuring that the dash will be as short as possible," in the words of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Michael Makovsky and Blaise Misztal.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Discourage Israel From Attacking Iran?]

Preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons-making capability requires restoring credibility to the international community's bargaining position. First, the United States and its international partners should demand Iran take verifiable steps to prove its commitment to negotiation. Second, the White House should use President Obama's upcoming trip to Israel as an opportunity to publicly reiterate that the United States—if required—will use military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Reversing or easing sequestration's massive defense cuts to restore the number of carrier strike groups deployed in the Persian Gulf would further reinforce this declaration. Finally, policymakers in Washington should increase economic pressure on the Iranian regime by targeting the European Central Bank's system for cross-border bank payments.

For a decade, the United States and its international partners have used diplomacy and sanctions to persuade Tehran from its long march to nuclear weapons-making capability. Iran still has not been persuaded, and continues to play a game of inches, negotiating in bad faith as it furthers its nuclear ambitions. If the Obama administration truly wishes to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, it's time for a new, hard-nosed approach that views diplomacy as a means, and not as an end in of itself.

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