Soft words and smiles from the new Iranian president grate less than the bilious tirades of the unlamented Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the radical leadership continues to forge towards nuclear capability as fast as it thinks is possible without provoking a military reaction. At the present accelerated rate of enriching uranium, Iran may well acquire enough highly enriched fissionable material to make a bomb within a matter of months if not weeks. That's the threshold President Obama and the Israeli government have publicly vowed Iran will not be allowed to cross. Negotiations will become meaningless. Their smiles, like those of the Cheshire-Cat in "Alice in Wonderland," may remain in the air but the mischief will have been done.
Iran has installed over 16,000 centrifuges and has recently introduced 3,000 advanced centrifuges that will at least triple production of enrichment-grade uranium. They are well along to what security experts call a "nuclear breakout," whereby they could increase the size and sophistication of their civilian atomic apparatus to the point where it can quickly result in a bomb. They are spinning the centrifuges while spinning the United States.
This menacing prospect has made a nonsense of Western policy. All the attempts to persuade Iran have failed so far because they have not been backed up by a credible military threat. The Sunni countries that have long been in the American camp are feeling abandoned. They see the appearance of an easing of tensions over Syria and Iran as a public relations exercise, and America's satisfaction as a dangerous delusion. In fact, they perceive a confused administration that has dragged its feet and is now a weakened superpower, outmaneuvered first by Russia and perhaps now by Iran.
As for the Israelis, many in Washington now feel Obama has pulled the rug out from beneath long mutual understandings. They see us prepared to swallow as many bitter pills as the ayatollahs in Tehran can proffer in our desire to avoid getting into another war in the Middle East. But the hard, discomfiting fact is that the U.S. is the only country that can ensure Iran does stay free of nuclear weapons and then also reshape the region for peace and security. Alas, Obama's warnings are simply not believed.
Since the heady talk is of new negotiations, what must be the principles of our policy?
First, as Amos Yadlin, director of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies has suggested, an agreement must insist upon a limit on the number of centrifuges.
Second, there must be a limit on enrichment. Enriching to 5 percent, the peaceful threshold, gets Iran to 85 to 90 percent of the way there for military purposes. That's not acceptable. Our Sunni allies believe Obama must demand a freeze, the removal of enriched uranium and an end to the construction of nuclear facilities, including a heavy water reactor for producing plutonium.
Third, Yadlin argues, all material taken away can be returned to Iran only in a form that cannot be used in nuclear weapons.
Fourth, a bad deal is worse than no deal.
Finally, a foolproof system of verification must include the ability to search for hidden sites. It's important that the previously concealed Fordow enrichment facility and the Iranian nuclear reactor cannot be used to produce nuclear weapons if Iran were ever to renounce an agreement.
We just cannot take the Iranians on trust. In the last two decades they have lied about various activities linked to weapons projects and suspicious sites and individuals. Our Middle East allies are dismayed that the Iranians have progressed so far without dismantling the installations. Iran has come this far without opening up a single nuclear facility to inspections.
That is why the recent warming of relations between Obama and President Hassan Rouhani has provoked unease amounting to a sense of betrayal among every pro-American regime in the Middle East, especially the Sunni regimes, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and the other anti-Shiite forces in the region. Iran's negotiating posture is seen as seeking significantly lighter sanctions without paying an international price. A nuclear Iran would then achieve hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
The Saudis see Rouhani less as a reformer than as a consummate regime insider committed to the radical Islamic Republic, whose campaign is focusing on moderating its style more than its substance and who seeks to delude the West while it continues to "smile and build a bomb." It was Rouhani who previously boasted that by creating a "calm environment, we were able to complete the work [of the nuclear facility] in Isfahan."