As the clock ticks down to the March 31st deadline for the Iranian nuclear talks in Lausanne, a glaring gap has emerged between the long-stated position of the P5+1 and the latest expectations set by the United States.
The stated objective of the interim agreement signed between the six major parties and Iran in November 2013 was unambiguous: “The goal of these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons” (emphasis added).
After two extensions of talks and the lifting of some sanctions, we have arrived at the conclusion of the “first step” negotiations in the lead up to an anticipated comprehensive agreement on June 30th. And yet virtually no one is talking about the goal of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program will be “exclusively peaceful.” Instead, chatter has revolved around how long the international community may have until it discovers that Iran has “broken out” towards work on a nuclear bomb.
How did this scenario, which violates the spirit and letter of the interim agreement, even arise?
President Obama has repeatedly vowed that Iran “will not be allowed” to acquire nuclear weapons and that all pathways to a bomb will be effectively severed. However, as recently as March 20th, the President expressed inconsistent – if not contradictory – goals in an interview with the Huffington Post. In side-by-side sentences, he reiterated that the aim of the talks was to “prevent” Iran from having a nuclear weapon, but went on in the next breath to admit that talks would make it “much less likely” that Iran would be able to “break out” to build a bomb.
There is a world of policy difference between an unequivocal commitment to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and a plan that simply makes such a scenario “less likely”. A robust deal would shut down key parts of Iran’s nuclear program, establish a comprehensive verification system, provide sufficient time to detect prohibited nuclear activities, and set out clear consequences for Iranian violations. Each of these elements is indispensable; and they are all being put at risk by the current American effort to dial down expectations so radically.
If the new goal is to secure a palatable – rather than comprehensive and rigorous – deal, Iranian negotiators will respond by taking advantage at the negotiating table. What student of international relations would blame them?
Indeed, virtually every leak coming from the talks indicates the Americans are making concession after concession to Iran: the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to retain; where they will be allowed to maintain facilities – including the Fordow site buried deep under a mountain, virtually impervious to attack; what sort of R&D Iran will be allowed to conduct; and where and when the UN’s IAEA will be allowed by Iran to do their work.
On the latter point, the IAEA’s chief, Yukio Amano, has continued to raise alarm bells around the fact that Iran refuses to disclose past work on nuclear devices. This includes weaponization activities that directly contradict Iran’s assurances that the sole purpose of its nuclear program is peaceful. Reports suggest that the Americans are prepared to allow Tehran to voluntarily disclose this information after sanctions are removed.
The Iranian regime is a world leader in misdirection, machination, and manipulation. Let’s not forget that Iran succeeded for years in defying at least six UN Security Council resolutions. For that matter, we cannot overlook the words of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself, who told Iran’s Supreme Cultural Revolution Council in 2004: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear] facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there.”
While Canada is not directly involved in the nuclear negotiations, the Canadian position is in many ways a model for our international allies. A consensus has emerged among all three major political parties in Ottawa not only in favour of Canadian sanctions; there has been unanimity on the need for strong verification measures as part of a comprehensive agreement that blocks Iran’s path to the bomb. Such clarity, coupled with outspoken advocacy on the international stage, is perhaps the best means by which countries like Canada can bolster the efforts of the P5+1.
International resolve is all the more critical this week given the dangers of proliferation in an increasingly volatile, sectarian, and violent region. In the Middle East, Newton’s Third Law of Physics is always in effect. Should the Iranians cross the nuclear threshold, we have every reason to believe that its Sunni rivals in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf States would respond accordingly.
All of which is to say: I want it to work this week in Lausanne. I unequivocally agree with the long-stated American policy of preventing – not containing – a nuclear Iran, which is why I and many others are so disappointed that President Obama has reduced expectations to the point of conceding the entire goal.
While the agreement he now appears to seek may forestall Iran from obtaining nuclear arms during his presidency, it would do so at the cost of forfeiting serious measures that could remain effective in blocking Iran’s path in the months and years after he leaves office. This need not be Obama’s legacy, provided he holds his ground this week in Lausanne.