The Clock is Ticking

Time is running short, so I’ll be brief today. By July 20th this year, the Iranian nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 will either succeed or fail. The task is daunting. So say all the experts in the US. The Israeli state, the Congress and the Saudi king would prefer a deal whereby Iran would need to import all its enriched material to support a strictly civilian nuclear energy program. The Saudis have suggested that they too will find a way to possess any nuclear infrastructure that Iran would be allowed to possess. In the Washington think tanks, there is not one expert who believes that a zero-enrichment nuclear deal with Iran is possible. Equally challenging is the universal belief that Iran would never accept a deal that didn’t allow for a type nuclear capability in exchange for a total lifting of the sanctions regime. That includes all the sanctions written into law by the US Congress.
The Obama administration is on board with all its Washington experts. The thinking is fairly straightforward. The deal with Iran must possess a breakout time (not covert or sneak-out time) that would allow Washington not only enough time to discover the breakout, but also enough time to do something about it. In other words, Iran will have a nuclear capability but would be deterred from using it to make a bomb because of the harsh consequences which discovery would incur. Prevention through deterrence is the philosophy behind the Obama nuclear strategy.
Will the hard-liners in Iran go for a deal that so limits their enrichment that the functional speed of their breakout time is expanded to about a year or so? Perhaps they would. But at the same time they might never accept an intrusion regime that could dig deep into the military applications of their past nuclear research or the precise nature of their current military installations. Of course, that would include all known or exposed facilities which run the gamut of Iran’s entire nuclear war-making capacity (from the mining of uranium to the production of centrifuges to the production of nuclear-capable missiles). Remember, the underground enrichment facility at Fordow was first a covert operation and discovered as such. How good is IAEA intelligence with regard to the mountain nation of Iran? Without a detailed history of past Iranian nuclear weapons research in total, Tehran’s sneak-out potential is high. Sneak-out, as opposed to breakout, capacity would require an intrusive military regime.
But, for there to be an acceptable nuclear deal, all of America’s allies must be satisfied that the deal is in their interest. This includes Israel and Saudi Arabia. For that to happen, both the breakout time and the intrusion regime (both nuclear and military) must be expansive. Similarly, the punishment regime for cheating must be swift and near automatic. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t have months upon months to wait for an appropriate military response to an Iranian breakout or sneak-out. Retribution must be fast and certain. Now, however, with US-Russia relations at a nadir, the likelihood of quick Security Council action will depend on the level of cooperation (or lack of it) between the US, Russia and China. This does not bode well for the future of any deal. Unfortunately, the US think tank experts didn’t put the division of Europe or the containment of China (the pivot) into their global equations. So a quick response to an Iranian breakout or sneak-out would most likely depend on a US president who could rally the EU into action. Good luck, President Obama, on convincing the Saudis and the Israelis of that potential scenario.
However, Saudi concerns and Israeli concerns do not completely overlap. Israel’s primary concern (at this stage) is not encirclement, but sudden strategic existential surprise. Without an assured monopoly on nuclear weapons regionally, Israel basically has little use for such weapons. Their use could only be catastrophic, and their user would have to be either insane or suicidal or both. Israel perceives Iran in such a potential light. How many other nations around the world regularly threaten a nuclear weapon state with annihilation while espousing a Holocaust denial philosophy? I can’t think of any other than Iran. Israel rejects Iranian nuclear enrichment as part of any nuclear deal. She expects US Congressional support. But it is unclear (depending on the deal) if Congress and Israel are on the same page.
Saudi nuclear concerns are different. They worry about encirclement and “boots on the ground”. They envision an American nuclear deal with Iran as a major step toward a US-Iran rapprochement, leading eventually to a full-scale detente. They fear a return to the 1950’s-1970’s when US policy in the Gulf was based on a strong relationship with a powerful Iran. The Saudis continually point to the Obama administration’s dithering on Syria, as Iran and Russia prop up Assad. They are equally frustrated with US policy on Iraq, which also favors a pro-Iranian regime that has Obama’s support. In fact, the Saudis fail to understand US Middle East policy in total. The Kerry mission on the Israeli-Arab conflict is appreciated, but it is such a long shot, that any hope for a successful outcome to alter the regional balance of power is next to nil. I believe the Saudis would prefer a complete breakdown of the nuclear talks as the only path that could play to their interests. Perhaps the Israelis feel the same way.
For Iran, their nuclear ambitions have always been military in scope. They have a defensive aspect, given Iran’s history of abuse and intrusion by neighboring and international empires. But the Islamic Republic also seeks a regional hegemony that could satisfy its theological imperatives. This theological ambition is certainly true of the hard-liners. Iran will take a nuclear deal that lifts all sanctions but limits military intrusiveness. They will seek a six-month breakout time or less. Past nuclear military development will be negotiated, but not without other concessions. The same is true for enrichment capacity. How much Obama and company will give in terms of enrichment capacity and military intrusion will depend on many factors, including the US fall elections and possible negative Congressional reaction. Congress and the American people will not be generous with Iran, but how that translates into an “all options on the table” response, increased sanctions, or a potential nuclear deal is anybody’s guess.
As far as a non-enrichment regime with intrusive inspection both military and nuclear, only a nuclear-weapons-free zone would allow for such an agreement. The clock is ticking.

My blog will return in mid-April, before the end of Passover. I wish you all happy holidays!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).