The Politics of Nuclear Physics

Early in the Obama administration, Washington’s designation of Iran as a “rogue state” was changed. Instead of a state defined as completely beyond redemption, or a pariah, Obama’s new moniker for the revolutionary regime in Tehran became an “outlier state”. Instead of being “beyond the pale” or, in other words, completely outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, the White House (under the Democratic Party) took the view that the Islamic Republic could decide on a new and more moderate path. Unfortunately for the administration, Iran’s Supreme Leader and his arch-conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, refused to comply with the wishes of the unrealistic American president. From 2009 until 2013 in Iran, the reform Left was completely purged from the system. Even to this day, with a new centrist president and his Western-trained foreign minister, the leaders of this Iranian reform left-wing movement still languish in prison.

The purging of Iran’s Left has meant that Obama’s desire for a normalization of Iran’s foreign policy (regarding a change in its support for an expansive Shiite attempt at hegemony throughout the Levant) became a vain hope. But the administration needed a partner in the Middle East, a country strong enough to take charge and apply a degree of order throughout the region. But this strategy needed to be accomplished without jeopardizing US interests: the peaceful flow of oil without a negative impact on traditional American allies. And while there was certainly a contradiction within the “outlier state” concept, the administration persisted in its pursuit of a so-called moderate Iran.

Obama saw the war in Iraq as a disaster. And even though Bush’s surge (2007-2008) had been successful, and the country was on its way toward a possible democratic outcome, Obama didn’t seem to care. He knew that his party demanded a sharp break in policy from his predecessor. Above all else, the young American president wanted to win reelection. Obama’s lack of support for Iraqi pluralism (with the election of Ayad Allawi in 2010) was an American foreign policy disaster. Whether through negligence or by design, the end results of Iraq’s 2010 election bypassed Allawi and, instead, tilted the country toward Iran. The Obama administration seemed uninvolved as Tehran was allowed to maneuver events. With the election of the pro-Shiite, sectarian-dominated administration of Nouri al Maliki, the trajectory of the region shifted toward Iran, the Shiites and eventual sectarian confrontation.

Within a year, the revolution in Syria had erupted. It was yet another cry, by an Arab people, for a pluralistic civil state under a strict democratic constitution. But once again Obama fretted about his domestic political base and his upcoming reelection. The last thing the American president wanted was to get involved in another war in the Middle East. So Obama turned his back on the Syrian masses, and the Syrian dictator Assad unleashed his extremely bloody counter-revolution. As the peaceful demonstrations were crushed, and the hope of a democratic outcome receded, the vacuum created was filled by jihadists. The most extreme form of Sunni Islamism took over. By June of 2014, the very borders of Syria and Iraq had been erased, as a full-fledged sectarian civil war raged across the Levant. Meanwhile, Barack Obama had won reelection, and within eight months he got his wish: an Iranian “reformer” was elected president of the Islamic Republic.

The premise of the Obama administration for the Iran nuclear negotiations (under the so-called “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani) has always been that for Iran to prove its moderation, it needs to agree to a deal that would allow the IAEA enough time to detect a breakout. This has been a dramatic break in American foreign policy. Instead of the criteria used when Iran had been labeled a “rogue state” — zero enrichment, zero stockpiling, zero plutonium, complete access to all sites (military and otherwise), no dual-use procurement and a full accounting of the complete history of the program — under the Obama designation of Iran as a “outlier” most of these categories have essentially been negotiated away. At the same time, the entire negotiating process has been compartmentalized. This means that Iranian regional support for Assad, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, the Shiite militias in Iraq (and whoever else Iran chooses) is disconnected from a potential nuclear deal.

From the Obama administration perspective, if a deal is to be signed, it will NOT be a permanent construct. On the contrary, the maximum time element the Americans have suggested is a mere fifteen years. After the expiration date, Iran would be allowed the same industrial level program as US allies Germany and Japan — in other words, from “outlier state” to detente to ally. Iran wants to cut this temporal element down to a short seven years. At this point, the key to a successful Iranian nuclear negotiation is the extent of the breakout time. But this breakout time is only for that part of the Iranian nuclear program which is known. Without a complete history of the program and continued sanctions on dual-use procurement, a covert breakout becomes practically undetectable. It is this covert aspect that is most worrisome to nuclear experts. How can the IAEA safeguard against a covert nuclear breakout without a full understanding of exactly where the program has been? It cannot, and it knows it.

But known breakout time (and only known breakout time) is what is being negotiated in Vienna. Iran appears locked into a two-month time period. But while the US has insisted on a one-year framework, Iran might be willing to trade a level of centrifuge capacity and a percentage of its enriched stockpile (apparently increasing its breakout time) for diminished access on monitored research and development. This would mean that the development of advanced centrifuge capacity could easily make up for any limitations on older devices and lower stockpiles of enriched materials. Again, without a full accounting of all aspects of the Iranian nuclear program (including the all-important military dimension), even concrete reductions to known centrifuge numbers will not mean an actual reduction in potential unknown (covert) centrifuge capacity.

The Obama administration’s Middle East policy has been, and continues to be, centered on a kind of wishful thinking with regard to Iran. The election of Hassan Rouhani has been misread in Washington as the beginning of a normalization process that would lead Iran toward a diminution of its revolutionary, anti-imperialist Islamic ideology. But the election of Rouhani was not a victory for reform. Instead, it was a consolidation of the elite in an attempt to end the fragmentation of Right from Left. It accomplished this by allowing the victory of an ex-reform candidate who had vowed allegiance to an orthodox, yet centrist position. Without abandoning its revolutionary status, the Rouhani regime has remained committed to a circumscribed program of the outward appearance of moderation through carefully orchestrated nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, the real reformers have been excised from the system. Rouhani has pocketed concrete American nuclear concessions, while doing little in the way of domestic or regional reform. In fact he has little control over foreign policy, other than the nuclear file. And of course the domestic situation has not been liberalized by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

The Obama administration has played into the hands of the Iranian elite’s game plan. With the rise of the Sunni extremists (ISIS), the idea that there really is an American military option toward Iran has become anachronistic. Meanwhile, US and EU mishandling of the Ukraine situation has bifurcated the international global order. If anything, Iran has Russian and Chinese options to play economically as a hedge against further sanctions. No one really expects that by November 24th a final deal can be negotiated; yet given Obama’s Middle East predispositions, few expect the negotiations to break down, either. Most likely a general framework will be agreed upon over the weekend. And in reality, both Israel and the Sunni Arab states are preparing themselves for an eventual “bad deal” to be portrayed by Washington as a “good deal”.

When it comes to Israel, Iran can only be considered a “rogue state”. Nothing has changed, except the policy of the US under Barack Obama. Saudi Arabia feels the same way. Iran now boasts that it controls four Arab capitals. With so many concessions since the start of Rouhani’s “charm offensive”, serious analysts have now concluded that the famous Obama red line — that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon — has turned a kind of pink. There are many on the Left in Washington who believe that Iran is truly an “outlier state” whose nuclear weapons ambitions have been curtailed. These are the same people who continue to demand that Israel return to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. Other establishment think-tank Liberals would have nuclear containment as the preferred US policy choice. Therefore, by the standards of these people, a “bad deal” or even no deal could somehow be acceptable. All of these views are predicated on a false reading of the election of Hassan Rouhani.

The Supreme Leader still controls Iran, and his views on the Jewish state have not changed. The destruction of Israel is the policy position of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Obama’s wishful thinking cannot erase the rhetoric of annihilation stated on many occasions by the Supreme Leader. Unless Obama’s own party, the Democratic Party, can rise to meet the challenge of their own president, fairly soon Iran will become either a nuclear threshold state, or the next North Korea. Everything hinges on the Democrats, both in Congress and with hopes for the White House. Remember, in politics the next election is right around the corner. What candidate would be comfortable running on a platform of a nuclear Iran? And who could be comfortable with a Middle East in the midst of a nuclear arms race?

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).