With the clock winding down on a June 30th deadline for a nuclear agreement with Iran, Obama administration critics fear a potential deal is worsening by the day as U.S. concessions accelerate in the final days of the negotiations.
But as bad as these last-minute U.S. concessions appear – such as a reported U.S. offer to write-off Iran’s past nuclear weapons work and giving Iran advanced nuclear technology – they ultimately will not reduce the chances of getting a “good” nuclear deal due to a huge U.S. concession made before the negotiations began: allowing Iran to enrich uranium.
This was more than a concession. It was an American surrender to Iran on its nuclear program.
Uranium enrichment is a dangerous dual-use nuclear technology because it is very easy to use an enrichment program intended for peaceful purposes to produce nuclear weapons fuel. After secret revelations about Iran’s nuclear program emerged in 2002, the Bush administration tried to stop the spread of uranium enrichment. Congress endorsed this approach on a bipartisan basis and pressured the Bush administration to require the UAE to forswear uranium enrichment (and plutonium reprocessing) from an agreement to share American nuclear technology. This agreement was signed and strengthened by the Obama administration in 2009.
Over the objections of Congress, the Obama administration in 2011 backed away from this strict standard barring enrichment and plutonium reprocessing from nuclear technology sharing agreements and decided to approach these issues on a case-by-case basis.
It is impossible to see how the Obama administration can justify Iran as a case to allow uranium enrichment, since its nuclear program was begun in secret and developed in defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions and Iran’s treaty obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran is also refusing to come clean on past nuclear-weapons related work or allow IAEA inspectors access to all of its nuclear sites.
Iranian leaders claim their uranium enrichment program is peaceful, but they have been unable to provide a convincing explanation for why their nation needs to enrich. Iran has only 19,000 enrichment centrifuges, far short of the 200,000 it would need to enrich enough uranium fuel for its Bushehr power reactor. Iran has too many centrifuges for other peaceful purposes such as producing medical isotopes.
Desperate for a nuclear agreement with Iran and frustrated that Iranian leaders would not budge on the enrichment issue, the U.S. offered to allow Iran to enrich uranium during multilateral talks in Baghdad in May 2012. This huge U.S. concession was incorporated into a November 2013 interim agreement and the current nuclear talks that began in early 2014.
This U.S. surrender conceded to Iran the “right” to enrich uranium and effectively conceded the nuclear bomb to Tehran. Diplomatic efforts since that time have amounted to negotiating the terms of this surrender.
Negotiations on the terms of the Obama nuclear surrender to Iran have not gone well. The number of centrifuges Iran would be permitted to operate grew from a reported 500 in 2012 to 5,000 by April 2015. According to an April 2, 2015 State Department fact sheet, none of Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges (or any of its nuclear infrastructure) will be destroyed or removed from the country. Iran will be allowed to develop advanced centrifuges during an agreement which will shorten the timeline to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Iran also will not be required to send its stockpile of reactor-grade enriched uranium out of the country. This enriched uranium could be used to make a nuclear weapon in two to three months and is enough to fuel about nine weapons.
Obama administration officials and their supporters claim the enrichment concession was justified because a nuclear agreement with Iran is impossible without it, since Iranian leaders refuse to give up their enrichment program. This is a rationalization to explain away the reality that when Iranian leaders said they would not give up their uranium enrichment program, they were also saying they had no interest in an agreement to halt or significantly delay their capability to produce nuclear weapons.
Obama officials have claimed the proliferation risks of allowing Iran to enrich uranium during a nuclear agreement will be checked by robust, intrusive and “snap” IAEA inspections. While this is a dubious claim, since Iran would be allowed to improve its enrichment expertise while an agreement is in effect, we now know there will be no robust and intrusive inspections, since Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Iranian Parliament have declared military facilities and non-declared nuclear sites off-limits to IAEA inspectors.
By allowing Iran to enrich uranium, the United States conceded an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that has no purpose other than producing nuclear weapons. This concession also set the stage for an agreement that will legitimize the nuclear program of a state sponsor of terror with a long record of cheating on its nuclear treaty commitments.
America also abandoned a principled stand against a dangerous dual-use nuclear technology that it has refused to allow friendly states to pursue. As a result, Iran’s neighbors are certain to start their own uranium enrichment programs. It also will be difficult if not impossible for the U.S. to exclude uranium enrichment from future agreements to share peaceful nuclear technology with other states if this deal with Iran is concluded.
Congress must recognize that the nuclear talks with Iran were lost before they began because of the Obama surrender on uranium enrichment. This made the nuclear talks so fundamentally flawed that a meaningful agreement to halt or significantly slow Iran’s nuclear weapons program became impossible. It is therefore imperative that Congress, on a bipartisan basis, reject any agreement produced by the nuclear talks and impose new sanctions on Iran until it complies with its nuclear treaty obligations and all UN Security Council resolutions, especially on its uranium enrichment program.
I am hopeful that the next U.S. administration will restart a diplomatic process with Iran to seek a meaningful agreement to resolve international concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. To get such an agreement, we will need a president who is not obsessed with getting a legacy nuclear agreement with Iran and who will categorically rule out the continuation of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs for the Center for Security Policy. He worked in national-security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz