The War of Wills Between U.S. and Iran
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper warned Congress last Tuesday that Iran's technical progress toward building missile-deliverable nuclear weapons "makes the central issue its political will to do so." President Obama issued his own warning that evening, telling Congress that he would veto legislation imposing new sanctions if Iran continues its nuclear program. Although Obama promised that he will be "the first to call for more sanctions and stand ready to exercise all options" if diplomacy fails, the United States is quickly losing ground in its contest of wills with Tehran.
Under the Joint Plan of Action announced in November 2013, Iran is committed to only a tactical pause at the nuclear threshold, no more than two months away from a nuclear weapon. A recent report found that even if Tehran irreversibly dismantled 80 percent of its 19,000 installed centrifuges as part of a final agreement, Tehran could still be just six months away from the bomb. For his part, Iranian President HassanRouhani has rejected even these lenient terms, declaring that Iran will not dismantle any of its centrifuges "under any circumstances."
The interim deal has also allowed Iran to catch its breath from crippling international sanctions. Ignoring the U.S. position that "Tehran is not open for business," Iran hosted more trade delegations during the first two weeks of 2014 than all last year, and its economy is showingmarked signs of recovery. As both Iranian and European negotiators propose extending the interim period envisioned by the Joint Plan of Action, Tehran's leaders are confident that they can bank on at least a year to erode sanctions.
Iran is cashing in on its growing prestige. In the months since the Joint Plan of Action was announced, Iran has developed more capable next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium, worked with its proxy Hezbollah to smuggle anti-ship missiles into Lebanon, continued its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's war against the Syrian people, and attempted smuggling weapons to militants in Bahrain.
As Iran's leaders prepare for the next round of talks, American diplomatic missteps risk bolstering their confidence as much as the lenient terms of the interim deal.
Iran is fully engaged in Syria, where President Obama's 2013 "red line" debacle over Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons attacks has come full circle. It is now clear that Assad will neither meet the deadlines set in the U.S.-Russian plan for destroying his chemical weapons, nor relent from his slaughter of Syrian civilians. While even Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly admitted that U.S. policy is failing in Syria, the administration has not articulated any meaningful response toAssad's rope-a-dope strategy toward Washington's diplomatic outreach
Tehran can also see Washington's tepid response to Russia's apparent violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by flight testing a new ground-launched cruise missile. The White House has avoided publicly acknowledging this violation of a keystone arms control agreement for fear of jeopardizing future talks to reduce nuclear arms with Russia - talks that the Russians have already rejected.
As long as Iran believes that the White House values diplomatic process over real-world outcomes, there is little reason for it to believe that Obama has the political will to "exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon."
The American critics of this failing policy must develop their own plan of action, committed to rolling back Iran's nuclear program.
Advocates of a sane Iran policy must continue to work for what Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has described as a "diplomatic insurance policy" in case Iran refuses to dismantle its nuclear program. In December 2013, Senator Menendez and Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, which would impose harsh new sanctions in the event that Iran either violates the interim nuclear deal's terms or does not negotiate in good faith toward a comprehensive agreement. Despite the president's veto threat, Iranian intransigence will likely force this bill or similar legislation back onto Congress' agenda again this year.
Congress should also articulate the minimum acceptable terms for a comprehensive agreement. Even if Iran yields from its no-dismantlement position, the United States should not accept a bad deal that leaves Iran just several months from the bomb. One immediate step that Congress can take is to call on the Obama administration to define Iran's "practical needs" for a civil nuclear program, and why uranium enrichment is as uneconomical for Iran as it is dangerous for the world.
It is also necessary to highlight Iran's flaunting of its commitments under the interim agreement and continued provocations throughout the Middle East and abroad. The IAEA's quarterly reports on Iran this year will detail Tehran's nuclear activity between the conclusion of the Joint Plan of Action in November 2013 and the agreement's implementation on January 20, as well as the continued growth of its 3.5 percent enriched uranium stockpile.
Finally, we must reverse the defense cuts that are harming U.S. military capabilities. If the United States cannot meet commitments to vital allies or afford to conduct military operations, no warning to Iran about "all options" being on the table will be credible. This danger was previewed during the summer 2013 debate over Syria, when the Pentagon warned that budget cuts and reduced readiness were a serious concern.
The United States has a long way to go to make up for lost ground in its standoff with Tehran, but the road ahead will be navigable if the current policy's critics pursue a comprehensive agenda to break Iran's will to get a nuclear weapon.