For Israel and US, Iran turns a chasm

For Israel and US, Iran turns a chasm

For Israel and US, Iran turns a chasm

Over six years of bitter disagreements about how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel kept running into one central problem: The two leaders never described their ultimate goal in quite the same way.

Obama repeats a seemingly simple vow: On his watch, the United States will do whatever it takes to “prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Netanyahu uses a different measure, saying Iran must be stopped from getting the “capability” that would allow it to become a “threshold nuclear state.”

In his speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday, Netanyahu took that argument to the next level, contending that any accord that leaves Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

With that claim, Netanyahu has widened a once-semantic difference into a strategic chasm. If Obama goes ahead with the deal now on the table, it threatens to imperil the American-Israeli relationship for years to come. If he does not, he may be passing up the most audacious diplomatic gamble by an American leader since President Richard M Nixon’s opening to China.

For years, Obama and Netanyahu avoided direct discussion of the philosophic and practical differences between an Iran on the verge of having the ultimate weapon and an Iran actually possessing it. “It’s a distinction with a huge difference,” said Robert Einhorn, who helped formulate the administration’s Iran strategy at the State Department and enforced the sanctions that helped force Tehran into the difficult negotiations that followed. “It defines two different approaches to dealing with Iran that today may be fundamentally irreconcilable.”

After Tuesday’s speech, Obama must address the argument of why he can live with an Iran only a year away from a nuclear weapon. He inched toward it on Tuesday when, speaking at length to reporters about Iran after Netanyahu made his case, the president argued that the prime minister had no better plan to offer.

“If we’re successful in negotiating, then, in fact, this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Even military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”

But Netanyahu has simplicity and recent history on his side. The essence of his case is that the only way to make sure Iran never gets a bomb is to wipe out every enrichment plant and reactor it might use to get one. It is a maximalist position based on a belief that Iran’s long history of nuclear deception means that any facilities left in place would eventually be put to use.

To bolster his case, Netanyahu invoked one of the great failures of American counterproliferation efforts: The diplomatic attempt under two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W Bush, to talk North Korea into restrictions to keep the regime from producing nuclear weapons. The North Koreans agreed to disable some of their facilities, but, when things went sour with the Obama administration, they rebuilt.

The problem with the dismantle-it-all approach is that the Iranians have made clear they would never sign such a deal. For all the suspicions swirling around Iran’s programme, the country is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran argues gives it a “right to enrich.”

So Obama’s strategy has been to buy as much time as possible, which has worked well with Iran for two decades. No nation has spent more years seemingly trying to build a weapon but failing to get there. American intelligence agencies say that is because Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has never made the “political decision” to build a bomb.

Slowing Iran’s efforts
The US and its allies have done their part to slow Iran’s efforts, blocking the shipment of needed technology, imposing sanctions on the country’s oil exports, slipping faulty parts into its supply chain and attacking the country’s nuclear facilities with one of the most sophisticated cyberweapons ever developed.

Obama’s approach is based in part on a bet that time remains on America’s side. Eventually, the administration’s thinking goes, the clerical government in Iran will fall or be eased from power, and a more progressive leadership will determine that Iran does not need a weapon.

But that puts an implicit gamble at the heart of the accord: that the long-awaited change will occur within 15 years, when the deal would expire and Iran would be free to build 180,000 advanced centrifuges that Khamenei spoke about last summer.

It is a gamble Obama thinks is worth it – especially since the alternative, bombing the Iranian facilities, would set back Tehran’s programme by only three or four years and drive its efforts fully underground.

The narrative, fueled by Netanyahu, that the United States is making concession after concession stings US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was negotiating the accord in Switzerland. But Kerry has declined to discuss the prospective deal citing the confidentiality of the talks. That secrecy is costing him support every day, in Congress and from his allies in the Persian Gulf.

In fact, a case can be made that the number of spinning centrifuges is only one factor affecting how long it would take Iran to get to a bomb. If Iran ships enough of its fuel out of the country, in a deal with Russia that has largely been struck, officials say, there would be precious little nuclear fuel to enrich.

If the remaining centrifuges are connected to one another in ways that can produce only reactor-grade uranium, it would essentially limit Iran’s options – as long as inspectors were present every few days or weeks, so that they could raise the alarm if the machines were reconfigured to make bomb fuel.

But those arguments require some knowledge of the physics of enriching uranium, and they will be hashed out in an environment where politics, not engineering, will dominate the debate. Kerry says he is ready for that.

The key, he said, was “intrusive inspections” and “all the insights necessary to be able to know to a certainty that the programme is, in fact, peaceful.” And there lies the problem for the White House. It is easy to make verification measures sound tough, but it is hard to enforce them. Dennis B Ross, who worked for Obama from 2009 to 2011, wrote recently that the deal must have “anywhere, anytime access to all declared and undeclared facilities.”

As part of Obama’s selling of the agreement, Ross argued, he should specifically describe how the US would respond to any race for the bomb, including the use of military force.
For his part, Obama says the use of force is implicit in a promise he made two years ago that “we’ve got Israel’s back.” Netanyahu once pretended to welcome those words. His speech on Tuesday is testament to the fact that, rightly or wrongly, he no longer believes them.

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