Netanyahu and White House Talk Past Each Other on Iran

Yesterday in Washington, the showdown between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iranian nuclear talks came to a head.  In a controversial address before a joint meeting of Congress, Prime Minister Netanyahu criticized the terms of the agreement now taking shape and urged the United States to walk away from “a very bad deal.”  President Barack Obama dismissed the speech as “nothing new,” and said that the Prime Minister “didn’t offer any viable alternatives” to a compromise deal, which the President called “the best way” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

This contentious back-and-forth has shed more heat than light, with both sides continuing to talk past each other.  Prime Minister Netanyahu raised two main objections to the prospective deal in his speech.  First, he argued that the restrictions under discussion would not roll back Iran’s nuclear program far enough.  Because Iran would still retain “thousands of centrifuges” and other elements of its nuclear infrastructure, Iran’s break-out time—the time needed to produce enough fuel for a nuclear bomb—“would be very short—about a year by U.S. assessment, even shorter by Israel’s.”

Second, the Prime Minister questioned the so-called sunset clause, which would lift these restrictions after a set period of time, reportedly about ten years.   After that, Iran could legally pursue industrial-scale uranium enrichment, which “could make the fuel for an entire nuclear arsenal and this in a matter of weeks.”  According to the Prime Minister, the proposed deal “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech did not offer much in the way of new arguments, he did grab the world’s headlines and forced the Obama administration to defend its position in public.  The White House dispatched both U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Susan Rice to address the AIPAC Policy Conference on March 2.  President Obama, on the same day, discussed the Iran nuclear negotiations in an interview with Reuters, and returned to the topic yesterday, in remarks from the Oval Office.

In her AIPAC speech, Ambassador Rice stated that “a good deal” would extend Iran’s current break-out time from two-to-three months to one year, and maintain restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for a decade—far longer than any setback that could be dealt to the program by military action.  President Obama, in his Reuters interview, said that an agreement of “double-digit years” would be “far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be.”

The Israeli Prime Minister failed to acknowledge these arguments.  Left unsaid in his address was the risk that if talks collapse, Iran could immediately ramp up its nuclear program and reduce cooperation with inspectors.  That might happen more quickly than new sanctions could be imposed and have any meaningful effect.   A ten-year agreement would at least delay this outcome and buy time, during which the Iranian regime might moderate its behavior.

For its part, the Obama administration has remained vague on two crucial questions: how would the agreement be enforced and what happens after it expires?  In her AIPAC speech, Ambassador Rice said that the administration will rely on inspections: “any deal must last more than a decade—with additional provisions ensuring greater transparency into Iran’s program for an even longer period of time.”  But what, specifically, would this “greater transparency” entail?

In his remarks yesterday, President Obama said that the deal “would subject Iran to the most vigorous inspections and verifications regimes that have ever been put in place.”  To date, the “anywhere, anytime” inspections in Iraq in the 1990s have been the most intrusive.  But these were put in place following Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War.  Iran has given no indication that it is prepared to accept a similarly intrusive regime.

For example, will Iran allow inspectors into what it deems non-nuclear sites, such as the Parchin military complex?  Ambassador Rice stated that “any deal must ensure frequent and intrusive inspections at Iran’s nuclear sites.”  Yet this formulation—“Iran’s nuclear sites”—leaves open the possibility that other sites could remain off-limits, or at least subject to time-consuming arguments over access.

During the period of the agreement, inspections will be critical to ensuring that Iran is not operating any secret nuclear sites—as North Korea did after signing the Agreed Framework in 1994.  And once the agreement expires, inspections would be a primary way to detect both secret work and diversion from an expanded uranium enrichment program.

Will inspections be able to accomplish these tasks?  Unlike the administration, Prime Minister Netanyahu does not think so.  “Inspectors,” he observed during his Congressional address, “ document violations; they don’t stop them.”