Reading Weakness in Tehran

by The Editors

Tehran appears to be delighted over the so-called interim deal over its nuclear program, and it should be.​

The Obama administration says the agreement will degrade Iran’s nuclear capacity, halt its current progress, and lay the groundwork for a final deal, in exchange for discrete concessions on sanctions. But this “freeze” is incomplete and as reversible as the term suggests, and the effect of the loosening of the sanctions will be far-reaching.

Reminiscent of his claim that a strike on Syria to deter future chemical-weapons use would be “unbelievably small,” Secretary Kerry said that the deal’s concessions translate into “very little sanctions relief.” This is an odd description for measures that take up a full page of the agreement’s four-page outline and extend to suspending sanctions on petroleum and gold, authorizing new shipments of auto and aircraft parts (which are of military and economic use to the Revolutionary Guard), allowing U.S. and EU companies to insure oil shipments, increasing the caps on EU trade in non-sanctioned goods, and more.

The White House estimates the value of these particular adjustments to be about $6 to $7 billion, which is no paltry sum in exchange for so little from Iran. But the real economic value is in perceptions: This deal makes it known that our Western leaders view Iran as a legitimate negotiating partner — in fact, one that they expect will agree to a final deal in six months. Consider the effect that this change will have on the foreign firms that have always remained capable of striking profitable deals with Iran but have held off given the uncertainty and opprobrium surrounding Tehran; now they can strike those deals in the knowledge that the American executive branch is making that easier, not harder. All of this is negotiated away just to set the table for an actual agreement, a strategy that failed the Clinton and Bush administrations completely in North Korea.

The White House has boasted of unprecedented levels of access, including daily inspections of facilities, that Iran will give to the International Atomic Energy Agency. While Iran’s agreeing to marginally more IAEA access is welcome, it’s worth remembering that the IAEA is being asked to monitor an agreement that, by allowing the continuation of enrichment, violates six existing U.N. Security Council resolutions and the agency’s own repeated requests, and makes no mention of halting work on nuclear-weapons technology.

One step Iran has successfully taken toward a bomb — enriching some uranium above the level necessary for use in a reactor, though below that necessary for making a bomb — will be reversed, by processing the material into an unusable form. But that step can itself be reversed. Unlike previous deals the Obama administration offered, this one entails that we will trust the Iranian regime, rather than the West, to handle the process.

All of Iran’s other progress toward a nuclear weapon — the partial construction of a plutonium-producing plant at Arak, the construction of thousands of centrifuges, the amassing of reactor-grade uranium — will be preserved. And it will not quite be halted: Some construction work, but not all, will be halted at Arak, and centrifuges can be repaired.

The existing centrifuges will not be frozen, but allowed to continue spinning away, creating reactor-grade uranium (up to “5 percent” enriched), in an energy-rich country that has no capability for turning that material into fuel rods for a reactor. Encoding this in an agreement is a key victory for Iran. Secretary Kerry claims that the deal does not recognize the right to enrichment, while his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, has told the Iranian people it does. For once, trust the Iranians: The agreement says they can continue to enrich uranium.

The Obama administration clearly values an agreement with Iran over real security guarantees. Congress should pass more sanctions, which will take effect if Iran fails to adhere to this agreement. Meanwhile, leaders in Congress and in other countries should continue to try to impress on President Obama and Secretary Kerry that there can be no real progress without more pressure and a credible military threat. Absent those, a permanent deal in six months’ time will require even more wishful thinking and deception. Alas, this administration seems to have a limitless supply of that.