The collapse of sanctions strikingly highlights their weakness as a tool of coercion. They have not simply been less effective than some believe, both in their economic impact and in their unarguable failure to slow, let alone cripple, Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. U.S. sanctions advocates made a far more basic miscalculation: They forgot that they are not in charge. Obama is. A policy that a strong U.S. president might (underline “might”) have seen through is, as we now observe, useless in the hands of a weak and feckless president. Policy abstractions without leadership can accomplish little.
Iran’s nuclear “concessions” at Geneva were minor and are easily reversible. As Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, said in a January interview, “we can return again to 20 percent enrichment in less than one day and we can convert the [nuclear] material again. Therefore the structure of our nuclear program is preserved. . . . I can say definitively that the structure of our nuclear program will be exactly preserved. Nothing will be put aside, dismantled, or halted. Everything will continue, enrichment will continue.” Even given Iran’s notorious propensity to exaggerate and deceive, Araghchi is unfortunately correct.
Tehran played on the West’s mistaken obsessive belief that uranium enriched to 20 percent of the U-235 isotope was materially more threatening than uranium enriched to the typical reactor grade of 3 to 5 percent. (U-235 makes up only 0.7 percent of uranium in nature, but is the isotope necessary for chain reactions in both reactors and nuclear weapons.) This was always wrong. Nonetheless, Obama’s diplomacy continues to trumpet halting enrichment to 20 percent, diluting half the existing stockpile, and converting the rest to an oxidized compound as if these measures were significant. They are not. Further enrichment not merely to 20 percent but to 90-plus percent (the typical weapons-grade level) can be done quickly, dilution is easily reversed, and what is converted to oxide can easily be reconverted to uranium hexafluoride for more enrichment.
Iran will undoubtedly slow-roll implementing its commitments on the 20 percent–enriched uranium while working assiduously to evade its vague and ambiguous “commitments” not to do certain things. Tehran’s officials have already argued, for instance, that they are not required to slow in any way research and development on enhancing the quality and magnitude of Iran’s enrichment program. Make no mistake, given the limitations inherent in International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, much will be missed. And the role foreseen for the IAEA contains not a particle of enhanced monitoring or inspection of Iran’s continuing weaponization activity, which Iran still robustly denies, and about which the Obama administration is now remarkably silent.
Tehran will also cheat. It will cheat inside Iran, where the IAEA is not present, and it will cheat by cooperating with North Korea and other proliferation enablers. U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies may or may not detect such cheating, and the risks of successful Iranian evasion are enormous. The notion that the Geneva agreement effectively constrains Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is undoubtedly the most disingenuous and even dishonest aspect of the whole Obama charade. Those who believe in and defend it will bear a full measure of the blame for whatever tragedy ensues when Iran ultimately goes nuclear.
As for the much-touted negotiations toward a “comprehensive solution,” Iran will arrange the pace of this diplomacy to suit its own interests. America and Europe are following Iran’s lead into a potentially endless “process” that will take on a meaning of its own quite independent from the putative objective of rendering Iran’s nuclear-weapons program harmless. This is the way of Western foreign ministries, and it will be the way here in spades.
We can only hope that skeptics in Congress and the public will take Obama’s measure on Iran, because under whatever metrics one can imagine, we are on a course toward failure, a failure with potentially mortal consequences for Israel and other U.S. friends, and ultimately even for America itself. If the Geneva Joint Plan of Action does not yet quite measure up to Munich 1938, it will soon be a close second.
— John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is the author of Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad. This article originally appeared in the January 27 issue of National Review.