The administration’s defenders are vigorously rebutting allegations that President Obama has made too many concessions in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Their defense is a simple statement of fact: There is no agreement yet, so how can the critics be right? They assert that we must wait until the outcome is agreed upon before we can assess it. The concern, however, is both bipartisan and international — with many Democrats voicing alarm and with Israel and the Arab states alike frustrated that a seemingly desperate administration has placed Iran’s interests above those of its allies.
While Obama’s defenders are technically accurate in that Iran has not yet agreed to what has been placed on the negotiating table, press reports citing U.S. officials have provided information on the status of all key issues under consideration and the likely provisions of an agreement, if Tehran is ultimately able to take yes for an answer. Of course, if current negotiating trends continue, the terms could get even worse than described below. They certainly won’t get better.
• There will be no limits on Iran’s ballistic-missile force, the presumed delivery means for its nuclear weapons. The U.S. position of seeking limits on the missile force was abandoned when the Supreme Leader objected.
• There will be no resolution of Iran’s weaponization activities — described as “very alarming” by the Obama White House in November 2011 — before an agreement is reached. Iran is likely to promise once again to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency in its investigation, but no serious observer would expect anything other than continued obstructionism by Iran. At one point, a resolution of weaponization activities was a precondition for an agreement. Now it is being treated as an implementation issue.
• The Arak heavy-water reactor will likely be modified in some fashion but not in any fundamental way that would prevent Iran from using it to produce plutonium for weapons. The initial U.S. position was that the reactor must be dismantled.
• The economic sanctions that were disrupting the Iranian economy will be lifted in a shorter period than the restrictions on the country’s nuclear program. In fact, Tehran has already received billions of dollars of sanctions relief for continuing the negotiations and observing several easily reversible constraints.
• The restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will reportedly be phased out after ten years, a period shorter than the time it has taken to negotiate the agreement. The original U.S. position was that restrictions would be permanent.
• And most important, Iran will be allowed to operate thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium and to pursue research and development of more advanced models that are many times more efficient. The original U.S. position — backed by multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding complete suspension of all enrichment activities — was “zero enrichment” and “zero centrifuges.” Under President Obama, zero was abandoned as “unrealistic,” and the number of permitted centrifuges moved up in successive proposals from 1,000 to 4,500 to 6,000, and perhaps more. Iran has rejected each offer as insufficient, only to be rewarded with a better one.
The greatest concession in the negotiations has been the abandonment of the original U.S. goal of preventing Iran from having a nuclear-weapons capability. This was a consistent and firm position of the Bush administration. It was also the position of the Obama administration until November 2013, when it was given up to secure Iran’s consent to the Joint Plan of Action. Soon after that, Secretary of State Kerry described the new U.S. goal as taking Iran’s “breakout time” from two months to six to twelve months — as if we would know when the clock began, and as if we could do something effective to stop the breakout within that timeframe. The reality is that we have traded permanent concessions for temporary restrictions that will leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state able to build a nuclear weapon whenever it decides to do so. When the deal ends, Iran can openly go to the brink of nuclear weapons with the blessing of the international community.
The Obama administration will almost certainly try to portray its nuclear deal with Iran as better than no deal, and will accuse those who oppose the agreement as choosing war over peace. Nothing could be further from the truth. A bad deal is far worse than no deal. A bad deal leaves Iran with a nuclear-weapons capability, which would be far more destabilizing than a return to tough sanctions. A bad deal undermines the IAEA’s attempts to get to the bottom of Iran’s covert weapons work. A bad deal undermines the Nonproliferation Treaty, leading to additional dangers around the world. A bad deal is a step toward conflict and more nuclear proliferation in a region of vital U.S. interest.
Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability is the surest way to prevent war and preserve peace. To that end, the negotiators should return to the table insisting upon limits that will permanently block Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons and resolve the IAEA’s concerns about Tehran’s nuclear-weapons work as a condition of an agreement. The real choice is not between the administration’s deal and war, but between preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and capitulation.
— Robert Joseph is senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy and a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. William Tobey is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University and a former deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.