The New York Times reports this afternoon that Iran has rejected the essence of a Western proposal under which it would have shipped some 75 percent of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for further processing into fuel for a research reactor.
Instead, Iran is demanding that it first be supplied with reactor fuel fabricated from foreign uranium. Only then will it consider sending any of its own LEU abroad. In the intervening months, of course, Iranian centrifuges would continue to spin, additional LEU would be produced, and Iran’s defenses of its nuclear sites would continue to be hardened against possible military attack. The Times quotes a European official as saying, “The key issue is that Iran does not agree to export its lightly enriched uranium. That’s not a minor detail. That’s the whole point of the deal.”
Indeed. The Obama administration’s entire rationale for the LEU proposal was that it would result, in short order, in the removal of enough LEU from Iran to ensure that it no longer had sufficient fissile material in country to rapidly produce a bomb through further enrichment. Under the original U.S. plan, it would allegedly have taken Iran upwards of a year to produce enough additional LEU to once again have a militarily significant stockpile. The administration argued that the deal would set back Iran’s nuclear clock and put additional time on the diplomatic clock — both of which, it hoped, would reduce Israel’s sense of urgency about taking unilateral military action.
If Iran’s position (as described by the Times) holds — if it refuses to export existing LEU and continues producing new LEU — the Obama administration’s proposal will have been blown to smithereens. The Times story says as much. Tehran’s response is yet one more sign of the absolute contempt with which the Iranian regime views the United States in general and President Obama’s nine-month effort at engagement in particular.
So what’s the president to do? What he should do, of course, is move aggressively to penalize Iran for its delaying tactics. Just after the October 1 meeting in Geneva at which the Iranians agreed “in principle” to accept the LEU deal, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Senate Banking Committee that “By the end of the month, I think we will have a clear indication of whether, on the . . . things that they apparently agreed to in Geneva, whether they’re taking action to show they’re serious. . . . I think the president and the secretary [of state] and others have made clear that if we see that they are unwilling to take action on the things that they’ve said they’re going to do, that we are prepared to move with stronger actions — ideally through the Security Council and multilaterally, but we reserve the right to take action by ourselves.”
Will the administration do so if Iran’s response is as transparently deceptive as the Times story claims? Will it follow through even if Iran responds by threatening to break off further talks? Is the president prepared to endanger the diplomatic engagement on which he’s staked America’s vital interests, and do so just a month after the negotiations began? Is he prepared to do so even in the face of continued Russian resistance to additional sanctions? (Just yesterday, the Kremlin’s top foreign-policy advisor told reporters that “Sanctions in relation to Iran are hardly possible in the near future.”)
I doubt it — but I’d be very happy if the administration proved me wrong.
– John P. Hannah, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2005 to 2009.