America wants ‘time on the clock’ on Iran nuclear deal

The deal the US seeks would not end tensions, nor would it end Iran’s nuclear program. But it would essentially arrest the crisis.

November 12, 2013 07:01
3 minute read.
US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva November 10, 2013.

John Kerry in Geneva 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse )


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WASHINGTON – Entering negotiations with Iran in Geneva last week, one senior Obama administration official briefed journalists on America’s core strategy going forward.

The US needs time, she explained, to reach a peaceful settlement to the slow-motion Iranian nuclear crisis once again threatening stability in the Middle East.

The US seeks to “put time on the clock,” she said. “It is crucial that we have this space to negotiate the final agreement without Iran’s nuclear program continuing to march forward.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu knew the American strategy full well as the second round of negotiations began on November 7. That’s because US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Tel Aviv at the time, explaining it to him in the flesh.

The framework of an interim deal nearly agreed upon last week by Iran and the P5+1 powers – the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany – was never intended to end the crisis in its entirety. That is far too ambitious a goal for these diplomats, many of whom have been a part of negotiations with Iran for nearly five years, over which time the Islamic Republic had less leverage with a smaller nuclear program.

The core sanctions regime – one of the many financial levers that can be tweaked – won’t be altered in this pending deal. The US Congress would not allow it, the administration doesn’t want it and the UN Security Council will not revisit their resolutions until a final-status agreement is reached.

Just as the infrastructural framework of the Iranian nuclear program will not be affected by this “first-step” deal, neither will the infrastructure of the international sanctions regime, the Americans assert.

EU members continue to strain under the pressures of the sanctions they have unilaterally imposed on Tehran. And yet it was the French delegation, not the Americans, that chose to walk away from the deal until the enforcement of its provisions could be satisfactorily ensured.

To truly end the crisis, much still needs to be done: the Iranians have stockpiled more than 350 kg. of 20 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride – enough material, if further enriched, to provide Iran with several nuclear warheads. And the Iranians are far from agreeing to give up all uranium enrichment on Persian soil, which they say is the inalienable right of all nations.

Avoiding war is a different standard, and this is the primary goal of the White House. All the administration needs are some basic concessions: the Iranians must halt enrichment to dangerous levels; allow for international oversight where there are gaps in Western intelligence; and refrain from fueling the Arak plutonium reactor, which cannot be attacked militarily after fueling has occurred without the risk of radioactive release.

The deal the US seeks would not end tensions, nor would it end Iran’s nuclear program. But it would essentially arrest the crisis.

It would temporarily freeze those marching toward war without impediments.

Like the North Koreans, Iran could always kick out inspectors and resume its activities weeks or months after the deal is cut, but in the interim, a final deal could be forged if all parties are genuinely interested in a peaceful settlement. The Americans plan on testing that resolve with this first-step agreement.

Surely, Netanyahu did not expect a final deal would emerge in the second round of high-level talks. Only when brinksmanship is exercised do leaders have the political courage to cut dramatic, sweeping diplomatic accords. Perhaps the prime minister is prepared for such a negotiation; certainly, it is clear the US president is not.

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