On my mind: A nuclear Thanksgiving

The prospect of an Iran with nuclear-weapons breakout capacity would be an ominous and ever-present danger for the US, Europe, our Middle East allies and the world.

November 10, 2014 21:53
3 minute read.
Kerry and Iranian FM Zarif

US. Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian FM Zarif shake hands as Omani FM Alawi and EU envoy Ashton watch in Muscat.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Will Thanksgiving have special meaning this year, knowing that the best deal possible on Iran’s nuclear program was achieved? US Secretary of State John Kerry is sanguine about the prospect of successfully concluding the P5+1 negotiations with Iran by the November 24 deadline, three days ahead of the American holiday.

“I can get this done,” Kerry declared in Paris last week, adding that “we are not contemplating an extension” of the talks that already have been extended twice since the initial deadline of a year ago.

IAEA director Yukiya Amano, who heads parallel talks with Tehran, is more circumspect.

After all, success ultimately depends on trust. Iran for years has consistently stonewalled the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog agency, and refused to answer all of its questions. Amano understandably remains skeptical. It will be his agency’s responsibility to monitor the implementation of whatever agreement is reached by the P5+1 countries – China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the US – and Iran. With no ironclad assurances about the full scope of Iran’s nuclear program, and well-founded suspicions about Iran’s true intentions, the essential IAEA task will be extremely difficult.

Amano is determined to curtail nuclear proliferation. Before his election in 2009 to head the IAEA, Amano served as Japan’s ambassador to that body for several years.

He believes in the important role the IAEA can play, if countries cooperate, in contributing to global security. And he comes from the only country on earth that suffered mass deaths and destruction from atomic bombs.

Visiting Washington in late October, Amano appeared at the Brookings Institution for a public conversation about the IAEA and Iran.

“At times, we were going around in circles,” said Amano, reiterating his frustration with the process and lack of results so far of the IAEA-Iran talks. Amano has visited Tehran a number of times to try to achieve progress.

Quarterly IAEA reports since February 2010 have “stated that Iran was not providing sufficient cooperation to enable the Agency to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran was in peaceful activities,” he said. In November 2011, the IAEA concluded “Iran had carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

Amano has a dozen questions for Tehran “to resolve all outstanding issues,” including “issues with possible military dimension.”

To gather information and to get concrete explanations, the IAEA has sought unfettered access to people and sites in Iran associated with the nuclear program, including Parchin, long suspected of being one of the centers for research and testing of elements for developing nuclear weapons. Amano pointed out at Brookings that IAEA requests for access to Parchin have so far been refused by Iranian authorities.

Efforts to press Tehran on full transparency of its entire nuclear program may be delayed indefinitely if the P5+1 concludes an agreement with Iran without definitive answers to IAEA concerns.

A consensus is evolving that appears to acquiesce to Iran’s assertion that it needs enrichment capability for civilian use. How many centrifuges, how many facilities and other equipment are needed were among the details being discussed as Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton met this week in Oman with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

And to help secure a pre-Thanksgiving Day deal, there are indications that the P5+1 might forgo demanding from Iran a full accounting of all the research and testing done for its nuclear program. Iran maintains innocence, asserting that its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes, while suspicions abound that Iran has been working on various elements to achieve the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Such knowledge can be unwrapped at any time, and the IAEA, constrained by Tehran’s defiance, may not be able to fulfill its monitoring mandate.

“No deal is better than a bad deal” was the Obama administration mantra before the July deadline that was extended by four months. As negotiators scramble this week in Oman, and then in Vienna on November 18, all options should remain credibly on the table. That includes the prospect of additional US-led sanctions, currently on hold in the Congress, should Iran misinterpret American resolve.

Sidelining Amano’s valid concerns in exchange for a much desired, but potentially only partially satisfactory, if not fatally flawed, deal will not enhance regional and global security. The prospect of an Iran with nuclear-weapons breakout capacity would be an ominous and ever-present danger for the US, Europe, our Middle East allies and the world.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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