President Barack Obama said this month that he assessed the chance of reaching a permanent accord with Iran on its nuclear program as no “more than 50-50.” For his part, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told Congress that he “came away from our preliminary negotiations” with Tehran “with serious questions about whether or not they’re ready and willing to make some of the choices that have to be made.” Events in the past week have made clear that those bearish judgments were justified.
Iranian officials walked out of talks with the West Dec. 13 — not the negotiations about a final accord, which have not begun in earnest, but those on the implementation of the preliminary agreement reached in Geneva in November. The pretext was an announcement by the U.S. Treasury of actions against companies that have been violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. The announcement should not come as a surprise: Though the United States and its partners agreed to some sanctions relief in Geneva, they made clear that they would continue to enforce measures constraining Iranian trade and banking.
By making a show of breaking off talks, Tehran was attempting to bluff the West into hollowing out the remaining sanctions by stopping their enforcement. It also delayed the time when it will have to comply with its own commitment to cut back on its enrichment of uranium and reduce the stockpile it has accumulated. Meanwhile, other nuclear activities not covered by the preliminary accord continue. No doubt, Iran does not expect this work to prompt the United States to walk out.
Perhaps such maneuvering is inevitable. But Iran is sending an early message that it does not intend to bargain in good faith. That impression was reinforced by interviews given recently by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, including one to The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. Zarif claimed that Iran wanted a deal and that “on our side . . . it is very easy to reach an agreement.” But he also came close to ruling out acceptance of steps that will be essential to ensuring that Iran is not left with a nuclear breakout capacity.
Of particular concern are two nuclear facilities that have scant conceivable purpose other than the production of weapons: the underground Fordow enrichment facility and the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is under construction and could be used to produce plutonium. In previous rounds of negotiations, the Obama administration sought the shutdown of Fordow and suspension of construction at Arak; though it obtained neither in the interim agreement, a final deal must address both.
Yet Zarif said of Arak, “We cannot roll back the clock 20 years and simply get rid of a project that has been the subject of a great deal of human and material investment.” Of Fordow, he said the U.S. demand revealed an intention to facilitate a military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, since “Fordow cannot be hit.” But the reverse logic also applies: Iran would not need a facility invulnerable to attack unless it wished to preserve the option to attempt a breakout.
Obama and Kerry have devoted much time since the Geneva deal to persuading Congress not to approve additional sanctions on Iran. Perhaps their time would be better spent pushing the Iranian negotiators to stop posturing and stonewalling.