Another Day, Another Cave

If, as Marx taught, history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,” then Washington’s latest reported concession proves that U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran have moved from the tragic to the farcical.

After all, those negotiations have been driven overwhelmingly by fears that, despite Tehran’s denials, its nuclear program is designed for military, not civilian, usage – in essence, to develop nuclear weapons. With them, the regime could fulfill its pledge to obliterate Israel, threaten the West and ward off outside pressure as it continues to sponsor terrorism and pursue regional hegemony.

Now, facing a June 30 deadline to complete an agreement, U.S. negotiators reportedly are dropping the central demand that, as part of an agreement, Iran must come clean about the “possible military dimensions,” or PMDs, of its nuclear program – that is, the past weapons-related activities.

That Tehran continues to resist transparency is not surprising. For months, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and others have ruled out International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its military sites and interviews with its nuclear scientists – two prerequisites for the agency to rule on the possible military dimensions issue.

That Washington is now caving may not be surprising, either, considering the long list of U.S. concessions since the U.S.-led “P5+1” negotiators (which also include Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia) have worked to turn an interim agreement with Iran in November of 2013 into a permanent one. Desperate for a deal that his aides have described as the foreign policy equivalent of his landmark health reform law, President Barack Obama has agreed to let Iran continue enriching uranium, continue research and development on advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium at higher grades for potential bomb-making, retain some of its enriched uranium stockpile, keep some of its nuclear sites open, and continue work on its ballistic missile program.

Nevertheless, Washington’s reversal is particularly striking in light of its insistence – when reports surfaced three months ago that it was considering backing down on possible military dimensions – that it would do no such thing. When, for instance, The Wall Street Journal reported in March that U.S. negotiators were preparing to cave on the issue, Secretary of State John Kerry stated unequivocally that the Iranians would have to come clean about possible military dimensions before the United States would strike a final agreement.

Appearing on PBS’ “Newshour” in April, Kerry told Judy Woodruff, “They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.” When Woodruff asked whether the possible military dimensions information would be “released” and “available” before June 30, Kerry replied, “It will be part of a final agreement. It has to be.”

Now, U.S. officials are bobbing and weaving, trying to square Kerry’s blunt statements with the latest news reports. In Friday’s State Department briefing for reporters, spokesman Jeff Rathke insisted that “our position on this hasn’t changed.” But he repeatedly dodged requests that he square the circle between Kerry’s comments and the recent news.

That sparring was triggered by an Associated Press report of a day earlier that began, “World powers are prepared to accept a nuclear agreement with Iran that doesn’t immediately answer questions about past atomic weapons work, U.S. and Western officials said.” In the report, Western officials predicted a deal by June 30 and acknowledged that possible military dimensions questions would remain unanswered at that point.

If so, that’s important for at least two reasons. First, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors must know what work Iran has conducted in the past if, in the future, they’re supposed to monitor Iranian behavior and verify that Tehran isn’t violating the agreement. Second, without knowing previous work, officials cannot say for sure how close Iran would be from nuclear weapons. The more activity it conducted, and the more military-related infrastructure it has, the closer it would be.

“Without clear answers to these questions,” experts David Albright and Bruno Tertrais wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year, “outsiders will be unable to determine how fast the Iranian regime could construct either a crude nuclear-test device or a deliverable weapon if it chose to renege on an agreement.”

That’s why Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is justifiably “alarmed,” as he put it in a June 15 letter to Obama, by the news reports – and why he urged the president to rethink his approach.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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