In an interview on Thursday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, for the first time, something reassuring about the Iran “P5+1” talks:


Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meet in Vienna.  (Carolyn Kaster/European Pressphoto Agency)

I will say this to everybody: We’ve set a very clear standard. There are four present pathways to a bomb for Iran – the hidden so-called secret facility in a mountain called Fordow, the open Natanz enrichment facility, the plutonium heavy-water reactor called Arak, and then, of course, covert activities. We’ve pledged that our goal is to shut off each pathway sufficient that we know we have a breakout time of a minimum of a year that gives us the opportunity to respond if they were to try to do that.

We’re — we believe there are ways to achieve that. Whether Iran can make the tough decisions that it needs to make will be determined in the next weeks, but I have said consistently that no deal is better than a bad deal. And we’re going to be very careful, very much based on expert advice, fact, science as to the choices we make. This must not be a common ideological or a political decision. And if we can do what we’ve said, what the President set out in his policy – the President said they will not get a bomb. If we could take this moment of history and change this dynamic, the world would be a lot safer and we’d avoid a huge arms race in the region where Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, others may decide that if they’re moving towards a bomb, they got to move there too, and obviously it’s a much more dangerous world. And that is not a part of the world where you want massive uninspected, unverified, nontransparent nuclear activities. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

Hmm, that sounds like, for one thing, the time frame for breakout is a year in contrast to some prior statements suggesting it was 6 to 12 months. The term “shut off the pathway” sounds more reassuring than “make them unplug some pipes.” But as with everything concerning this administration, what officials say and what they do are often at odds. This is especially true when Kerry is concerned. You will recall he made stirring statements about the need to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for use of chemical weapons, only to see the president erase the red line and scramble for an excuse not to use force.

“I would note that he and the Administration remain consistent in focusing on ‘the bomb’ versus ‘nuclear weapons capability’ and one must wonder how good our intelligence can be to detect things so precisely,” warns Michael Makovsky of JINSA. “This is especially true about covert activities, which by definition we can’t determine clearly, and which have always gone that we discover later on.” This is why a concession that allows some enrichment is inevitably a slippery-slope that simply allows Iran to determine the time of its breakout.

Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies shares this concern.”Refusing to insist that Iran shut its nuclear facilities, a position held by the Obama administration as of only 18 months ago, leaves a deal that is unstable and reversible and positions Tehran to use the North Korean playbook to a bomb,” he warns. “Extending breakout to a year is only helpful if the U.S. retains sufficient economic leverage to force Iran back into compliance when it cheats, reliable intelligence to detect a breakout or sneakout, and a willingness to use military force in response to an Iranian dash to weaponize uranium or separate plutonium for a bomb.”

That said, it does not sound from news reports like we are on the brink of a deal, which at this point would only be possible if the administration was about to cave. An AFP report suggests otherwise:

Iran wants all Western sanctions to be lifted as part of a deal on its contested nuclear program by a November deadline, a top official said Wednesday. . . . A Western diplomat close to the negotiations with Iran on Monday said a firm deal by the deadline was highly unlikely, saying Tehran would have to make “significant gestures.” The aim is to close avenues towards Tehran ever developing an atomic bomb, by cutting back its enrichment program, shutting down suspect facilities and imposing tough international inspections.

In return, the global community would suspend and then gradually lift crippling economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic. But the two sides, despite long-running talks, remain far apart on how to reconcile their objectives.

If a deal is not to be concluded by Nov. 24, it would be a mistake simply to extend the talks yet again and fork over another dollop of sanctions relief. Ideally, the administration should intensify by calling for additional sanctions. It is hard to believe the administration, which has seemed petrified of a break-off in talks would agree to that. However, with a new Congress comes new opportunities to up the ante on Iran and to lend support to allies to enhance the threat of military action. Moreover, it must make clear that only an end to Iran’s enrichment program can provide the West with the assurance it requires. Otherwise, as Dubowitz puts it, “If sanctions unravel, US intelligence continues its poor track record of detecting a country’s nuclear dash, and the administration continues to send a message that it is unwilling to use force (even bragging about how it stopped Israel from doing so), Iran will be well positioned to take multiple pathways to a bomb.”

If President Obama would stop the fruitless effort to reconcile our interests with Iran and instead work with Congress and our allies — what a concept! — it may change the Iranians’ cost-benefit analysis. Obama might start by firing one “senior official” and publicly reaffirming the military option remains.