Monday, March 11, 2013

The Not-Bluffing Bluff

Iran gains more time to build nuclear weapons while the U.S. makes more concessions.
Joe Biden got a rousing reception in Washington on Monday at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, especially when he talked about the Administration's approach to Iran. America's policy, he said, "is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, period." To underscore the point, he added that "President Barack Obama is not bluffing. He is not bluffing."
We've heard this kind of talk from the Administration for over a year now, and maybe they even mean it. But the audience Mr. Biden and his boss really need to reach is not at Aipac. It's in Tehran. And so far, the mullahs show every sign of thinking the U.S. is, in fact, bluffing.
That much was made clear Tuesday when General James Mattis, the blunt-spoken Marine in charge of U.S. Central Command, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Are the current diplomatic and economic efforts to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, are they working?" asked Oklahoma Republican Jim Inhofe.
"No sir," the general replied. The evidence, he noted later in his testimony, was that Tehran's "nuclear industry continues."

So it does. Last week, Iran announced that it would build and install 3,000 advanced generation centrifuges, known as the IR-2m, at its principal uranium enrichment site in Natanz. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last month that Iran had already begun installing the first 180 of the machines, which are smaller, faster, more reliable, and as much as 500% more productive than Iran's existing centrifuges.
Also in recent days, Tehran announced that it had discovered new uranium deposits that triple its domestically available supplies. The Iranians are known to lie or exaggerate, so that claim awaits verification.
Not disputed, however, is that the regime continues to refuse IAEA inspectors access to a military research facility in Parchin, where it is suspected of carrying out nuclear weapons experiments. On Wednesday, the Iranian representative to the IAEA gave a speech accusing Israel of "genocide," causing the U.S., Canadian and Australian representatives to walk out.
All this is the mood music sounding from Iran as the U.S. and other countries make yet another attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal. In the latest round of talks, in the Kazakh city of Almaty, the Administration abandoned its previous demands that Tehran shut down its second enrichment site at Fordo and that it relinquish its entire stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, which is near-bomb grade and of which Iran has 167 kilos. The U.S. also offered Iran some softening on sanctions—along with an agreement that talks will resume again in early April.
Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief negotiator, came away from Almaty praising the new offer as a "turning point" and "closer to the Iranian position." Iran has succeeded again in gaining time for its nuclear programs, pocketing Western concessions and conceding nothing in return.
Even better, from Iran's point of view, is that the deal that seems to be taking shape is one that would allow it to maintain and broaden its nuclear-industrial base, win a reprieve from economic sanctions, further diminish the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli strike, and continue its covert nuclear work.
The Obama Administration might say that this (minus the cheating) is a price worth paying if it keeps Iran from acquiring a bomb. Yet Tehran may be more interested in a wide breakout—that is, gradually developing the infrastructure needed to manufacture a large number of weapons in short order—than in racing toward a single bomb with a fast breakout. The latter runs the risk of inviting foreign military pre-emption. The former requires additional patience.
Meanwhile, it isn't lost on the Iranians that the U.S. is cutting its naval presence in the Gulf region from two aircraft carriers to one, supposedly a function of the sequester, in fact a function of Mr. Obama's manipulation of the sequester. Either way, it is another signal of unseriousness when diplomacy is supposed to be in its 11th hour.
In his testimony, General Mattis said of the Iranians that "there may yet be a way to bring them to their senses." A fresh round of sanctions is being mooted in Congress, but after several years of rolling that stone up the Hill the sanctions are beginning to look more like an excuse for delay than a course of effective action. At a minimum, if sanctions were effective they would be making Tehran more amenable to a deal, not less.
If Mr. Obama really weren't bluffing, we would be adding to our military strength in the region, and toughening our position at the bargaining table. That we're doing the opposite tells Iran that the Administration is bluffing after all.
A version of this article appeared March 9, 2013, on page A12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Not-Bluffing Bluff.

Dan Friedman

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