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Do Neocons Want a Deal with Iran?

Neoconservatives are pushing impossible standards for a settlement of the negotiations over Iran's nuclear enrichment program, suggesting that they want little from the talks beyond a justification for war.

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As talks over a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program continue in Vienna (the next round will be April 7-9) it seems that even those neoconservatives who supported sanctions and negotiation as peaceful paths to a settlement want little from these talks beyond a justification for war. While they are careful to couch their arguments in terms of extracting the best negotiated settlement from Iran, their standards for an acceptable comprehensive settlement are generally unreasonable at best and impossible to meet at worst.

The latter was on display a week ago when I attended the McCain Institute’s “Iran Nuclear Deal: Breakthrough or Failure?” debate. Neocon panelists Bret Stephens and Reuel Marc Gerecht repeatedly argued that nuclear monitoring and verification procedures cannot ensure that the United States will be warned if Iran violates its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. For Stephens, especially, this was not a question about the amount of resources dedicated to monitoring Iran’s nuclear program or the level of access monitors permitted in Iranian facilities; he simply argued that monitoring cannot work. There is little gray area here: if your goal is an Iran without nuclear weapons, and no amount of monitoring can ensure that they are not developing one, what is left apart from the military option? Yet, while Stephens is certainly open to the idea of war, he continues to argue that harsher sanctions can result in an Iran with no breakout capacity, which seems to leave the door open to an Iran with some kind of nuclear program. Of course, he also conveniently avoids defining what that program might look like, what those tougher sanctions ought to be, or when and how any sanctions might ever be lifted.

An example of unreasonable conditions comes from Michael Singh, managing director of the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council for the Bush administration. He argues in a recent piece that the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia plus Germany) should insist that Iran retain zero enrichment capacity in a comprehensive deal, despite Iranian insistence that they will never give up enrichment. Like Stephens, Singh argues that tougher sanctions can achieve this outcome, but offers no suggestions as to what those sanctions should be and, more crucially, whether the international community could be expected to go along with them. This is an important concern, particularly at a time when tensions within the P5+1 are high over the situation in Crimea. Until now, the international unanimity that supported sanctions has been held together in part because the United States has been open to negotiations and to easing sanctions in return for Iranian concessions. If the US suddenly shifts to a more rigid position, is there any reason to believe that the P5+1 will maintain unity on Iran?

In order to make the case that Iran doesn’t “need” an enrichment program, Singh engages in questionable argumentation. He writes, for example, that Iran has no need for its own uranium enrichment capacity, because its native supply of natural uranium is so small that it will need to import enriched uranium whether it has an enrichment capability or not. But Singh must surely know that, even though Iran’s supply of domestic uranium is not enough to make their nuclear program self-sufficient, a domestic enrichment program allows Iran to import natural uranium ore, the trade of which is not subject to the same regulatory safeguards that are applied to enriched uranium. Singh also argues for a deal with Iran along the lines of the nuclear cooperation agreement reached with the UAE in 2009, in which the UAE agreed not to enrich uranium itself. But he can’t seriously argue that the UAE’s historical and geopolitical circumstances are in any way analogous to Iran’s, or that Iran’s reluctance to rely solely on foreign sources of enriched uranium doesn’t have some justification. It’s not even clear that Singh himself believes that zero enrichment is possible; in a piece written earlier this year, he argues that a zero enrichment goal should be used simply as a negotiating position. As in any other negotiation, then, the P5+1 would eventually move away from zero enrichment and toward a final compromise. Yet now, Singh seems to be repudiating the idea of any enrichment compromise, instead calling for a “zero enrichment or bust” approach to a comprehensive deal.

The question that folks like Stephens and Singh as well as their more bellicose colleagues like Bill Kristol and Max Boot need to answer is: what’s the endgame? Should the international community continue moving the goalposts, levying harsher and harsher sanctions on and making further demands in perpetuity? What purpose will that serve? Is there any realistic concession that Iran could offer that would, in their minds, be worth easing sanctions? Iran’s nuclear program has already cost it over $100 billion just in revenue lost to sanctions. If Iran is not prepared to surrender its entire program now, and it clearly is not, why should we expect that more or “tougher” sanctions would bring the Iranian government around? What happens if those tougher sanctions do have the effect of fracturing the international coalition?

If Iran will not surrender its nuclear ambitions, and Iranian officials insist they will not, then is war inevitable? What do Stephens and his allies imagine that war will achieve? Is it regime change? If so, what if a war actually strengthens the Iranian government’s support among its people? After all, polling says that 96% of Iranians say that maintaining a nuclear program is worth the price being paid in sanctions, and two-thirds of them support the development of a nuclear weapon. This does not appear to be a public that will turn on its leaders over their nuclear efforts. Or is their goal an Iran whose nuclear program is destroyed and cannot be reconstituted? If so, what can military strikes do to eliminate the scientific and technical knowledge that Iran already possesses and that is more important than physical infrastructure in developing nuclear weapons? What happens after the strikes, when Iran begins to rebuild its nuclear program, but without any monitoring and with a mind toward producing a weapon, a goal that even US intelligence services say it has not directly pursued as yet?

Instead of pretending to support sanctions and talks, let’s have an open discussion about the war these commentators appear in favor of, and what they think it will achieve.

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics.

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