By not lifting sanctions, West and Obama are helping Iran enrich uranium

The West just blew its latest chance to rein in Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Though Iran expressed willingness to compromise on key demands, by refusing to ease sanctions, the P5+1 nations offered no meaningful reciprocity, derailing the possibility of a deal with Tehran.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton addresses a news conference after talks in Baghdad with the P5+1 and Iran. Op-ed contributor Yousaf Butt warns 'Unless the P5+1 nations can specify exactly what Iran would need to do in order to begin to ease the sanctions, further talks – planned for next month in Moscow – seem like a waste of everyone's time.'

The West just blew its latest chance of reining in Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

Iranian officials expressed willingness to comply with some of the major demands being made by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the “P5+1” (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). But, evidently, these countries just could not take “yes” for an answer. By refusing to ease sanctions on Iran in any meaningful way, the P5+1 offered no meaningful reciprocity in return for Iranian compliance.

The P5+1's attitude of “take but not give” directly led to the failure of the talks. And by derailing the possibility of a deal with Tehran, these global powers are essentially helping Iran stockpile even more enriched uranium.

The hawks in the West who don't seem to want to ease sanctions are helping the hawks in Iran who want to continue gathering more and more enriched uranium, which might give them a nuclear weapon option in the future. Deadlock rewards the hawks on both sides, and increases the chance of armed conflict in the Middle East.

There were two main demands being made of Iran going into the latest round of talks: that it must halt enriching uranium to 20 percent (a level closer to weapons-grade), and that it must shutter its highly secretive Fordow enrichment facility.

The Iranians offered as an initial gesture to give UN inspectors access to the Parchin military base, where the International Atomic Energy Agency believes Iran may have done nuclear-weapons related work in the 1990s. Iranian officials have also conveyed a willingness to compromise on the 20 percent enrichment issue, given the right incentives. 

Naturally, in return, Iran asked that at least some sanctions begin to be lifted. This is, of course, the natural give-and-take of negotiations.

Unfortunately, in exchange for these major Iranian concessions, the P5+1 states only dangled the paltry promise of access to some spare parts for civilian airplanes, help with nuclear safety, and supplying Iran with some fuel plates for its research reactor. If Western countries were serious about their alleged worry about Iran's nuclear program they would have been more willing to reciprocate properly, for example, by beginning to ease the draconian sanctions on Iran.

It makes one wonder if the West is really worried about Iran's nuclear program or if it just wants to prolong the pain in Iran in hopes of inducing a regime change there.

Why not cap Iran's enrichment and in return ease some of the sanctions? Certainly, election-year politics and hawkish congressional pressure ensures that the US administration (which leads the P5+1 in these talks) cannot consider easing sanctions no matter what Iran does with its nuclear program. President Obama would be cast as “weak” if any of the sanctions were lifted before the elections. Oddly, a successful diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear issue would be spun as a failure.

Unless the P5+1 nations can specify exactly what Iran would need to do in order to begin to ease the sanctions, further talks – planned for next month in Moscow – seem like a waste of everyone's time.

The sanctions appear to be a one-way street: They are easy to enact as punishment, but evidently cannot be removed to reward positive Iranian behavior. The net result is that the Iranian people suffer, the Iranian regime keeps stockpiling more and more enriched uranium, and the US congressional hawks can feel smug in the false knowledge that continued sanctions will magically lead to regime change in Tehran.

In fact, a careful reading of the legislative text of the sanctions shows that the sanctions have very little to do with Iran's nuclear program and everything to do with regime change. For instance, the US sanctions can only be lifted after the president certifies to Congress:

that the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary.

Just in case those conditions are insufficiently implausible, the president has to certify further that "the government of Iran has ceased supporting acts of international terrorism and no longer satisfies certain requirements for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; and [that] Iran has ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of nuclear, biological, chemical, and ballistic weapons."

Many US allies, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, could not satisfy all these conditions. So even if Tehran were to stop all uranium enrichment and dump all of its centrifuges into the Gulf and shutter its nuclear program entirely, Iran would still continue to be sanctioned by the US.

The Obama administration ought to clarify that it will not really hold Iran to these completely unrealistic standards, else it seems there may never be a resolution.

The irony of it all is that Iran is not currently doing anything that violates its legal right to develop nuclear technology. Even by agreeing to talks about suspending its 20 percent enrichment, Iran is showing a sign of good faith that it is not legally obligated to do. Iran says it needs continued enrichment to this level to fuel its research reactor.

There is a lot of concern in the West about Iran's “clandestine” nuclear facilities, like Fordow, but it appears we have forgotten the history of Iran's nuclear program. In 1983, Iran went to the IAEA and asked for help with its nascent nuclear infrastructure. The IAEA agreed to help Iran in setting up a pilot plant to study enrichment, but then the United States intervened to stop this. Only after this political intervention did Iran go clandestine in some of its nuclear work: it certainly was not sneaky from the start.

Under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – to which Iran is a signatory – it is not illegal for a member state to have a nuclear weapons capability – or a "nuclear option." If a nation has a well-developed civilian nuclear sector – which, of course, the NPT actually encourages – it, essentially, already has a pretty solid nuclear weapons capability.

Like Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan also maintain a "nuclear option." They, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in a few months. And like Iran, Argentina and Brazil also do not permit full "Additional Protocol" IAEA inspections.

The real legal red line, specified in the IAEA's "Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements," is the diversion of nuclear materials to a weapons program. However, multiple experts and official reports have affirmed over the years that they have no evidence that any such program currently exists.

For example Mohamed El-Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb. The November 2011 IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program also backs up this assessment, stating that Iran's research program into nuclear weapons “was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order' instruction issued in late 2003.”

Even US officials have conceded that they have no proof that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear bomb at present – and, in fact, that they have good evidence that Iran has not re-started its nuclear weapons program since 2003.

Following the release of the classified National Intelligence Estimate in 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed in a Senate hearing that he has a “high level of confidence” that Iran “has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program.”

And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in early 2012: "Are they [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us."

By refusing to ease sanctions on Iran, the P5+1 nations so easily gave up on what could have been a golden opportunity to inspect the Parchin facility and suspend Iran's 20 percent uranium enrichment. This indicates that they are not truly worried about any Iranian nuclear weapons program.

What they really appear to be doing is using nuclear issues as an excuse to attempt to destabilize the regime via never-ending draconian sanctions. All the while Iran will continue to stockpile enriched uranium.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, serves as a scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists.

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