Why a Deal with Iran on Nukes Remains Elusive

Why a Deal with Iran on Nukes Remains Elusive

It was a wild ride last week in Geneva, where the foreign ministers of six world powers assembled with Iranian negotiators for a second round of talks on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. A deal could come, a deal is likely, a deal is imminent…there is no deal: So ran the reports from the city of diplomacy.

Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials professed unqualified optimism. “Diplomacy takes time,” Kerry said after his final session with Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. “All the parties here need time to fully consider the issues.”


Scuttling this historic opportunity to mend relations with Iran could require less time, regrettably, and those eager to keep Iran their favorite pariah state are now fully mobilized. Kerry and his partners in the P5 + 1 group—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—may never get a chance to wield the fancy fountain pens.

​It was French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius who threw a log in the road in Geneva. With Zarif’s draft agreement on the table Friday, France found it wanting on the question of plutonium production. At that point, a crucial momentum was interrupted.

Iran is now constructing a heavy-water reactor that will be plutonium-capable in the city of Arak, which is 200 miles or so from Tehran. It was not clear exactly what Fabius proposed, but reports suggested he wants construction in Arak, which is due to begin operating next year, to be stopped.

Plutonium is a weapons-grade derivative of uranium. With no exception I can find, news reports fail to note that plutonium—compact, immensely more powerful than uranium—can generate electric power and propel satellite-launching rockets, among its several uses.

Here is the problem: Iran has a right under international law to enrich uranium, and this includes plutonium. The Iranians have been clear on this point all along. No surprises. (Curious note: The U.S. restarted plutonium production last March, after a 25-year hiatus, to fuel its space probes.)

In Tehran on Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said not for the first time that the right to enrich is Iran’s red line. “Nuclear rights in the international framework, including uranium enrichment on its soil, are not negotiable,” the reformist leader asserted. “For us red lines are not crossable.”


Note where Rouhani delivered this address. He spoke before the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, which includes some allies and some conservative snipers. Effectively, this was his post-Geneva report. He is operating at his political limit.

First mistake, then: The P5 + 1 group is demanding more than it has a right to demand, an error anticipated in this space shortly before the new diplomacy began. But the Fabiusblocage is only one obstacle in the current diplomatic demarche. Two others are now in plain sight, and they are likely to prove more formidable.

Congress gave the Obama administration until this weekend to cut a deal with Tehran, and absent such a deal promised to table a new set of economic sanctions. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wasted little time, pouncing Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week.”

“I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward on a package that ultimately would send a very clear message where we intend to be if the Iranians don’t strike a deal and stop their nuclear weapons program,” Menendez told George Stephanopoulos. Later he asked rhetorically how Iran could need nuclear-generated electricity with its vast oil reserves. This kind of resistance will be tough to counter because it is so loaded with ignorance. Iran has no nuclear weapons program, and as Iranians forever implore us to understand, it is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of something.

Equally, Iran’s oil reserves have nothing to do with the need for nuclear power, as any economist can tell you. Iran’s program dates to the 1950s and Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” campaign. On Sunday, those reckless Japanese (who are allergic to nuclear weapons for obvious reasons) announced that they were prepared to help Iran construct nuclear power plants when or if an agreement is reached.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never made a secret of his opposition to a pact with Iran. In an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” he called the terms negotiated in Geneva last week “a very bad deal.” This is the second threat to success in Geneva.


Zarif’s draft agreement will remain the basis for discussion in a third round of talks, which could convene within a couple of weeks. It is plain now that Netanyahu is committed to blocking it no matter what it contains. “Iran gives practically nothing and it gets a hell of a lot,” Netanyahu said of the document.

Buried in this remark is the same problem we find with Menendez. Iran’s “hell of a lot” consists of what it has a statutory right to. That will make Iran a “threshold nuclear power nation,” as the Israeli leader put it—a nation capable of producing a weapon if it so chose.

This is precisely the case. There are many threshold nations, not least Japan. True, Rouhani’s predecessor, Mohmoud Ahmadinejad, called more than once for the annihilation of Israel. But it is plain enough now that Ahmadinejad was a rogue populist who proved intolerable to most Iranians and those above him, and his fanatic shrieks are now no excuse to dismiss a patently serious effort to accommodate the world’s worries on the nuclear question.

As I followed the talks this week, I found it remarkable that no one mentioned Israel’s arsenal of nukes. It is almost certain the Iranians are raising the topic across the mahogany table.

Israel—and certainly not Netanyahu’s Israel—has never expressed interest in a nuclear-free Middle East (which is among Iran’s expressed policy goals). However, the Israeli press reported a couple of weeks ago that senior officials had met secretly in Switzerland with Arab leaders to form a committee to consider the prospect.

We know nothing of that gathering. But it could—put this in the “best outcome” category—prove a key to the door opening onto a broadly acceptable settlement between Iran and the rest of the world.