At the end of his press conference on Friday, President Obama addressed his efforts regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

On Iran, there is the possibility of a resolution to a problem that has been a challenge for American national security for over a decade now, and that is getting Iran to, in a verifiable fashion, not pursue a nuclear weapon.  Already, even with the interim deal that we struck in Geneva, we had the first halt and, in some cases, some rollback of Iran’s nuclear capabilities — the first time that we’ve seen that in almost a decade.  And we now have a structure in which we can have a very serious conversation to see is it possible for Iran to get right with the international community in a verifiable fashion to give us all confidence that any peaceful nuclear program that they have is not going to be weaponized in a way that threatens us or allies in the region, including Israel.

There are a few observations worth making about this opening paragraph.

For one it is odd that President Obama makes the claim that his efforts will protect Israel. Israel’s leader, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very vocal that the interim deal is not a good one. But that is only an effect of the problem with the deal. The President boasted of “halt[ing]” and “roll[ing] back” Iran’s nuclear program.

And indeed, once the agreement (called the “joint plan of action” or JPA) is implemented it would add, at most, a few weeks to Iran’s estimated breakout time. (The “breakout time” is the time it would take for Iran to produce a nuclear bomb once it made the political decision to do so. Currently the breakout time is estimated to be less than two months.) President obama also talks of a “verifiable” agreement, which is a worthy hypothetical goal, but given the likelihood of secret Iranian nuclear facilities, may not be possible.

One problem is that the P5+1 countries and Iran are still working on the details of implementation. Iran, in the meantime, has seen no reason to start complying with the terms of the agreement. In other words, the provisions of the agreement that accomplish President Obama’s stated goal are not yet in effect and Iran is still reducing its breakout time; neither halting nor rolling it back.

In an editorial, Does  Iran truly want a Nuclear Deal?, the editors of the Washington Post address this point.

Iranian officials walked out of talks with the West last Friday — not the negotiations about a final accord, which have not begun in earnest, but those on the implementation of the preliminary agreement reached in Geneva in November. The pretext was an announcement by the U.S. Treasury of actions against companies that have been violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. The announcement should not come as a surprise: Though the United States and its partners agreed to some sanctions relief in Geneva, they made clear that they would continue to enforce measures constraining Iranian trade and banking.

By making a show of breaking off talks, Tehran was attempting to bluff the West into hollowing out the remaining sanctions by stopping their enforcement. It also delayed the time when it will have to comply with its own commitment to cut back on its enrichment of uranium and reduce the stockpile it has accumulated. Meanwhile, other nuclear activities not covered by the preliminary accord continue. No doubt, Iran does not expect this work to prompt the United States to walk out.

The President continued:

And as I’ve said before and I will repeat, it is very important for us to test whether that’s possible, not because it’s guaranteed, but because the alternative is possibly us having to engage in some sort of conflict to resolve the problem with all kinds of unintended consequences.
Now, I’ve been very clear from the start, I mean what I say: It is my goal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But I sure would rather do it diplomatically.  I’m keeping all options on the table, but if I can do it diplomatically, that’s how we should do it.  And I would think that would be the preference of everybody up on Capitol Hill because that sure is the preference of the American people.

While the President is correct that the American public prefers for the crisis with Iran to be solved diplomatically, that same public is skeptical that it can trust Iran. While the President claims to want to test Iran’s leadership, in fact he has tested Iran once in the past but as an observer from Europe wrote that in 2009:

The breakdown of the deal in November over disagreements on procedure and legal guarantees was particularly disappointing for those EU members whohad argued that the refusal of the Bush administrationto engage Iran had been the main factor behind the lack of progress of diplomatic efforts. The swap deal was an example of a substantive proposal that had the full support of the USA—and, yet again, there was no progress.

Perhaps with Rouhani as president of Iran things will be different than when Ahmadinejad was president, but that ignores who the real boss in Iran is or that when Rouhani was lead negotiator a decade ago, Iran used negotiations to advance its nuclear program.

Moreover as the Washington Post points out:

Perhaps such maneuvering is inevitable. But Iran is sending an early message that it does not intend to bargain in good faith. That impression was reinforced by interviews given recently by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, including one to The Post’s David Ignatius. Mr. Zarif claimed that Iran wanted a deal and that “on our side . . . it is very easy to reach an agreement.” But he also came close to ruling out acceptance of steps that will be essential to ensuring that Iran is not left with a nuclear breakout capacity.

Nothing in Iran’s behavior, so far, suggests that it will agree to conditions and actions that are consistent with the President’s stated goal of “prevent[ing] Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Yet the President has the P5+1 negotiating the terms of implementing the JPA as Iran moves closer to nuclear breakout.

The President continued:

And we lose nothing during this negotiation period. Precisely because there are verification provisions in place, we will have more insight into Iran’s nuclear program over the next six months than we have previously. We’ll know if they are violating the terms of the agreement. They’re not allowed to accelerate their stockpile of enriched uranium — in fact, they have to reduce their stockpile of highly enriched uranium.

Ironically, if we did not have this six-month period in which we’re testing whether we can get a comprehensive solution to this problem, they’d be advancing even further on their nuclear program. And in light of all that, what I’ve said to members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — is there is no need for new sanctions legislation. Not yet.

Again, verification may not be possible. Furthermore, the six month period has not yet started. Again the Washington Post:

Of particular concern are two nuclear facilities that have scant conceivable purpose other than the production of weapons: the underground Fordow enrichment facility and the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is under construction and could be used to produce plutonium. In previous rounds of negotiations, the Obama administration sought the shutdown of Fordow and suspension of construction at Arak; though it obtained neither in the interim agreement, a final deal must address both.

Yet Mr. Zarif said of Arak, “We cannot roll back the clock 20 years and simply get rid of a project that has been the subject of a great deal of human and material investment.” Of Fordow, he said the U.S. demand revealed an intention to facilitate a military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, since “Fordow cannot be hit.” But the reverse logic also applies: Iran would not need a facility invulnerable to attack unless it wished to preserve the option to attempt a breakout.

The JPA didn’t address two of the most troubling aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. If the P5+1 couldn’t get an agreement to address these concerns in a temporary agreement, what are the chances it could get Iran to address them adequately in a permanent agreement? (Furthermore the interim agreement doesn’t even mention Parchin, where Iran is suspected of conducting experiments to develop a trigger for a nuclear device.)

Finally, the President said:

Now, if Iran comes back and says, we can’t give you assurances that we’re not going to weaponize, if they’re not willing to address some of their capabilities that we know could end up resulting in them having breakout capacity, it’s not going to be hard for us to turn the dials back, strengthen sanctions even further. I’ll work with members of Congress to put even more pressure on Iran. But there’s no reason to do it right now.
And so I’m not surprised that there’s been some talk from some members of Congress about new sanctions — I think the politics of trying to look tough on Iran are often good when you’re running for office or if you’re in office. But as President of the United States right now, who’s been responsible over the last four years, with the help of Congress, in putting together a comprehensive sanctions regime that was specifically designed to put pressure on them and bring them to the table to negotiate — what I’m saying to them, what I’ve said to the international community, and what I’ve said to the American people is let’s test it. Now is the time to try to see if we can get this thing done.

This is a typical trope for the President. He is the principled one following the wisest course of action. His critics are unprincipled political hacks choosing the easy way out.

But the editors of the Washington Post wonder:

Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry have devoted much time since the Geneva deal to persuading Congress not to approve additional sanctions on Iran. Perhaps their time would be better spent pushing the Iranian negotiators to stop posturing and stonewalling.

The President can’t dismiss the Washington Post so easily. The Post’s editors endorsed the President twice; including last year for re-election. (The editorial was published before the President’s press conference so it anticipated rather that answered the President’s arguments.) The Post’s objection is a good one. The President continually talking about testing Iranian intentions but Iran’s behavior over the course of negotiations would cause most observers to conclude that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed a military one or, at least, be suspicious of that possibility. Instead of questioning Iran, the President insists that it is Iran’s critics who are acting in bad faith.

All this makes one wonder, short of conducting a nuclear test, what will Iran have to do convince President Obama that its intentions are not peaceful?

[Photo:White House / WikiCommons ]