The Iran Fiasco

By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 @ 3:57AM

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The speed at which the Obama administration is flipping its position on Iran’s nuclear program is dizzying. Until Sunday, it said it would not give up sanctions without real concessions that will end Iran’s bomb-making program.

However, for almost three days, Secretary of State John Kerry has been expressing his disappointment that the plan, which demanded nothing significant from Iran while offering immediate removal of sanctions and unfreezing tens of billions of dollars worth Iranian assets and which the U.S. was so eager to sign in Geneva, was rejected by the regime.

In his efforts to excuse the Iranians, he went on to explain, “at that particular moment” the mullahs couldn’t sign the agreement. He then reluctantly declared: “The French signed off on it; we signed off on it.”

However, two days later the IAEA cut a deal with Iran, for limited inspections.

Read Dore Gold’s thorough analysis of the agreement that the U.S. was willing to sign, as well as Bret Stephens’s brilliant insight into the Obama administration’s personnel choices and modus operandi.

Finally, there’s a Reuters-researched story about Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s control of a huge economic empire that funds the regime’s nuclear development and makes the political leadership and the mullahs very wealthy men. Khamenei’s empire, part of Iran’s shadow economy, has been known to this administration for years. Yet, neither the Supreme Leader, nor the majority of Iran’s political leadership was put on the U.S. designated terror list, and their assets were never sanctioned. No wonder they are not taking seriously the Obama administration’s public, often conflicting, statements.

The Emerging Geneva Agreement with Iran, By Dore Gold

Eliminating Iran’s 20-percent-enriched uranium, but allowing the Iranians to continue to produce 3.5-percent-enriched uranium is an unacceptable option if the goal of the West is to prevent Iran from advancing a nuclear weapon. Allowing Iran to enrich to the 3.5-percent level will not address the threat emanating from Iran’s latest generation of faster centrifuges and the scenario of a fast dash by Iran to weapons-grade uranium, known as “nuclear break-out.”

President Obama’s former aide on the National Security Council, Gary Samore, warned in October that ending the production of 20-percent-enriched uranium is not enough because Iran can also reach weapons-grade uranium using its stock of 3.5-percent-enriched uranium. Thus, any agreement must eliminate all of Iran’s enriched uranium.

If the Geneva talks produce a bad agreement and allow Iran to continue its drive for nuclear weapons, there will be accelerated nuclear proliferation in the Middle East among Iran’s neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. A multi-polar nuclearized Middle East will in no way resemble the bi-polar superpower balance during the Cold War and is likely to be unstable.

Iran’s global network of terrorism will obtain a protective nuclear umbrella, allowing its organizations to strike with complete impunity. Finally, given Iran’s increasing propensity in recent years to remove any constraints on the supply of state-of-the-art conventional weapons to its terrorist proxies, the flow of nuclear technologies to these groups cannot be dismissed.

Iran has argued that it has an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while Western states have contested this. If the West now accepts Iranian enrichment of uranium to the 3.5-percent level, it will be acknowledging that Iran has a right to enrichment. Moreover, the UN Security Council adopted six resolutions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that called on Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment. Chapter VII resolutions are binding international law. If the West now says that the suspension is no longer necessary, what does that mean for the binding nature of Chapter VII resolutions?

Turning to the question of plutonium production, up until now, the West has been encouraging states not to erect heavy-water reactors, but instead to accept light-water nuclear reactors which have a reduced risk of being used for plutonium production. At present it appears that Western proposals to Iran do not include the dismantling of the Arak heavy-water facility.

The details of the agreement being worked out with Iran may not be fully known, but several elements of the Western position have already been disclosed. At the heart of virtually every Western proposal under consideration at Geneva by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) is the idea that the international community will acquiesce to Iran continuing to enrich uranium, at least to the level of 3.5 percent. Israel has objected to this idea on security grounds.

Even if the impending agreement will only be an interim deal, assuming that it leads to a reduction of Western economic sanctions, it is questionable how much leverage the West will have to improve the agreement at a later stage after it is signed. Therefore, it is important to scrutinize those details of the Geneva negotiation that have already entered the public discourse.

The Declining Importance of the 20-Percent Threshold

Originally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like other world leaders, focused on the dangers emanating from Iran’s growing stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium, since uranium at this level of enrichment can be enriched quickly to the level of weapons-grade uranium with little effort in what is called “nuclear break-out.”

Enriched uranium has a greater proportion of the fissile isotope U-235, as opposed to U-238, which cannot be easily split in order to release atomic energy. Since natural uranium ore has only 0.7 percent U-235, enormous energy must be expended to elevate the amounts of U-235 during the process of enrichment. As Prime Minister Netanyahu explained to the UN General Assembly in 2012, when uranium is enriched to the 20-percent level, it is already 90 percent of the way to the weapons-grade level. Thus, using 20-percent-enriched uranium as a starting point is a short-cut to reaching weapons-grade material.

But in the last year, new technological factors have been introduced. Iran has been installing advanced IR-2m centrifuges, which operate three to five times faster than the older IR-1 centrifuges.1 Thus, Iran can also jump-start its advance to weapons-grade uranium by using only its 3.5 percent inventory and, therefore, establish a fait accompli as a nuclear weapons threshold state.

In short, eliminating Iran’s 20-percent-enriched uranium, but allowing the Iranians to continue to produce 3.5-percent-enriched uranium is an unacceptable option if the goal of the West is to prevent Iran from advancing a nuclear weapon. As Gary Samore, a nonproliferation expert who served on the National Security Council during President Obama’s first term, has warned: “Ending production of 20-percent-enriched uranium is not sufficient to prevent breakout because Iran can produce nuclear weapons using low-enriched uranium and a large number of centrifuge machines.”2 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that with its new capacity, Iran can enrich uranium from the 3.5-percent level to the weapons-grade level in a matter of weeks.3

Yet allowing Iran to enrich to the 3.5-percent level appears to be part of the approach which the Obama administration is taking.4 Any agreement must eliminate all of Iran’s enriched uranium. According to various reports on the Geneva negotiations, it does not seem that the impending agreement will address the threat emanating from Iran’s latest generation of faster centrifuges and their implications for nuclear break-out by Iran.

The Risks of an Iranian Nuclear Breakout

The risks emanating from an Iranian nuclear breakout are well-known, if the Geneva talks produce a bad agreement. There will be accelerated nuclear proliferation in the Middle East among Iran’s neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. Already, leaks have appeared about Saudi-Pakistani cooperation in this regard. A multi-polar nuclearized Middle East will in no way resemble the bi-polar superpower balance during the Cold War and is likely to be unstable.5 Iran’s global network of terrorism will obtain a nuclear umbrella, allowing organizations like Hizbullah to strike with complete impunity. Finally, as experts point out, the threat of nuclear technologies spreading to terrorist organizations cannot be dismissed, given Iran’s propensity in recent years to supply state-of-the-art conventional weapons to its terrorist proxies.

The Erosion of Previous Western Positions

But even before these scenarios become possible, there are other vital issues that will be affected by a Western decision in Geneva to accept parts of Iran’s current nuclear program as legitimate. First, since negotiations began between the West and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program in 2003, Iran has argued that it has a right to manufacture enriched uranium under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Up until now, Western states have contested this Iranian interpretation of the NPT. However, if the West now accepts Iranian enrichment of uranium to the 3.5-percent level, it will be acknowledging, even without saying this explicitly, that Iran has a right to enrichment.

Second, the UN Security Council adopted six resolutions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that called on Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment and its activities for the eventual production of plutonium. Chapter VII resolutions are binding international law. But what if the West now says that the suspension is no longer necessary? What does that mean for the binding nature of Chapter VII resolutions?

Third, turning to the question of plutonium production, Iran is building a heavy-water nuclear reactor whose by-products may be re-processed for the production of plutonium, another radioactive material used in the manufacture of atomic bombs. Up until now, the West has been encouraging states not to erect heavy-water reactors, but instead to accept light-water nuclear reactors which have no risk of being used for plutonium production. At present it appears that Western proposals to Iran do not include the dismantling of the Arak heavy-water facility.

Iran’s Alleged Right of Enrichment and the NPT

In a recent address to parliament, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, was quoted on November 10 as repeating what has become a refrain for Iranian leaders, that Iran’s nuclear rights, “including uranium enrichment, on its soil,” are not negotiable. The Iranians have called enrichment an “inalienable right” under the NPT. But this Iranian assertion is not true.6

In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on “Meet the Press” and, directing her words to the Iranian leadership, stated: “You do not have a right to obtain a nuclear weapon. You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control.”7 Clinton was right to take this position since the spread of enrichment facilities worldwide, under the guise of civilian nuclear work, is one of the ways in which nuclear proliferation is expected to spread. Perhaps with considerations of these sorts, the initial position of the Obama administration was to say that Iran did not have a right of enrichment as its spokesmen had asserted.

The NPT itself never explicitly mentions enrichment. Article II of the treaty prohibits signatories, like Iran, from manufacturing nuclear weapons. The Iranians always cite Article IV which states: “[N]othing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.” Clearly, if a state is violating Article II by developing a nuclear weapons program, it cannot claim a right of enrichment, which would not be used for “peaceful purposes.”

The August 2013 report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reminds Tehran that the international community has had serious doubts over whether the Iranians are developing their nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes and do not actually have a nuclear weapons program: “Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” As long as Iran has not taken the necessary steps to prove these concerns to be unfounded, then it would be a cardinal error to recognize that Iran has a right to enrichment.

If the new Western understanding with Iran being worked out in Geneva allows Tehran to continue to enrich uranium to any level, then the P5+1 are acquiescing to the Iranian demand to recognize its right of enrichment, even if no explicit statement accompanies the agreement. This implicit acknowledgement has also been called “de facto recognition of the Islamic Republic’s ‘right’ to enrich uranium.”8

True, as noted by The New York Times, the Obama administration is not prepared to acknowledge “at this point” that Iran has a “right” to enrich.9 An unnamed senior administration official stated, “The United States does not believe there is an inherent right to enrichment, and we have said that repeatedly to Iran.”10 Yet it is likely that after an agreement is reached allowing Iran to enrich to 3.5 percent, Iran itself will make explicit what will be implicit through the agreement. It will be difficult to deny other states the same right to enrichment that they will now assert, thereby further undermining nuclear non-proliferation in the years ahead.

The Fate of the Chapter VII Resolutions on Iran in the UN Security Council

Any decision taken in Geneva to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium to any level stands in contradiction to UN Security Council Resolution 1696 as well as five other resolutions that followed which prohibited Iran from enriching uranium. Resolution 1696, which was adopted on July 31, 2006, stated that the Security Council: “Demands, in this context, that Iran shall suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA.”

The resolution, as well as the five that were adopted subsequently on Iran, was based on the support of all five permanent members of the Security Council, including China and Russia. It was a great accomplishment for U.S. diplomacy. Now, if the proposed Geneva Agreement allows Iran to enrich uranium to the 3.5-percent level, it will undermine what the U.S. achieved seven years ago and no longer lock in Russia and China to their UN commitment. The agreement will let them off the hook.

In the UN system, Security Council resolutions may be adopted under different chapters of the UN Charter. Resolution 1696 and the five resolutions adopted on its basis were approved under specific clauses of Chapter VII, which deals with cases of aggression and threats to international peace. These are the most stringent of UN resolutions. UN members regard them as binding under international law.

Chapter VII resolutions are also self-enforcing and hence do not require a negotiation in order to be implemented. In some cases, if they are not implemented, then the Security Council can take punitive actions and resort to the use of force against a state that violates such a resolution. Significantly, a Chapter VII resolution supersedes the terms of a multilateral treaty like the NPT (in the case, for example, that the Iranians argue that they have a right of enrichment according to their interpretation of the NPT).11

In today’s international political environment, many observers will not lose sleep over a further weakening of the UN’s role in guaranteeing international peace and security. But if the specific terms of a Chapter VII resolution are ignored by a new agreement between Iran and the P5+1, then states will undoubtedly question the extent to which they will be bound by such resolutions in the future.

Permitting a Heavy-Water Reactor

Since the revelation of Iran’s effort to construct a heavy-water reactor at the Arak facility, the international community has been concerned that Tehran will reprocess the reactor’s spent fuel to produce weapons-grade plutonium, as an alternative fuel to enriched uranium for manufacturing an atomic bomb. This was the pathway that North Korea initially used to acquire nuclear weapons. During the negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran that transpired between 2003 and 2005, the Europeans proposed to Iran that it replace its heavy-water reactor with a light-water reactor which would be less useful for the production of plutonium. Revealingly, Iran refused to accept the proposal. UN Security Council Resolution 1696 and the other five Chapter VII resolutions on the Iranian file call on Iran to suspend all reprocessing activities.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described one of the key issues at Geneva as the Western call for all construction work at Arak to stop.12 But if the diplomacy in Geneva leaves the Arak facility intact and does not seek its replacement with a more benign reactor, then the international effort to halt the spread of heavy-water reactors and plutonium-based atomic bombs will undoubtedly be set back.


The agreement being worked on in Geneva between the P5+1 and Iran has not yet been set in stone. What has been reported about the substance of the understandings that it contains poses serious challenges to international security. These understandings also challenge many of the past understandings that have underpinned the international order in countering proliferation. It would be tragic if one of the consequences of an international agreement with Iran would be a serious erosion of the global effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, especially in such an unstable region as the Middle East.


1. Patrick Migliorini, David Albright, Houston Wood, and Christina Walround, “Iranian Breakout Estimates, Updated September 2013,” Institute for Science and International Security, ISIS Report, October 24, 2013,

2. Michael R. Gordon and Thomas Erdbrink, “In New Nuclear Talks, Technological Gains by Iran Pose Challenges to the West,” New York Times, October 14, 2013,

3. “PM: “Iran Can Enrich Uranium from 3.5% to 90% in Weeks,” Israel Hayom, October 27, 2013,

4. Michael R. Gordon, Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren, “Iran Balked at Language of Draft Nuclear Deal, Western Diplomats Say,” New York Times, November 10, 2013,

5. Shmuel Bar, “Can Cold War Deterrence Apply to a Nuclear Iran?” Strategic Perspectives No. 7, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Institute for Contemporary Affairs, 2011, pp. 8-10,

6. Nasser Karimi, “Iran’s Rouhani Says Uranium Enrichment ‘Red Line,'” Associated Press, November 10, 2013,

7. David E. Sanger, “Clinton Says Nuclear Aim of Iran is Fruitless,” New York Times, July 27, 2009,

8. Mark Dubowitz and Reuel Marc Gerecht, “The Case for Stronger Sanctions on Iran,” Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2013,

9. See note 4.

10. Ibid.

11. Kenneth M. Pollock, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013); and Emily B. Landau, “Does Iran Have an ‘Inalienable Right’ to Enrich Uranium,” INSS Insight No. 376, October 22, 2012, p. 38,

12. Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iran Nuclear Negotiations at Crucial Juncture over Arak Reactor,” Guardian (UK), November 9, 3013, —-JCPA, Vol. 13, No. 30 12 November 2013

Axis of Fantasy vs. Axis of Reality:
France, Israel and Saudi Arabia confront an administration conducting a make-believe foreign policy. By Bret Stephens

When the history of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is written 20 or so years from now, the career of Wendy Sherman, our chief nuclear negotiator with Iran, will be instructive.

In 1988, the former social worker ran the Washington office of the Dukakis campaign and worked at the Democratic National Committee. That was the year the Massachusetts governor carried 111 electoral votes to George H.W. Bush’s 426. In the mid-1990s, Ms. Sherman was briefly the CEO of something called the Fannie Mae Foundation, supposedly a charity that was shut down a decade later for what the Washington Post WPO +0.13% called “using tax-exempt contributions to advance corporate interests.”

From there it was on to the State Department, where she served as a point person in nuclear negotiations with North Korea and met with Kim Jong Il himself. The late dictator, she testified, was “witty and humorous,” “a conceptual thinker,” “a quick problem-solver,” “smart, engaged, knowledgeable, self-confident.” Also a movie buff who loved Michael Jordan highlight videos. A regular guy!

Later Ms. Sherman was to be found working for her former boss as the No. 2 at the Albright-Stonebridge Group before taking the No. 3 spot at the State Department. Ethics scolds might describe the arc of her career as a revolving door between misspending taxpayer dollars in government and mooching off them in the private sector. But it’s mainly an example of failing up-the Washingtonian phenomenon of promotion to ever-higher positions of authority and prestige irrespective of past performance.

This administration in particular is stuffed with fail-uppers-the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and the national security adviser, to name a few-and every now and then it shows. Like, for instance, when people for whom the test of real-world results has never meant very much meet people for whom that test means everything.

That’s my read on last weekend’s scuttled effort in Geneva to strike a nuclear bargain with Iran. The talks unexpectedly fell apart at the last minute when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius publicly objected to what he called a “sucker’s deal,” meaning the U.S. was prepared to begin lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for tentative Iranian promises that they would slow their multiple nuclear programs.

Not stop or suspend them, mind you, much less dismantle them, but merely reduce their pace from run to jog when they’re on Mile 23 of their nuclear marathon. It says something about the administration that they so wanted a deal that they would have been prepared to take this one. This is how people for whom consequences are abstractions operate. It’s what happens when the line between politics as a game of perception and policy as the pursuit of national objectives dissolves.

The French are not such people, believe it or not, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Speculation about why Mr. Fabius torpedoed the deal has focused on the pique French President François Hollande felt at getting stiffed by the U.S. on his Mali intervention and later in the aborted attack on Syria. (Foreign ministry officials in Paris are still infuriated by a Susan Rice tirade in December, when she called a French proposal to intervene in Mali “crap.”)

But the French also understand that the sole reason Iran has a nuclear program is to build a nuclear weapon. They are not nonchalant about it. The secular republic has always been realistic about the threat posed by theocratic Iran. And they have come to care about nonproliferation too, in part because they belong to what is still a small club of nuclear states. Membership has its privileges.

This now puts the French at the head of a de facto Axis of Reality, the other prominent members of which are Saudi Arabia and Israel. In this Axis, strategy is not a game of World of Warcraft conducted via avatars in a virtual reality. “We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” a defensive John Kerry said over the weekend on “Meet the Press,” sounding uncomfortably like Otto West (Kevin Kline) from “A Fish Called Wanda.” When you’ve reached the “don’t call me stupid” stage of diplomacy, it means the rest of the world has your number.

Now the question is whether the French were staking out a position at Geneva or simply demanding to be heard. If it’s the latter, the episode will be forgotten and Jerusalem and Riyadh will have to reach their own conclusions about how to operate in a post-American Middle East. If it’s the former, Paris has a chance to fulfill two cherished roles at once: as the de facto shaper of European policy on the global stage, and as an obstacle to Washington’s presumptions to speak for the West.

A decade ago, Robert Kagan argued that the U.S. operated in a Hobbesian world of power politics while Europe inhabited the Kantian (and somewhat make-believe) world of right. That was after 9/11, when fecklessness was not an option for the U.S.

Under Mr. Obama, there’s been a role reversal. The tragedy for France and its fellow members of its Axis is that they may lack the power to master a reality they perceive so much more clearly than the Wendy Shermans of the world, still failing up.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s £60bn Empire Includes Birth Control Factory – By Robert Tait,

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has built a state-run business empire so vast that it includes a factory producing contraceptive pills – despite his urging fellow countrymen to forsake birth control and produce a baby boom.

His growing dominance over the national economy is laid bare in a report that reveals Iran’s top cleric and most powerful political figure to be in command of enterprises worth an estimated $95billion (£60billion).

The figure was uncovered in a six-month investigation by Reuters news agency, which reported that a sprawling network of companies and properties was at his disposal thanks to his control of a state organisation, known as Setad, or the Headquarters for Executing the Order of the Imam.

The organisation was originally established for charitable purposes, to provide revenues to assist the poor, but has been steadily built up over the years – boosted by a flurry of acquisitions which have included property confiscated from religious minorities, business people and Iranian expatriates.

Now Ayatollah Khamenei has expanded Setad into a “financial juggernaut” that he has used to cement his 24-year grip on power, according to Reuters. Under its orbit are 37 companies reaching into every corner of the Iranian economy – including finance, oil, telecommunications and even ostrich farming.

But the conservative ayatollah’s transformation into an economic powerhouse also threatens to undermine his stated goal of presiding over a rapid rise in Iran’s population, the investigation found. In a glaring contradiction, ATI Pharmed, a pharmaceutical company run by Setad’s charitable foundation, Barakat, embarked on a joint venture in May this year with a Swiss company, the Geneva-based Stragen Pharma, that included plans to produce oral contraceptives.

The initiative – in which the Iranian company has a 66 per cent share – jars with an earlier edict issued by Ayatollah Khamenei to Iran’s health ministry to scrap the country’s liberal birth control policy in an effort to raise the population – now about 75 million – to 200 million.

“The business empire controlled by Iran’s supreme leader had grown so large that it now owned companies whose products Khamenei opposes,” Reuters reported.

The ayatollah’s economic encroachment also had a baleful effect on workplaces, the investigation revealed.

Employees at Parsian Bank, a private bank with more than 100 branches known for its liberal dress codes, experienced a culture shock when Setad’s investment arm acquired a stake in the business in 2006.

Male staff were banned from wearing ties while female employees received warning letters asking: “Why are you wearing jeans? Why are your lips red?”

The growth of Setad’s business interests has attracted the attention of the US treasury, which imposed sanctions on the organisation and the companies under its wing last June as part of the international drive to pressure Iran to abandon its suspect nuclear programme.

The treasury branded Setad – originally formed by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the current supreme leader’s predecessor – as “a massive network of front companies hiding assets on behalf of Iran’s leadership” .

There was no evidence that Ayatollah Khamenei, noted for an austere lifestyle, personally enriched himself from assets worth 40 per cent more than Iran’s latest annual oil income, Reuters reported.

But it said he had used the control as a political lever that enabled him to rise about Iran’s rival political factions.

November 12, 2013

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Iran, Middle East Conflicts, U.S. Policy

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