Iran's nuclear weapons program, now operating largely outside Barack Obama's attention span, is still making steady progress. While Ukraine's crisis and the creation of the menacing "Islamic State" in the ruins of Syria and Iraq have dominated international headlines, Tehran has been hard at work strengthening both its nuclear infrastructure and its bargaining position as new negotiations with the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members (plus Germany) reopen.
Iran has quietly deconstructed the economic sanctions imposed over the last several years, stiffed efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to probe its nuclear weaponization efforts (as a new IAEA report reveals) and continued the most critical aspects of its 35-year effort to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons.
Tehran's diplomats also have taken advantage of the Islamic State (ISIS) threat to demonstrate "common interests" with America, thus ingratiating Iran further with the Obama administration and legitimizing the regime as a terrorism opponent.
Obama seems to not understand or care little about Iran's relentless strategy to advance its nuclear weapons objectives. Perhaps the weight of the Ukraine and Islamic State crises have overwhelmed his national security team — or perhaps the impending November elections — but Obama is even more at sea dealing with Iran than ever before. And this is surely bad news.
In a November 2013 "interim" deal effective last January, the Perm Five plus Germany agreed to substantially weaken the existing sanctions while negotiations for a final deal continued until July 2014. With huge differences still separating them, the parties extended the talks another four months, until Nov. 24, suspiciously just after U.S. elections. (Under the "interim" deal, negotiations also could be extended two additional months.)
Iran is in no hurry. As long as diplomacy continues, Tehran is busy opening further holes in international sanctions and continuing its nuclear program. The pressure, self-imposed to be sure, is actually on Obama. Either he reaches a final agreement he can trumpet as a success before our midterm elections or he announces something soon thereafter, avoiding the political consequences if, from America's perspective, the deal is as bad as many expect.
The prospect of a bad deal is high. All reports of the negotiations stress that vast differences remain between the sides on the central issue of how much uranium enrichment Iran will be allowed going forward.
The right amount is zero. Iran should not be permitted to conduct any nuclear-related activity as long as the ayatollahs remain in power, given their record of dissimulation and obstructionism and their obvious intention of becoming a nuclear-weapons state.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration long ago conceded on that "red line," as on so many others.
While the United States was still naming companies violating sanctions, Iran's oil exports continued climbing. Reuters reported that in July, exports were 29.4 percent above 2013 levels, with purchases by China "accounting for most of the increase." China, of course, is a Security Council permanent member, supposedly upholding and enforcing the council's sanctions. And given Russia's recent performance on Ukraine, there is scant hope America and Europe will get any help there either.
Revealing and highly troubling was the IAEA's Sept. 5 report. Although Iran has complied with the interim deal's minimal obligations concerning its nuclear program, these steps are essentially cosmetic, easily and quickly reversible.
Significantly, Iran has continued enriching uranium-235 to reactor grade levels, thus accomplishing nearly 70 percent of the enrichment necessary to reach weapons grade levels. And Iran's ballistic missile testing and development, not limited in any respect by the "interim deal," proceed apace.
What is particularly disturbing is that the IAEA confirms that Iran continued demolition and reconstruction activity at its Parchin military base, the location Washington and others believe Iran uses for crucial weaponization research and development activities. Tehran consistently has blocked or severely limited IAEA access to Parchin's facilities and personnel, thus preventing the agency from reaching any conclusion about what is actually happening there.
In IAEA's understated diplomatic language, the Sept. 5 report assesses that "these activities are likely to have further undermined the agency's ability to conduct further verification. It remains important for Iran to provide answers to the agency's questions and access to the particular locations in question."
Combined with other findings in its report, the IAEA is unable "to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."
Optically, the low point might come in just days when the U.N. General Assembly opens in New York. Last year, Obama seemed like a supplicant, desperately seeking a telephone call or meeting with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Our leader had to settle for talking to Rouhani as the latter's limousine headed toward JFK airport to return to Tehran.
This year, Obama might get his photo op and a meeting. We can only hope that he doesn't declare afterward, as Neville Chamberlain did returning from Munich in 1938, that he has achieved "peace for our time."
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.
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