With an angry GOP Congress ready to levy new sanctions and a new generation of Iranian centrifuges spinning up, we can't wait another four months.
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
The last time I was in Vienna, I happened upon a little street vendor selling mulled wine in paper cups to guard against the frigid air. When I heard on Sunday that the nuclear negotiators agreed to another four-month extension, I thought back to that Vienna evening and wondered if the negotiators had been partaking themselves. Then it occurred to me: This sort of mass delusion is usually served with … oh, never mind.
An extension? Good lord, they are going to screw this up.
You’ve no doubt already heard that Iran and the so-called E3/EU+3 have agreed to a seven-month extension of the increasingly poorly named "interim" agreement to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran and the E3+3 initially agreed to the six-month Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in November 2013, extending it once previously, this past summer.
After an entire year of negotiation, the two parties were unable to even announce a "framework" measure that might have put the broad outlines of a deal in place while providing for an additional period to work out the complex details. The current extension provides four months to reach a framework agreement, followed by another three months to iron out any technical disagreements.
One wonders what the parties are thinking. Is there any reason to believe that this problem will be easier to solve in four months’ time? Is there any reason to think that, in fact, the parties have four months? Allow me to be the bearer of two items of bad news.
First, the 114th Congress will pass new sanctions legislation. This year, the White House held off the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill in the Senate by the narrowest of margins. (The House passing sanctions is a formality at this point.) Proponents had the votes — 60 co-sponsors, including 16 Democrats — but then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to let it come to the floor.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t be so accommodating. I now count 64 votes in favor of the inevitable Menendez-Kirk II bill, with four new Republican Senators replacing Democratic "no" votes: Shelley Moore Capito, Cory Gardner, Mike Rounds, and the crazy hog-castration lady from Iowa. Presuming the two Republican "no" votes — Jeff Flake and Rand Paul — come home, we’re one Democratic vote away from a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Gary Peters already sounds like a good candidate for that vote.
The wave of Republicans who swept into office during the midterm was always going to be a problem, but coming home with yet another extension makes this problem much, much worse. Remember, the argument for imposing congressionally administered poison-pill requirements in the middle of a negotiation was that the threat of new sanctions would "strengthen" the president’s hand in dealing with those shifty Iranians. Had the White House come back with at least a "framework" agreement, the president might have been able to make the argument that Congress was about to piss away a once-in-a-generation chance at constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, another extension plays right into the argument that the president needs Congress to help strengthen his hand by being maximally insane.
Second, Iran is continuing research and development on a new generation of centrifuges. A few weeks ago, there was a minor kerfuffle when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was test-feeding a new centrifuge under development called the IR-5. The issue was that Iran had not previously fed uranium hexafluoride into that type of machine. The Iranians denied this was a violation. (The definitive answer depends on "technical understandings" in the implementation agreement that the EU will not make public.)
While I don’t think Iran violated the terms of the JPOA, which unfortunately imposes almost no limits on Iran’s research and development activities, it certainly didn’t contribute to an atmosphere of goodwill and conciliation. Thanks, guys. Really. Fortunately, the administration asked the Iranians to knock it off for the moment, and they agreed. With another extension, though, Iran is free to continue its R&D work on new generations of centrifuges — including resuming testing of the IR-5 and eventually the IR-8.
Oh, yes, the IR-8. The IR-5 is a prelude to this much bigger problem. Iran has declared a new centrifuge model called the IR-8 to the IAEA. (One of these bad boys is sitting at the "pilot" enrichment facility, saying, "Feed me, Seymour.") The IR-8 is about 16 times more capable than the existing centrifuge types installed at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant.
There is nothing in the JPOA, as I read it, that prohibits Iran from testing this new centrifuge with uranium — as long as it does not alter its current practice of mixing any enriched uranium produced with the waste product to avoid "accumulating" any enriched uranium as a result of testing. Others may disagree with my reading, but the Iranians believe they are entitled to do so. So, what happens when Iran is ready to start feeding hex into the IR-8? And don’t think they won’t. Let me quote Mr. Rouhani on this one: "So in the context of nuclear technology, particularly of research and development and peaceful nuclear technology, we will not accept any limitations."
You can bet that will be a fun news cycle for Marie Harf.
The time to act is now. It is simply not possible to keep rolling the JPOA over and over, as if we have all the time in the world. The negotiators for both sides need to understand that they do not have another four months to negotiate a framework agreement. The new Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2015. It will almost immediately impose new requirements on any agreement, backed by the threat of more sanctions if Iran violates the JPOA or does any number of other things that Congress does not like. Iran, too, is very likely to take steps that it believes are just hunky-dory, but will cause outrage on Capitol Hill.