A Poison Pill for the Iran-Nuke Deal

Many in Congress continue to march in lockstep with the dictates of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who wants endless hostility toward Iran even if that torpedoes a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. That includes a pointless demand for a past confession, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Some of the most recent efforts to derail a nuclear agreement with Iran have been focusing on what has come to be called “possible military dimensions” (PMD), a term that refers to any work Iran has performed in the past on designing nuclear weapons.

One of the latest such efforts is a letter that the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Edward Royce and Eliot Engel, have circulated for signature by their congressional colleagues. The letter essentially says that all questions about PMD need to be cleared up before we can reach any agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own "red line" on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in 2012, drawing his own “red line” on how far he will let Iran go in refining nuclear fuel.

The government of Iran will not issue during the next couple of months a public confession about past research or design work on nuclear weapons. This simply won’t happen. So for the United States or its negotiating partners to make clearing up of all questions about PMD a prerequisite to signing an agreement would be a deal-killer. Most of those pushing the PMD issue hardest probably recognize it would be a deal-killer, which is why they are pushing it.

The Royce-Engel letter attempts to relate past behavior to future requirements in enforcing an agreement by asserting there must be a “baseline” of information about the past to assess Iran’s current and future nuclear activity. That assertion lacks logic. Baseline information is important in many things, where what matters is the amount and direction of change in a continuing process, such as what is measured by achievement test scores in education, or by blood tests tracking the level of an antigen produced by the human body.

But under an agreement with Iran no work on nuclear weapons would be allowed. It’s not a matter of comparing the pace of current activity with the pace of past activity. Any such activity would be a clear violation of Iran’s obligations under the agreement, as well as its existing obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The single biggest reason, from the standpoint of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, for completing the agreement under negotiation is to extend and expand the inspection arrangements, already, under the preliminary agreement, unprecedented in their scope and intensity, including full adherence to the Additional Protocol governing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That is what is needed to be confident that the Iranian nuclear program remains peaceful, not some ‘fessing up about something done in the distant past. Besides, if the Iranians really wanted to cheat, they would be stupid simply to pick up or duplicate what they had done in the past (and which they already knew Western governments and intelligence services were on to).

The distant past is getting steadily more distant, and even more irrelevant to present concerns. The publicly expressed judgment of the U.S. intelligence community on this subject is that Iran did work on the design of nuclear weapons but that it ceased such work in 2003, now more than a decade ago.

The basic choice in handling the PMD issue in the negotiations now in progress is between attempting to get a confession about behavior that ended more than a decade ago and getting an agreement that provides the best possible assurance that there will be no Iranian nuclear weapon in the future. The advantage of choosing the latter option should be obvious enough when the choice is phrased that way.

It should be even more obvious when considering that in terms of actual results, the realistic alternatives are, on one hand, being hard-line on the PMD issue and getting neither  the confession nor an agreement, and on the other hand, getting an agreement that restricts and monitors Iran’s nuclear program to an extent that years of pressure and hard-lining on our side never were able to achieve.

In the history of nuclear nonproliferation efforts, the failures, including one conspicuous case of not acknowledging either past or current activity, have been offset by successes that have included several cases, ranging from Sweden to South Korea, in which states with nuclear weapons programs moved away from them and decided instead to commit themselves to a nuclear-weapons-free future. Isn’t that what we supposedly want from Iran today?

Those earlier cases did not involve past confessions but instead a straightforward commitment to keeping national nuclear programs peaceful in the present and future. In a speech on the floor of the Senate in January, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, referred to such earlier cases in stating, “I believe countries can change. This capacity to change also applies to the pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

The question before us, said the senator, is whether Iran is “willing to change its past behavior.” It is change from past behavior, not a public confession about past behavior, that matters.

It is the “job of diplomacy,” said Feinstein, “to push for that change.” It is the job of analysts and pundits to realize that agreements need to be assessed according to how they shape future behavior, not just make some statement about the past.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “A Poison Pill for the Iran-Nuke Deal

  1. rob
    October 2, 2014 at 11:16

    I agree that both the US and France are being obstructive for their own reasons, although I would argue they have a reasonable premise. The IAEA believe Iran have not declared all ‘possible military dimensions’ to their nuclear research. I do not think entering a confessional box is justified, simply a commitment not to engage in any further military activity. No doubt these commitments could be verified by the ubiquitous US intelligence services.

    • Masud
      October 2, 2014 at 15:05

      It’s a dilemma that the nations who want to follow the rule of law by signing the NPT are penalised by further stringent scrutiny; on the other hand those who do not hesitate even to steal nuclear material to build their nuclear arsenals, refuse to sign the NPT and therefore are beyond the reach of so-called nuclear watchdog, are rewarded by these nuclearly hagemonic Western powers. When would the ‘free world’ be actually free from this hypocrisy?

  2. Brendan
    October 2, 2014 at 06:10

    The Libyan government was the last one that confessed to a nuclear weapons program and promised not to revive it in return for an end to sanctions by the west. They also agreed to pay compensation for the Lockerbie bombing even though the evidence against them for that crime is very weak.

    Less than a decade later Libya was the target of regime change by the west, its leader suffered a brutal death. It’s now in a state of lawlessness, controlled by two rival governments and many more militias, including extremist groups.

    Don’t forget Saddam Hussein who allowed weapons inspectors to look for non-existent Iraqi WMDs, but that wasn’t enough to save him and his regime from the same fate.

    In the case of Iran there isn’t even any evidence that it has tried to develop nuclear weapons, unless you believe Israel which is not happy with Iranian support for Hezbollah.

    Iranians want an end to sanctions but they’re not stupid enough to believe they can trust the west. They won’t sign a deal that might only make them even more likely to be attacked in the future.

  3. Iran Fail (@IranFail)
    October 1, 2014 at 18:21

    A nuclear deal with Iran is not going to happen, but the reason why it won’t happen lies squarely with Iran and its staunch refusal to give up its centrifuge enrichment capacity and its missile technology it got from North Korea to deliver a nuclear warhead. Iran is a state sponsor of terror for its support of Hamas and Hezbollah and safe harboring of Al Qaeda members. It clearly does not have a commitment to peace, only to the global spread of its particular brand of radicalized Shia beliefs.

    • Abe
      October 2, 2014 at 01:50

      A fine recitation of Israeli/AIPAC talking points. Fits nicely with Israel’s safe harboring of Al Qaeda members in the occupied Golan.

    • Masud
      October 2, 2014 at 12:22

      you say Iran is a state sponsoring terror because it harbors Alqaeda, and then you say they are not interested in peace, they are only interested in spreading their perticular brand of radicalized Shia beliefs. Do you realise how stupid above statement is? Iran would habor a stanch Sunni group to spread radicalized Shia beliefs!!!
      I think you Israeli Firsters should confine yourselves to what you best – behind-the -scene conspiracies. Open talk is not for you people; you sound stupid.

  4. Abe
    October 1, 2014 at 12:28

    Gareth Porter, author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, discusses the beginning of Iraq War III and how Israel sabotages any attempt at repairing US-Iran relations.

  5. Abe
    October 1, 2014 at 12:03

    Likud spokesperson Charles Krauthammer on FOX commits a telling slip that informs us about what’s really happening in Syria:

    “It’s not being talked about in part because we’re trying to get ISIS to tacitly help, um, we’re trying to get Iran to tacitly help us with the war on ISIS.” (watch mintutes 0:22-0:32)

    There you have it, straight from the asses mouth: ISIS is helping Israel prepare for war on Iran.

    The conflict in Syria since 2011 has paved the way for Israeli Air Force access to the three possible air routes to Iran: the northern route along the Turkish-Syrian border, the central route over Jordan and Iraq, and the southern route over Saudi Arabia.

    The United States, along with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey all have been complicit in funding and arming the terrorist forces in Syria and Iraq.

    Five main Iranian facilities would be targeted in an Israeli airstrike: the Bushehr light-water reactor, the heavy-water plant near Arak, the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, the uranium enrichment facility at Qom, and the main Iranian uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. Iranian radar stations and air bases would be targeted as well. Israeli defense analysts have planned to attack as many as sixty different targets with return sorties lasting up to two days.

    U.S. suppression of Syrian air defense grants Israel an open corridor to attack Iran, and places American assets in the airspace to assist the assault.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    October 1, 2014 at 11:19

    Netanyahu ought to stop this, and stop it right now. Innocent Jews around the world are already feeling the backlash from Israel’s policies. Between bombing Palestians to obstructing other things, things are looking pretty bad. People everywhere are growing tired of all this war. Besides the cruelty against mankind we also cannot afford all this warring going on. When will it end?

  7. Richard Donoghue
    October 1, 2014 at 11:18

    An equitable approach, were one aiming for openness to be the basis of a ‘new relationship’ between the US and Iran, would be to also require the US Govt to admit all incidences of spying, sabotage (Stuxnet), and mass murder (admitting liability and apologising for the shooting down or Iran Air flight 655).

    I suspect such an amendment would draw a few sharp breaths in the Washington though.

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