Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is lying when he says the Islamic Republic has never had any intention of building an atomic weapon. Defecting Iranian nuclear engineers told U.S. officials in the late 1980s that the mullahs' program, then hidden, was designed exclusively for such arms. Everything Western intelligence services have tracked since then matches those early revelations.
U.S. participation in the upcoming negotiations doesn't appear to be premised on an expectation of Iranian veracity. If it were, President Obama wouldn't send his secretary of state until Tehran had come clean about its past deceits. The exemplary behavior of South Africa's often-mendacious apartheid government when it decided to go non-nuclear — total transparency about the militarization of its atomic program — isn't expected from Iran. The clerical regime has already dropped the bar through its "facts on the ground" intransigence: more than 19,000 centrifuges built and a heavy-water plant nearing completion. Washington doesn't want to go to war again in the Middle East, and the Iranians know it.
The administration and Congress are gambling that sanctions will be enough to overcome the regime's chronic dishonesty. Economic pain will be so intense, the theory holds, that eventually Tehran will play by Western rules.
In other words, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards and Rouhani — who had a not-insignificant role in developing Iran's nuclear program in the 1990s — would be willing to admit that "evil incarnate" (Khamenei's update to the "Great Satan"), against which the Islamic Republic's very identity has been built, has defeated their nuclear aspirations.
Every country has an economic breaking point. But achieving that moment in the Islamic Republic will be extraordinarily difficult because such compromise is tantamount to spiritual suicide.
U.S. foreign policy elites play down or ignore God's role in foreign affairs since the divine has no part in the U.S. worldview. In Western media, Rouhani is a "pragmatist," as was his mentor Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former major-domo of the political clergy; and as was Khamenei before he backed the election of populist firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005. All of these men have been critical to Iran's nuclear-weapons program. All, even Ahmadinejad, have been politically pragmatic. This doesn't make them less religious, less anti-American or averse to viewing terrorism as both statecraft and soulcraft.
Iranian leaders probably are entering these negotiations for one reason: to test Barack Obama's mettle. They want to see whether Tehran can have the bomb and sanctions relief. The strategy for doing so isn't complicated. The regime could suspend work at the Arak heavy-water facility, the regime's plutonium path to a bomb, and stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, the big step in processing it to weapons-grade. But without a verifiable end to centrifuge production, the regime could continue to manufacture centrifuges, shrinking the time required to convert unprocessed uranium to bomb-grade stock. With enough advanced centrifuges, a 20 percent stockpile becomes operationally much less relevant given the increased speed of processing.
The only real compromise Khamenei would be making here is with the nuclear calendar. More time would be needed to develop a rapid, undetectable "breakout" capacity, which nuclear expert David Albright has estimated will happen by mid-2014. If the regime could trade heavy-water processing and uranium enriched to 20 percent in return for weakening of the interbank transfer sanctions, regaining the right to trade in gold or loosened restrictions on using euros, then it could easily gain $20 billion — a big sum for a regime that has only $20 billion in fully accessible hard currency. Tehran still has about $50 billion of locked-up cash that can be used for barter trade in a handful of countries. Given Iran's currency reserves, even without a lessening of economic pressure, nuclear physics is still outpacing sanctions and diplomacy.
Obama has been clear that he isn't going to war to stop low-grade enrichment, so Tehran needs to figure out whether the president has any "red line" on 3.5 percent enrichment. If Khamenei had to export most of Iran's stockpile enriched to that amount, a nuclear weapon would be significantly delayed — provided centrifuge production was curtailed and the number of machines spinning reduced.
Khamenei can't allow the West to stop centrifuge manufacturing. He cannot allow Washington to know where all of the centrifuges are being built or how the regime has avoided sanctions on "dual-use" imports. Such knowledge could massively delay or even end the weapons program, either through a preemptive strike or better sanctions enforcement.
Nor can Iran's supreme leader implement any additional protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that would allow U.N. inspectors to track centrifuge plants, search military bases (where the regime probably hides its most sensitive nuclear-weapons research) or debrief all of Iran's nuclear scientists.
The administration and Congress would be wise to hit Tehran with more sanctions immediately. The United States shouldn't be fooled by false divisions within the regime. Abandoning the long quest for atomic weapons would be an extraordinary humiliation for Iran's ruling class. That isn't going to happen unless Iran's supreme leader and his guards know with certainty that the Islamic order is finished if they don't abandon the bomb.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA's Clandestine Service is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mark Dubowitz is the foundation's executive director and heads its project on Iran sanctions.
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