As the United States and its international partners — the so-called P5+1, the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany — continue what Obama administration officials and experts have said are constructive and positive talks with Iran over its nuclear program, much of the discussion has turned to what kind of deal the Obama administration can get with the Iranians.
One of the main questions surrounding any potential bargain is whether the U.S. and its allies should agree to allow Iran to enrich its own uranium to low levels (up to 5 percent purity) for civilian energy purposes. Iran has enriched uranium up to 20 percent purity, which can be processed quickly into weapons-grade levels (90 percent is considered weapons-grade). While the Iranians have gradually reduced its 20 percent stockpile, it currently has a very large quantity of lower enriched uranium.
Experts like former Obama administration defense official Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation wrote recently that it is “unrealistic” to demand that Iran to give up domestic enrichment and instead, the U.S. should push to cap Iranian enrichment at the 5 percent level (Israel’s former military intelligence chief recently said this is a “reasonable” outcome).
But Iran hawks don’t see it that way and instead push for so-called “zero enrichment.” “We insist that these negotiations lead to the dismantling of Iran’s enrichment capability,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this month.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s view has a constituency here in the United States and it’s a position that mostly resides inside or hovers just around the circles of those who advocated for the Iraq war back in 2002 and before. But while some who argue that Iran should not be allowed any uranium enrichment capabilities may have a genuine concern about where that capability can lead, it may seem somewhat insincere coming from others, as some of the same people making this point today (including Netanyahu himself) have previously, and on a consistent basis, called for war with Iran. Here are some examples:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
The Republican senator from South Carolina recently released a statement, co-signed with two other senators, saying that “[t]he U.S. should not suspend new sanctions, nor consider releasing limited frozen assets, before Tehran suspends its nuclear enrichment activities.” At the same time, Graham’s history of pushing military action on Iran is well documented:
- “Instead of a surgical strike on their nuclear infrastructure, I think we’re to the point now that you have to really neuter the regime’s ability to wage war against us and our allies.” [11/06/10]
- “I think the time for talking [with Iran] is over.” [10/21/12]
- “If nothing changes in Iran, come September, October, I will present a resolution that will authorize the use of military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.” [07/23/13]
The neoconservatives’ intellectual leader recently promoted Netanyahu’s stance on enrichment, saying the Israeli prime minister has “explained the dangers of a ‘partial deal’ that would permit Iran ‘a residual capability to enrich uranium’ in exchange for lifting international sanctions that took years to put in place and likely wouldn’t be reestablished.” Of course, Kristol’s history of promoting war with Iran has also been well documented:
- “We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression [Hezbollah terror attacks] with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.” [07/24/06]
- “It’s long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands — force.” [10/24/11]
- “[S]oon after voting to authorize the use of force against the Assad regime, Republicans might consider moving an authorization for the use of force against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.” [09/16/13]
In a recent op-ed in the Guardian, Bolton attacked the notion that the Obama administration may offer the Iranians a deal that allows them a civilian enrichment program. “[B]y allowing Iran to possess any uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, or spent nuclear fuel reprocessing capabilities, the west will both legitimize Iran’s nuclear program and ensure that it can move to weaponization at a time entirely of its choosing,” Bolton complained. Bolton has actually expressed pleasure that at one time, negotiations with Iran had failed. And like Kristol, Bolton has a long history of calling for war with Iran:
- “[I]nstead of debating how much longer to continue five years of failed diplomacy, we should be intensively considering what cooperation the U.S. will extend to Israel before, during and after a strike on Iran.” [07/15/08]
- “[T]he only alternative to a nuclear Iran is to break Tehran’s program through the targeted use of military force.” [10/21/11]
- “The better way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons is to attack its nuclear weapons program directly.” [01/11/12]
Reuel Marc Gerecht
Gerecht is perhaps not as well known as some of the other pundits and officials documented in this list, but his media presence on Iran is extensive. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that often promotes a more hawkish position on Iran and other issues. Speaking on PBS last month, Gerecht argued against allowing Iran civilian enrichment. “I just mentioned something about recognizing this supposed right to enrichment that the Iranians keep talking about,” he said. “If you recognize 3.5 percent enrichment, which is what we’re talking about here, if there is not a drastic curtailment of the production of centrifuges, math will work against you.” And just like the others, Gerecht has been calling for war with Iran for years:
- “The best reason to offer to begin talks with Tehran is that the regime will almost certainly refuse any offer to normalize relations. … If the mullahs don’t want to negotiate, fine: making the offer is something that must be checked off before the next president could unleash the Air Force and the Navy.” [02/20/08]
- “Although dangerous for Israel, a preventive strike remains the most effective answer to the possibility of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards having nuclear weapons.” [07/26/10]
- “I think the risks to us and others from a nuclear-armed clerical regime are too great and that we should make every effort, including repeated military strikes, to thwart the clerics’ quest for the bomb.” [07/09/06]
- “[I]f President Bush follows his own logic and compels his administration to follow him against Iraq and Iran, then he will sow the seeds for a new, safer, more liberal order in the Middle East.” [February, 2002]
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin was widely ridiculed for her coverage of the 2012 presidential election campaign as serving as a shill for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. And her reporting is regularly filled with errors and distortions (indeed, the Post’s former ombudsman said she should be fired). But Iran is also an issue that appears to interest the Post blogger greatly and while she’s writing about Iran, Rubin also promotes that idea that the Islamic Republic should not be allowed to enrich uranium. “Congress had better step up to the plate and fast,” Rubin wrote just this week, “both to pass additional sanctions and to warn the administration the lawmakers have no intention of going along with a phony deal that lets Iran keep its program and its enriched fuel stockpile.” But is Rubin interested in a deal with Iran or more for an attack? Here’s what she’s written in the past:
- “Forget the ‘peace process” sideshow and give up the fantasy that the UN or the IAEA will solve our national-security problem for us. The options boil down to : 1) The U.S. uses force; 2.) Israel uses force; or 3.) the Iranians get the bomb.” [09/13/10]
- “At what point does [President Obama] acknowledge his three years of engagement and sanctions have failed to halt, let alone slow, Iran’s nuclear weapons program? One suspects the answer is ‘never,’ and that it will be up to Israel to act in its defense and that of the West.” [05/15/12]
There is an obvious tension — to put it mildly — between appearing to support the negotiations with Iran while at the same time, calling for war. But the Iran hawks, by pushing a deal they know the Iranians will never accept, have staked out a negotiating position that all but assures diplomatic failure.
In fact, Rubin herself demonstrated this very tactic in a recent piece in the Washington Post outlining suggested language for an authorization for military force on Iran: “The president of the United States shall be authorized to use all necessary force against Iran in the event it does not halt all enrichment and allow complete access to all facilities to verify the discontinuation and destruction of its nuclear weapons facilities.”
The reality though is that Kahl and Nader are right. If there is a deal to be had on Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranians will most likely end up with some capacity to enrich uranium.
“Iran is not going to sign a deal without a limited right to enrich, something that would at the very least allow it to save face,” declared a recent editorial in the Financial Times. “John Kerry, US secretary of state, conceded that point as a senator in 2009, telling the Financial Times that any insistence that Iran gives up completely on enrichment would be ‘ridiculous.’”