This week, the Wall Street Journal wrote that in a report to Capitol Hill last week, the Obama administration said “it was unlikely Iran would admit to having pursued a covert nuclear weapons program, and that such an acknowledgment wasn’t critical to verifying Iranian commitments in the future.”
Of course, it’s been unlikely for quite some time that the Iranians would ever come clear about their covert weapons program. Tehran based its entire negotiating position on the claim that the nuclear program was entirely peaceful: The regime didn’t want a bomb, would never want a bomb, and thus never worked on a bomb.
The Obama administration believed otherwise, which was the basis of its own position—Iran has been working on a bomb and will soon get one unless the issue is resolved, preferably through diplomacy, but all options, as Obama used to say, were on the table.
The Iranians never changed their story. In order to support their account of reality, and defend their nuclear weapons program, the clerical regime barred the International Atomic Energy Agency from visiting suspect sites and interviewing figures believed to be part of the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of the program. Across from them at the negotiating table, the Obama administration promised Congress and the American people that the Iranians would most certainly come clean on PMDs.
“They have to do it,” said Kerry said in April. “It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done.” As late as June, State Department spokesman John Kirby explained that “access is very, very critical. It’s always been critical from day one; it remains critical.”
The reason access is critical is because without establishing what nuclear work the Iranians have done in the past, especially the PMDs, it’s impossible to know whether or not Iran is abiding by the agreement. In other words, without resolving the PMD issue, any inspection and verification regime is virtually meaningless.
And yet the White House is now saying that Iran’s past work doesn’t matter. What’s important, said Kirby in a press conference today, and echoing Kerry, is not what Iran did or might have done in the past, but rather what their nuclear program is going to look like in the future.
Besides, as Kerry has claimed, in an attempt to cover all the bases, the administration has “absolute knowledge” of what the Iranians did previously. That’s improbable, countered a number of people knowledgeable about how much the U.S. intelligence community really knows about Iranian nuclear work, like former CIA head Michael Hayden. “I know of no American intelligence officer who would ever use that description to characterize what we know and do not know” of past Iranian activities, Hayden wrote in June.
Still, according to the Journal article, the JCPOA “could go ahead even if United Nations inspectors never ascertain conclusively whether Iran pursued a nuclear weapons program.” Sure, according to the terms of the JCPOA, the Iranians are required by mid-October to give the IAEA access to those sites and figures, but it’s not clear how inspectors will complete the probe since the details are laid out in a secret side deal between the IAEA and Iran. Last week, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi expressed satisfaction with the nature of the secret agreement, as well as another side deal regarding Parchin, a military base where Iran is believed to have done work related to the nuclear program.
“Now that the technical issues are being resolved on the political level, the pace has picked up,” said Salehi. “The technical issues are now being resolved in a political framework.” In other words, the White House fixed it. If the administration once told Congress that PMDs mattered a great deal, it told Iran not to worry because there were ways around it—while it’s telling Congress that past work doesn’t matter, only future work does. Obama is so determined to have a deal at virtually any price that he’s willing to collapse on the technical issues regarding PMDs.
Caving on PMDs comes perhaps as a surprise even to skeptics of the Iran deal. After all, this is a fundamental issue, and the White House has been promising for two years that it was hanging tough on PMDs—it had to do so, because without benchmarking the program in order to know if Iran was abiding by the agreement, to calculate Iran’s break out time, it would be a stretch to call anything that came out of talks a legitimate agreement about the nuclear program.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. The fundamental problem with the White House’s Iran talks from the very beginning was that the two sides were negotiating under entirely different premises. The White House said it was negotiating about a nuclear weapons program that Iran said it didn’t have, didn’t want, and would never have. The administration should've walked away right then and told the Iranians to get serious. After all, the regime had much more to lose than the United States did.
However, because there was no credible threat of military force after Obama declined to order strikes against Bashar al-Assad for crossing his red line by using chemical weapons, and because the White House announced that the sanctions regime would not hold and they would not impose more sanctions, the administration had no leverage at all. Thus, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. side would have to start offering concessions just to keep Iran from walking away.
What was lost on the White House, and what the Iranians understood early on, was that if the administration was so eager to have a deal, Iran would eventually back the U.S. side into a corner where it had no choice but to adopt Iran’s initial bargaining position. And that’s where we are now. Folding on PMD means not only ignoring Iran’s past nuclear work, but also abandoning the possibility of gaining accurate knowledge about what work the regime is up to in the future. In effect, the JCPOA shows that the White House concurs with Iran—there is no weapons program, never was one, and never will be one. Because if there is, thanks to the administration caving on PMDs, we won’t have any knowledge of the nuclear program until Iran decides to break out.