With growing indications that the final round of talks in Vienna on an Iranian nuclear deal will exceed Tuesday’s official deadline, U.S. and Iranian negotiators are trying to gauge whether an agreement to halt Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon is possible.
The talks have become a high stakes poker game with no one confident of the outcome. At best, the Obama Administration can hope for a deal that puts Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions on hold for the coming decade, with no certainty beyond that. At worst, the talks could collapse, and President Obama or his successor would be faced with the need for military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability – a direct threat to Israel.
Over the weekend, Republican lawmakers, a former CIA director and foreign policy experts voiced concern that the Obama administration might agree to a bad deal in order to claim an historic diplomatic breakthrough and to avoid a future military confrontation.
Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force four-star general and former CIA director in the Bush administration, said on Fox News Sunday yesterday, “I actually fear we have painted ourselves into a corner where we believe that any deal is better than no deal at the present time.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN), echoed Hayden’s concern when he said on USA-TV, a CBS News affiliate in Washington, “The people around the president see this as such a legacy issue that there is great concern by people on both sides of the aisle that they are willing to cross some lines that should not be crossed just to get a deal.”
Administration officials say they are under no misconceptions about the remaining challenges and risks of the talks and told The Washington Post over the weekend that they knew the negotiations would get tougher as the deadline approached.
President Obama has repeatedly said that as much as he wants a final agreement in return for the U.S. and European countries lifting long-standing economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, he would walk away from a bad deal if he had to.
He may have little choice but to make good on that threat after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a televised speech last week laying down a series of last-minute “red-line” conditions that seemed to make a mockery of the tentative agreement reached by the U.S., Iran. Britain, Russia, France and China in Switzerland on April 2.
The 75-year-old cleric insisted, among other things, that the sanctions wreaking havoc on Iran’s economy must be lifted as soon as the final accord is signed – and not gradually lifted as the U.S. and it allies envisioned ensuring compliance.
The all-powerful leader also seemingly backtracked on Iran’s commitment to freeze or roll back much of its nuclear program for the next 10 to 12 years. And on arguably the most important issue, Khamenei seemed to slam the door on granting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors free access to Iran’s nuclear plants and uranium mines and military sites.
Without unfettered on-the-ground inspections of Iran’s nuclear program sites – as well as access to that country’s nuclear scientists to learn more about the history of the program – it would be virtually impossible to enforce any new agreement. Iranian officials have long insisted that their nuclear program was for peaceful purposes, yet some of the most important work has been carried on in highly fortified bunkers or on military sites off limits to international inspectors.
Corker sent Obama a letter earlier this month urging him to walk away from the table if Iran does not provide international inspectors “anytime, anywhere” access to its nuclear sites. Corker also engineered passage of legislation giving Congress the right to review and reject the final agreement, although it would take at least 60 votes in the Senate to derail the agreement.
Corker complained that over the past two years Obama and his advisers have gone from demanding a dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program to a policy akin to “managed nuclear proliferation.” He said that what the president needs to do at this point – but probably won’t – is harden his stands on inspections, the lifting of sanctions and other important issues and let the Iranians know there will be serious diplomatic and military consequences if they allow a deal to slip away.
Hayden agrees that any deal at this point would work to Iran’s advantage because once the sanctions are lifted, Iranian officials would once again be flush with cash to pursue anti-American policies in the Middle East – including continuing to prop up the discredited regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, if it chooses, Iran could break the nuclear non-proliferation agreement at any time and resume development of a nuclear weapon in a matter of months.
“If we get a good deal – if we get all the things we say have to be in the deal—we have legitimated an Iranian industrial-strength nuclear program never more than 12 months away from enough fissile material [to create] a nuclear weapon,” Hayden said.
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