Nebuchadnezzar Passes Buck To Next Administration

The US is reportedly willing to make another huge nuclear concession to Iran

Kerry Iran Nuclear Deal
They’re this close to a deal — if the US stomachs another big concession.

The outline of a landmark nuclear deal between a US-led group of countries and Iran is coming into focus.

According to the AP, Iran will be able to keep 6,500 uranium enrichment centrifuges under a final agreement. This would allow Iran to achieve one nuclear weapon’s worth of uranium enrichment in between six months and a year (depending on the amount and enrichment level of low-enriched uranium the country’s allowed to have hand), and to keep as many as 5,500 more centrifuges than the minimum needed to run a “demonstration cascade” that would allow Iranian scientists to maintain a basic mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Even before the AP article was published on February 22, the 6,500 number had been reported in Israeli media and partly corroborated by the New York Times. But the AP includes news of a second and equally significant US concession.

The nuclear deal will apparently include a 15-year sunset, with certain restrictions on Iranian uranium enrichment lifted after 10 years and Iran permitted to keep somewhere in the neighbourhood as 10,000 centrifuges at the moment the deal expires. As the AP explains, the US had initially wanted a 20-year deal going into the latest round of talks, which means that the full, as-yet unknown set of restrictions will be in place for anywhere between one quarter one half the amount of time American negotiators were aiming for.

Javad zarif

Why are US negotiators willing to stomach this concession? While a 10-15 year sunset is far from ideal, it at least freezes the amount of uranium Iran can possess and produce for a decade or more. It would keep Iran under a strict inspection regime and give the US and its allies a long lead-time to build support for another round of sanctions if Tehran evinced plans to further develop its nuclear program or otherwise buck the international system.

There’s another reason for accepting a short deal. As David Ignatius explained in a February 19th column in the Washington Post, the Israelis believe that the US is willing to accept a shorter agreement because the administration “wants to tie Iran’s hands for a decade until a new generation takes power there.”
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been ill recently. The Islamic Republic’s founding generation is dying out, and US negotiators hope that Iran will be a much different place in 10-15 years, with a government willing to draw down the more threatening aspects of its program even after a nuclear deal has expired. It’s probably also hoped that a nuclear agreement and Iran’s resulting reintegration with the international mainstream may even push the country towards this more pragmatic course.
But justifications have one troubling thing in common: They both make huge assumptions about the future nature of Iran’s relationship with the US and the rest of the world.

Iran Nuclear Plant
A security official stands in front of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010.

Under a short deal, the international community must re-implement sanctions if Iran decides to pocket its concessions and restart its program once the deal expires — something Tehran will be able to easily do, since the deal the AP describes would allow it to keep significant aspects of its nuclear infrastructure.

But it might be a huge leap to think that in 2030 the world will have any appetite for a second Iranian nuclear standoff, especially after economic and diplomatic ties have been fully restored for a decade or more under the preceding deal.

The current round of sanctions took substantial time and US political capital to implement. The global leaders of the future may wonder whether it’s worth doing it all over again to resolve an issue that they may feel has already been settled.

Ayatollah ali khamenei

A short deal might also transform Iran’s nuclear calculus. When a 15 year deal expires, Tehran would be justified in figuring that it had been able to lift the international sanctions regime while being able to keep as many as 10,000 centrifuges. With sanctions gone and much of the country’s nuclear infrastructure in place, the Iranian leaders of 2030 will have little incentive to negotiate a second deal, should the US consider such a deal necessary.

The sunset clause’s assumptions about the Iranian regime’s future moderation may be wishful as well. The Islamic Republic has vacillated between reform and retrenchment for much of the past two decades. In 1997, the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected Iran’s president. But ten years ago, the newly-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made headlines for denying the Holocaust and expounding on the importance of destroying the state of Israel.

A short deal gambles on an opaque and highly compartmentalized regime transforming itself by a specific future date. This is a strange basis for an epochal diplomatic agreement in the Middle East or any other part of the world.

Iran streets American embassy gun
A mural in Tehran

Finally, a short nuclear deal reflects a kind of short-term thinking that’s disconcertingly out of keeping with the actual challenges of nuclear proliferation. This is partly a structural problem. Presidential administrations last between four and eight years. Nuclear weapons, however, may be with humanity for the rest of the species’ existence, and once a country goes nuclear it seldom if ever crosses back over the threshold.

The ephemeral timetable of American political leadership at least makes it comprehensible that US political leaders wouldn’t be approaching the Iranian nuclear issue on a 50-or 100-year scale. But there was a 26-year lag between the inauguration of Pakistan’s nuclear program in 1972 and its first test of a nuclear weapon in 1998. North Korea attempted its first nuclear test in 2006, 12 years after signing the Agreed Framework with the US.

Determined nuclear proliferates understand that even long delays are meaningless so long as a capability is eventually established. The only countries that have lost their nuclear weapons have either destroyed or exported them voluntarily; once you’ve got the bomb, you’ve got it for good. And Iran, which has built illicit plutonium and a uranium programs while laboring under strict international sanctions, has been incredibly determined.

A 10-15 year sunset clause seems oblivious to some of the dangers of approaching the Iranian nuclear issue as a short-term matter that can be solved in a single go — rather than an question that could dog successive US administrations for decades or even centuries to come.

Jordan May Become The Next Nuclear Horn Of Prophecy (Daniel 8)

The Middle East’s Next Nuclear Power?
Kazakhistan Nuclear Missiles

It may not be the one you’re thinking about.
January 28, 2015
The Kingdom of Jordan has for more than a decade watched near-continuous turmoil swirl around its borders—an American invasion of Iraq on one side, an Israeli war with Lebanon on another, and a Syrian civil war to the north that has seen ISIL flourish. For much of that decade, while Jordan absorbed refugees and was targeted by terror, it largely escaped the first-hand effects of war itself. Wednesday’s news that the Kingdom was prepared to trade a terrorist involved in the worst terrorist attack in Jordanian history to free one of its pilots captured by ISIL after his F-16 crashed in December, represents a new chapter in Jordan’s perpetual struggle against the militants on its borders. Over all of these regional challenges has hung another dark cloud—the fear, uncertainty, and tension that’s sprung from Iran’s secret nascent nuclear program.

And yet even as Western attention has focused all around Jordan—and especially on the nuclear negotiations with Iran—in a little-noticed series of moves, the Kingdom’s been edging closer to going nuclear itself. In fact, the Kingdom of Jordan, Washington’s most reliable Arab partner, is the latest Middle Eastern state considering nuclear energy that is refusing to relinquish its right to enrich.
That “right to enrich” uranium has proved to be one of the key sticking points in the Iran nuclear talks and was at the top of the list of why Washington and Tehran missed and subsequently extended their late November deadline to reach an agreement regulating the theocracy’s nuclear program.

To prevent proliferation, the US has long held that Middle Eastern states seeking nuclear energy must forego the right to enrich nuclear material. The principle of no-enrichment has underpinned the so-called “gold standard” of US-bilateral nuclear agreements. While this standard does not uniformly apply outside the region—Washington’s 2014 Agreement on Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation with Hanoi included no such stipulation—in its December 2009 agreement with the US, the United Arab Emirates acquiesced to forego enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

Jordan and Washington have been discussing nuclear cooperation for some time, but the conversation gained urgency following the 2011 Egyptian revolution—and the subsequent and repeated destruction of the Sinai natural gas pipeline—when the Kingdom lost its most consistent source of energy. In 2013, these disruptions resulted in a $2 billion, or nearly 20 percent, budget deficit.
Over the past four years, the Kingdom has increasingly focused on nuclear energy, in particular the construction of two 1000-megawatt power plants, to fill this gap. By 2030, Jordanian officials estimate nuclear power will provide 30 percent of the state’s electricity.

Amman’s proposed nuclear facilities have met with opposition both at home and abroad. Washington’s stated opposition to the program revolves around enrichment. Jordan’s resolve to maintain this right has stymied efforts to reach a “123 agreement” governing US international nuclear cooperation. The Kingdom, which has no oil, has significant deposits of uranium ore—reportedly 35,000 tons or enough to last Jordan 100 years—and is hoping to commercially exploit the resource.
Israel, too, has taken issue with Jordan’s nuclear ambitions, primarily due to concerns about safety. One of Jordan’s proposed nuclear plants, at least initially, was slated to be built in the Jordan River Valley, a major earthquake fault line. According to a US diplomatic cable disclosed by WIKILEAKS, Israel highlighted these apprehensions during a meeting with their Jordanian counterparts in 2009—two years before the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe—only to have the Jordanian officials respond by citing Japan as an earthquake-prone country that builds safe nuclear reactors.
The biggest opposition to Jordan’s nuclear project, however, is domestic. It’s not difficult to see why. To start, one of the proposed plants is slated to be built in the heartland of the Bani Sakr, Jordan’s largest tribe. A charismatic young parliamentarian named Hind al Fayez—who hails from the tribe and happens to be married to a prominent local environmental activist—has adopted the no nukes agenda as her cause celebre. In May 2012, she spearheaded a successful vote in parliament to suspend the program.

Among other concerns, Al Fayez questions how a state with such little water will be able to cool a reactor situated more than 200 miles from the shoreline, and whether Jordan has sufficient human capital (i.e., enough nuclear physicists) to safely operate the facilities. She has also expressed dismay with the $10 billion price tag, a sum roughly equivalent to Jordan’s total 2013 annual budget.
Refuting the critics is Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission Chair Khaled Toukan, who holds a Ph.D in Nuclear Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Toukan is an impressive government advocate for the project.

No access to water, Toukan says, no problem. Like the three nuclear power plants in Palo Verde, Arizona, Jordan will use wastewater from the nearby Khirbat al Samra sewage treatment plant to cool the blistering reactors. The second reactor, closer to the port of Aqaba, will utilize water pumped from the Red Sea—easing Jordan’s water crisis through desalinization.
A dearth of local nuclear technicians? Not for long, says Toukan. The Kingdom is building a research and training reactor, recently established an undergraduate nuclear engineering program, and has sixty-one nationals currently enrolled in graduate programs in nuclear engineering and related fields abroad. As for the financing challenge, according to Toukan, Russia—which is presently slated to build the reactors—will fund and own 49.9 percent, leaving Government of Jordan to finance the remaining and controlling share.

While Toukan’s answers are authoritative, they have not yet succeeded in convincing Jordanian skeptics. Perhaps that’s because serious safety problems emerged at Palo Verde in 2013. Or maybe Toukan’s unsubstantiated 2014 claims before parliament—that radiation leaks from the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona were resulting in increased incidences of cancer in the Kingdom—have further soured Jordanians on nuclear energy. It’s also possible that heightened fears of terrorism fueled by the recent territorial gains by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or ISIS, are dampening enthusiasm for the project.

Last year, Hind Al Fayez said “They’ll build that plant over my dead body.” A year on, her hostility toward the program has not noticeably diminished.

To be sure, Jordan needs energy. Indeed, the requirement is so acute that months ago the palace ignored significant domestic disapproval and signed up to a 15-year $15 billion deal to procure natural gas from Israel. (Amman has temporarily frozen negotiations as Israel deals with anti-trust concerns in its offshore gas sector). While important, however, the agreement is insufficient to meet the Kingdom’s requirements in the decades to come.

In the face of continued foreign and domestic opposition, it isn’t clear that Jordan will actually proceed with the nuclear option. Today the Atomic Energy Commission is calling nuclear power “a strategic choice,” but with nearly a million Syrian refugees in the Kingdom, a stumbling economy, a rising threat of terrorism on the home front, and with a downed Jordanian pilot currently held captive by ISIL, King Abdullah could punt, delaying a decision—and avoiding confrontation with Washington—for the indefinite future. Given the ongoing challenges, for the time being at least, no nukes should be a no-brainer for the Kingdom.

David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2002-2006, he served as Levant director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.