Baghdad dreaming

Having apparently learned nothing from 10 years of futile negotiations with Iran, President Obama seemed perilously close late last month to yet another deal purportedly making “progress” eliminating the ayatollahs’ nuclear weapons program.

Fortunately, however, the recently concluded Baghdad talks between Iran and the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany (P-5+1) produced no substantive agreement. Nonetheless, we are assured that the meetings were successful. Why? The parties will hold a third meeting in this latest series this month, in Moscow of all places. Perhaps the fourth will be in Tehran.

Once again, we have fallen into Iran’s well-oiled trap of endless negotiations. While no harmful agreement emerged from Baghdad, “could have been worse” is not an acceptable outcome in the existential struggle against nuclear proliferation. By securing four more weeks, Iran won this round on points. It gained more precious time, as it has over the past decade, to expand its impressive nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile infrastructure.

Although sanctions advocates continue their efforts, Iran’s insouciant negotiating attitude belies their hopes. Even merely offering concessions in negotiations undercuts the sanctions’ coercive effect. And when it comes to making concessions, the West’s Iran negotiators have competition only from the West’s North Korea negotiators.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began last month agreeing with Tehran over visits to the Parchin military base, site of explosive testing critical to detonating nuclear weapons. While no document was signed and several issues remained unresolved, this “progress” purportedly showed Iran ready for serious P-5+1 talks. In fact, the deal merely demonstrated Iran’s confidence it had removed all traces of any nuclear-weapons activity at Parchin, so IAEA inspectors would uncover nothing. That confidence has been misplaced before, but Iran’s cover-up capabilities have improved over time.

The Baghdad meetings themselves were another tepid version of prior encounters, in which Iran was presented with a choice between “carrots and sticks.” Not surprisingly, Iran complained about the inadequacy of the carrots and the oppressiveness of the sticks, sending EU and U.S. negotiators home to wonder what additional carrots might bring Tehran around to compromise, “confidence-building measures” and, of course, further negotiations.

Afterward, U.S. negotiators rushed to Israel, as anonymous sources breathlessly leaked, to provide reassurances that Mr. Obama still had Israel’s back. More likely, our diplomats argued that Baghdad had gone so well that Israel shouldn’t even think about pre-emptively striking Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Undoubtedly, the Israelis smiled politely while deciding silently to ratchet up planning to do just that. This is a fine irony because both Mr. Obama and Iran surely intended the talks to produce precisely the opposite pressure on Israel to stand idle as more diplomatic “progress” unfolded.

Then, as its days-old deal started crumbling, the IAEA issued a new Iran report. The most eye-catching item was evidence from the deeply buried Fordow facility of U-235 enrichment up to 27 percent, which Iran quickly dismissed as a technical glitch. Alternatively, of course, Iran could have been experimenting to find the most efficacious path to weapons-grade U-235 levels.

While the reasons for the 27 percent level are still obscure, the IAEA also reported perhaps more significant news. At both Fordow and Natanz, production rates for enriched uranium up to 20 percent have increased significantly, doubling or tripling previous maximum levels. Stockpiles of 20-percent-enriched uranium also have grown substantially, reducing the time needed for final enrichment to weapons-grade levels.

IAEA reports only recount activity at known Iranian sites. If Iran has concealed operations or is working in North Korea or Syria at other enrichment facilities, the situation is much graver. Given that Iran concealed Fordow from the IAEA until it was discovered by foreign intelligence services, the likelihood of other undisclosed activities is high.

The real issue here is physics, not political or diplomatic hype, notwithstanding the endless pop psychology of media commentators and administration spin artists. They could save themselves time and trouble by focusing instead on Iran’s spinning centrifuges and the ever-closer danger it actually will possess nuclear weapons.

That reality should govern U.S. policy. While, unfortunately, it does not, it is decidedly the driving factor for Israel, as past Israeli strikes against hostile nuclear programs demonstrate. We can opine endlessly on the consequences for our upcoming elections, but Jerusalem will be guided by physical realities, not by political or diplomatic shadow-boxing.

The White House is frantically trying to avoid anything significant happening before November. Israel’s calculations are far different, as are Iran‘s. That is why President Obama, once again leading from behind, is increasingly a bystander in this critical arena of nuclear proliferation.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad.

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