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Herbert London: What Can We Know And When Can We Know It?

With the so-called “deadline” approaching, questions regarding the P5+1 framework abound. Perhaps several answers will be available when the details are hammered out at the end of June, but, from all accounts, that is unlikely.

There has been much discussion about the so-called breakout, i.e. that moment when Iran can produce the bomb. The problem with the idea is that incremental enrichment continuing at the present or an accelerated pace makes it difficult, if not impossible to determine the moment when Iran is ready to deploy.

Then there is the issue of tolerance. Supposedly there are penalties attached to non-compliance. But how can anyone be sure if Iran is violating the agreement? After all, the bureaucratic process for detection is obscure and IAEA investigators must make appointments for surveillance. Surprise visits have been disallowed.

It is useful to recall that the IAEA recorded the lack of Iranian cooperation in the past as well as hidden facilities unmentioned in prior negotiations. Moreover, the agreement permits research and development at nuclear facilities in Fordow where advanced centrifuges are located.

Amir Taheri recently pointed out that what we think this agreement means is different from interpretations by Iranian leaders. In the last week several Iranians have contended that the deal is a victory that recognizes Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. By contrast President Obama indicates the arrangement forestalls Iranian nukes.

Left out of the negotiated equation is the Iranian tie to North Korea. Nuclear technology has been transferred from Pyongyang to Tehran and Iranian scientists have been present at every North Korean test.

It is also instructive that limits on uranium enrichment are easily overcome since inspection does not seem to include “scientific examination” of the enriched uranium. Here too incremental shifts might occur without any clear signal. Even the export of uranium beyond a certain level is dubious, since the determination of that level is in the hands of Iranians.

Verification in any such deal should not depend on trust or good will. Clearly the Iranians want the burden of sanctions removed; yet they are far more intent in acquiring nuclear weapons as a political club to be used against Middle East adversaries. That understanding should be at the forefront of all negotiations, but isn’t.

Last, say for the sake of argument that Iran violates the accord. What do we do? First, there is the usual handwringing and U.N. debate. Second, there is yet another round of sanctions discussion. However once sanctions are removed, it is virtually impossible to reinstall. Russia, China and Turkey are salivating at the prospect of Iranian trade and investment. In fact, without a military option the West hasn’t any way to tame Iranian impulses. Despite all of the talk about restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, the reality is there aren’t any.

In a recent conversation President Obama admitted that Iran’s breakout time to the bomb will be “zero” in the near future.

What then can we know? Obviously we know that Iran has been provided a pathway to nuclear weapons, notwithstanding President Obama’s assertions to the contrary. We know that verification processes are ambiguous, inexact, and subject to modification by the Iranians. We know that Iran has violated one accord often another in the past and is hardly a reliable partner. And these are conditions we know now, even without details.

The major issue Americans face is whether they can accept the assurances of President Obama or whether they are more inclined to accept the “victory” address of Iranian leadership that Iran will not be prevented from pursuing its goal of nuclear weapons.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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