NEW YORK - The velocity of bad sign-spotting is increasing as we get closer to the main negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
Bad Sign No. 1: I think it’s important to note that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has just stated that under no circumstances would Iran agree to destroy any of its centrifuges. I would also like to note that this unequivocal statement, if sincere, means that there is no possibility of a nuclear deal between Iran and the six powers set to resume negotiating with it next month.
In order to keep Iran perpetually 6 to 12 months away from developing a nuclear weapon — an unacceptable period in the mind of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but a time-frame that U.S. President Barack Obama could conceivably accept — Iran would have to agree to dismantle 15,000 centrifuges; close an important uranium enrichment site; and accept 20 years of nuclear inspections, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a well-respected (and centrist) think tank headed by the former United Nations weapons inspector David Albright.
Here is what Rouhani — who is described as a far more moderate a figure than the man who actually leads Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — said on CNN: “In the context of nuclear technology, particularly of research and development and peaceful nuclear technology, we will not accept any limitations. And in accordance with the parliament law, in the future, we’re going to need 20,000 megawatts of nuclear-produced electricity, and we’re determined to obtain the nuclear fuel for the nuclear installation at the hands of our Iranian scientists. And we are going to follow on this path.” At which point, his interviewer, Fareed Zakaria, asks: “So there would be no destruction of centrifuges, of existing centrifuges?” To which Rouhani responds: “Not under any circumstances. Not under any circumstances.”
I’m not sure how Rouhani and his chief negotiator, the suave, superficially Westernized Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, back down from this maximalist position. And I’m not sure how Obama could possibly accept a deal that mothballs centrifuges while leaving them in place, rather than devising an agreement that guarantees their destruction. If the centrifuges are allowed to remain in Iran, but are disabled (or covered with bedsheets or wrapped in couch-plastic or locked in a very big room), it would possible for Iran to very quickly start spinning them again. First step: Kick out the inspectors. Second step: Break the locks. Third step: Enrich uranium to weapons-grade level in a short enough period that the West — the lumbering, ambivalent, disputatious West — has insufficient time to respond.
This would be the moment, of course, at which Obama would have to carry out his promise to use whatever means necessary to stop Iran from going nuclear, and this is not a position Obama wants to create for himself — which is why leaving the centrifuges in place would not be a wise move for him.
Bad Sign No. 2: Zarif, the moderate’s moderate, might not be so moderate at all. Writing in the New Republic, Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht plumb Zarif’s new memoir, “Mr. Ambassador: A Conversation with Mohammad-Javad Zarif, Iran’s Former Ambassador to the United Nations,” and find distressing signs of ideological fervor: “His discussion of the basic nature of the Islamic Republic and the West exposes Zarif’s ideological commitment and the regime’s revolutionary constancy.”
They quote him: ” ‘We have a fundamental problem with the West and especially with America,’ Zarif declares. ‘This is because we are claimants of a mission, which has a global dimension. It has nothing to do with the level of our strength, and is related to the source of our raison d’etre. How come Malaysia [an overwhelmingly Muslim country] doesn’t have similar problems? Because Malaysia is not trying to change the international order. It may seek independence and strength, but its definition of strength is the advancement of its national welfare.’ “
Alfoneh and Gerecht continue, “While Zarif considers national welfare one of the goals of the Islamic Republic, he stresses that ‘we have also defined a global vocation, both in the Constitution and in the ultimate objectives of the Islamic revolution.’ He adds: ‘I believe that we do not exist without our revolutionary goals.’ ” In other words, U.S. negotiators facing Zarif might be facing someone who is more rigidly ideological than they are prepared to acknowledge.
Bad Sign No. 3: A new study by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board raises questions about the U.S. ability to detect nuclear activity in countries that don’t want the U.S. to know about their nuclear activities. Iran for many years maintained secret nuclear facilities and could conceivably be maintaining undeclared nuclear facilities today. This study indirectly suggests that U.S. intelligence would have difficulty making sure Iran adheres to a nuclear accord.
Of course, Bad Sign No. 1 seems to mean that there will never be a nuclear accord to monitor in the first place.
Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs for Bloomberg View.