Shadow Government

A Postmortem for Failure of Nuclear Talks With Iran

Regarding nuclear talks with Iran, President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28: "These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed." Assume talks with Iran failed and Tehran were breaking out to become a nuclear-armed state. A postmortem would find inadequate incentives and insufficient human intelligence to monitor Iran's noncompliance. If Obama had worked out a compromise with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on contingent sanctions, there would have been additional economic incentives to coerce Iran to comply with the Joint Plan of Action.

Menendez's Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act contains a trigger, Section 301(b), that applies only if there were no agreement due to Iranian noncompliance with the Joint Plan of Action. In the "postmortem," the Obama approach had been to offer concessions to induce Tehran to reciprocate with its own concessions, which were not forthcoming. The president had stated, "If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it." But Obama received nothing in return from this concession on sanctions.

Regarding actions in the event of failure to reach a permanent agreement, a Brookings Institution report may provide an idea of contingency planning in the administration leading up to failure. It assumed, "If prospects for a negotiated outcome begin to look remote, we may soon find ourselves confronted by an aggressive Iranian effort to erode the sanctions in the absence of agreement and to move its nuclear program closer to the weapons threshold." But the way around such an effort by Tehran would have been to adopt contingent sanctions before negotiations were about to fail.

Brookings proposed to toughen the American posture at the permanent talks, going beyond a freeze of Iran's nuclear activities to a major reduction of its nuclear infrastructure and inclusion tougher verification measures. The rationale for ramping up the U.S. posture would have been to detect and deter any Iranian decision to break out and move to build nuclear weapons. But the time to have stiffened the American position would have been in talks leading up to adoption of the interim accord.

The postmortem would reveal lack of human source intelligence (HUMINT) to complement signals intelligence, which Washington has in abundance while being weak on HUMINT within Iran. One source of HUMINT is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the main opposition organization that rejects clerical rule.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote, "The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revelations about Iran's secret nuclear program did prove to be the trigger point in inviting the IAEA into Tehran for inspections." And such inspections led to sanctions on Iran and negotiations with the major powers.

In August 2002, NCRI intelligence exposed a secret nuclear facility near the city of Natanz. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) confirmed this revelation, identified the site as a uranium-enrichment facility, and released imagery of Natanz in December 2002.

NCRI intelligence was the source of the August 2002 heavy-water production facility at Arak, which led ISIS to state, "The existence of this facility was first revealed publicly by the Iranian opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in August 2002. ISIS then located the site in commercial satellite imagery after a wide-area search. By United Nations Security Council resolution 1737 (2006), Iran was to suspend all work on heavy water related projects."

Regarding a nuclear facility at Lavizan-Shian, the ISIS wrote: "This site first came to public attention in May 2003 when the Iranian opposition group, National Council for Resistance of Iran, announced ... the site."

In December 2005, NCRI intelligence revealed a nuclear site near the city of Qom: Tunneling activity in the mountains was initiated in 2000 to construct an underground nuclear facility; Western allies publicly acknowledged the Qom site in September 2009.

NCRI intelligence revealed, during September 2009, two additional sites in and near Tehran, where the regime may be working on detonators for nuclear warheads, one of the points in dispute in the negotiations.

Prompted by such publicity, the Iranian regime admitted in September of that year existence of a uranium-enrichment facility about 20 miles north of Qom. And by January 2012, Iran stated it had begun enrichment at the heavily fortified site -- the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant. 

In short, insufficient incentives for Iran to comply and inadequate human intelligence constituted a perfect storm for failure of the negotiations. Given findings of the postmortem, adoption of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act and survival of the NCRI intelligence units in Iraq despite Tehran's efforts to destroy them would have gone far to avert failure.


Shadow Government

America's TBD Foreign Policy

When it comes to foreign policy, President Obama in his State of the Union address said little, but his words spoke volumes. Just days after Secretary of State John Kerry sought at the World Economic Forum to defend the Obama Administration against mounting charges of disengagement, the president's remarks reinforced the impression of an administration lacking a foreign policy vision.

The impulse to downplay foreign policy in an election year in which the economy and domestic issues weigh heavily on the minds of the American people is understandable.  But to do so is misguided. 

The international backdrop against which President Obama delivered his remarks was one of tremendous tumult, likely only to grow more chaotic in the coming year and certain to impact American interests and prosperity. In Asia, signs of increasing tension between U.S. allies and an increasingly confident China dominate discussion, even as worries about instability in North Korea mount and a political crisis in Thailand deepens. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war continues to exact a heavy toll in lives and roil the region, while attracting growing ranks of extremists who also pose a threat to Iraq, Lebanon, and more far-flung locales. 

In Europe, unrest has once again gripped Ukraine, many of whose citizens worry about a return to the Russian orbit. In South America, Venezuela and Argentina court economic catastrophe, which has contributed to the deep shudders convulsing emerging markets in recent days. With difficult diplomacy on Iran and Syria, elections in places like Turkey, Iraq, Brazil, and Indonesia, and a far-from-certain path to economic recovery all looming in 2014, these challenges are unlikely to abate soon.

In the face of this context of global turmoil and uncertainty, President Obama's offering was modest. Rather than the "renewal of American leadership" he referred to in his 2012 speech, or the ambitions to "shape the world" of 2011, the President Obama briefly outlined an international agenda that was largely inward-looking and defensive, rather than proactive or positive.    

On the Middle East -- typically the foreign policy topic which garners the most presidential attention in State of the Union speeches of late -- the diminution of hope and ambition in comparison to the president's speeches of past years was stark. This reflects not only the hard realities of the region, but of the administration's inability thus far to match its rhetoric with decisive, effective policy. That the President found himself in the remarkable position of threatening to veto Iran sanctions -- something that would have been unthinkable in prior years -- reflects the deep skepticism he faces in Washington and among our allies in the Middle East and beyond regarding his administration's commitment to defending shared interests in the region.

This skepticism -- that the U.S. is increasingly reluctant to provide leadership, whether on political or economic issues -- is heard not just in the Middle East but among our allies in Asia, Europe, and around the world. Despite claims one often hears to the contrary, our allies do not welcome disengagement by the U.S., but rather worry about the consequences that American diffidence or passivity would have for stability in their regions.

Americans are right to be concerned about the sustainability of U.S. global commitments, especially in a time of sluggish growth. But it is wrong to respond to these worries with false choices -- to pose war as the alternative to a particular diplomatic deal, to pose aggressive unilateralism as the alternative to passivity, or to pose doing everything as the alternative to a too-modest approach. This inhibits rather than encourages a much-needed debate about American vital interests overseas and the most effective, economical strategy for advancing them. Such a strategy -- one which shepherds rather than dissipates US influence, cultivates rather than alienates U.S. allies, and deters rather than encourages adversaries -- is sorely needed. 

The president did not offer such a strategy in the State of the Union address, and likely had no intention of doing so given his other priorities. But if there is one foreign policy lesson to be drawn from recent years, it is that inaction and delay have consequences -- the world continues to roil, and will not wait patiently for America to resume our mantle of leadership.

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