Netanyahu On the Iran Nuclear Issue: A Reality Check

Volume 7, Issue 5, March 3, 2015 

In Switzerland today, the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) are moving closer to a comprehensive, verifiable, long-term agreement to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The outlines of the agreement are taking shape. A political framework agreement by the end of March is within sight.

Unfortunately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to undermine support for the agreement, in part by exploiting partisan politics in Washington.

In his address today before a joint session of Congress, he claimed that the deal-in-the-making just isn't good enough.

He argues that the agreement-in-the-making would make it a near "certainty" that Iran pursues nuclear weapons because it would retain a nuclear program. This is just plain wrong.

The reality is that the agreement the P5+1 are pursuing would increase Iran's theoretical "breakout" time to amass enough enriched uranium gas enriched to bomb grade from today's 2-3 months to more than 12 months, and it would do so for over a decade. It would block the plutonium path to weapons.

The deal would put in place enhanced, intrusive inspections that could promptly detect and deter a potential clandestine nuclear weapons effort. Some of these inspections would continue indefinitely, as would Iran's obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) not to acquire nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu's alternative? Hold out for a better deal and do so until Iran's changes its foreign policy behavior. Walk away from a "bad deal," he said, and Iran will come back. That's bad advice.

If the Congress rejects an effective nuclear deal, it would only help Iran's hardliners, invite Iran to expand its nuclear program, and dissolve international sanctions pressure. Israel and the world would be less secure.

Additional pressure, through still tougher sanctions, he suggests, will somehow persuade Iran's leaders to dismantle their major nuclear facilities entirely. That's a risky and unrealistic gamble. For over a decade Iran has resisted such an outcome. There is no reason to believe they would agree to do so now.

As U.S. National Security advisor Susan Rice said March 2, "There's simply no alternative that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon better--or- longer-than the type of deal we seek."

Here are several reasons why the Prime Minister's logic about how to address the Iranian nuclear issue is flawed.

Dismantling Iran's nuclear weapons capability is, unfortunately, not possible.

For more than a decade, Iran has had a nuclear weapons capability, but has chosen not to develop nuclear weapons.

Eliminating that capability is, for all practical purposes, not possible. Even if Iran completely "dismantled" its nuclear infrastructure, it could rebuild it. Tougher sanctions or a military strike also will not eliminate the knowledge and basic industrial capacity that Iran has developed and could rebuild.  

Ergo, the goal of a verifiable, comprehensive agreement must be to prevent Iran from exercising that capability by limiting and constraining its nuclear capacity (especially fissile material production) and by increasing transparency over its program. Phased sanctions relief also offers Iranian leaders incentives for continued compliance with the terms of the deal.

More pressure will not lead Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

Netanyahu, erroneously suggest that the only way to block Iran's path to nuclear weapons is to secure an agreement that requires Iran to abandon key elements of its nuclear program, including its enrichment facilities and its Arak heavy-water reactor project.

Such an outcome would be ideal from a nonproliferation standpoint, but it is unrealistic to expect that Iran's leadership would accept such terms, even under the tougher sanctions pressure.

As former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert J. Einhorn said in January testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, "... no one who closely follows Iran and its domestic politics believes that it is achievable, whatever pressures we are able to bring to bear."

U.S. National Security Advisor, Susan Rice argued in an address to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), "...we cannot let a totally unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal."

"Even our closest international partners in the P5+1 do not support denying Iran the ability ever to pursue peaceful nuclear energy," Rice said. "If that is our goal, our partners will abandon us, undermining the sanctions we have imposed so effectively together. Simply put, that is not a viable negotiating position. Nor is it even attainable."

If the P5+1, or members of Congress, tried to hold out for dismantlement of Iran's uranium-enrichment facilities, Iran would not agree, negotiations would break down, and Iran would resume efforts to increase its uranium-enrichment capacity. A nuclear-armed Iran, a conflict over its program, or both, would become far more likely.

More sanctions now, would do more harm that good.

The international sanctions regime helped push Iran toward the negotiating table, but sanctions alone cannot convince Iran to agree to verifiably limit its nuclear activities. In fact, sanctions have never stopped Iran from advancing its program further.

Moreover, initiating new sanctions at this time as proposed by Senators Kirk (R-Ill.) and Menendez (D-N.J.), would violate the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action and risk pushing Iran toward escalatory measures and away from the negotiating table.

Moving forward on any sanctions bill will give the hardliners in Iran considerable ammunition to assert that the United States is not following through on its commitments in the Joint Plan of Action and will not negotiate a comprehensive agreement in good faith. This could narrow the space that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has to negotiate a final deal even further.

New sanctions could also cause Iran to pull out of the negotiations. Iran made clear last year that it would interpret such a move as a violation of the Joint Plan of Action.

New sanctions risk fracturing the international coalition supporting sanctions, which is instrumental to maintaining pressure on Iran.

As Rice said at AIPAC March 2, "Congress has played a hugely important role in helping to build our sanctions on Iran, but they shouldn't play the spoiler now."

UN Security Council resolutions do not require Iran to permanently halt its nuclear program.

Since July 2006, the Security Council has passed six resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities and work on the heavy-water reactor at Arak. None of the six resolutions passed by the UN Security Council called for Iran to dismantle its enrichment facilities or permanently halt enrichment. 

During debate on the most recent resolution in June 2010, British Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of the P5+1, said the resolution was intended to keep "the door open for continued engagement" with Iran over its nuclear program. Amb. Grant said that the purpose of such diplomatic efforts must be to achieve a comprehensive, long-term settlement, that respects Iran's legitimate right to the peaceful use of atomic energy.

The Security Council resolutions were never intended to eliminate an Iranian civil nuclear program in the future that complies with the conditions of the NPT.

Iran's long-range ballistic missile program is behind schedule.  

Assertions about an imminent threat of Iranian long-range, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) are overstated. The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Iran may be technically capable of developing an ICBM with sufficient foreign assistance, but Iran's progress is well behind the schedule previously predicted by the intelligence community.

Even if Iran made a concerted effort to develop and deploy, it is very unlikely it could do so within the decade.

Iran has, not surprisingly, opposed putting its short- and medium-range ballistic missiles up for negotiation because it sees those missiles as a deterrent against foreign aggression, including Israel's own nuclear and missile arsenal.

The best way to neutralize a long-term Iranian long-range ballistic missile threat is the comprehensive nuclear deal the P5+1 are pursuing because it would block Iran's potential pathways to a bomb, making its ballistic missiles much less of a threat.

An effective nuclear deal will reduce the risk of a nuclear arms race in the region and strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation system.

A verifiable, comprehensive nuclear deal will impose strict limits and monitoring on Iran's nuclear program. It will reduce the risk that Iran may someday pursue nuclear weapons.

This will provide assurance to the international community that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons and that any deviations from the deal will be quickly noticed. This should reduce, not increase, the temptation by some states in the Middle East-particularly Saudi Arabia-to pursue the technical capabilities necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.

The alternative--no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal--would lead to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to countries in the region and could increase the possibility of a "proliferation cascade" in the region. (For an in-depth look at this issue, see: "How to Actually Prevent a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East," by Kingston Reif, The National Interest, March 2, 2015.)

The agreement the P5+1 are pursuing would not invite Iran to pursue nuclear weapons after the major elements expire.

U.S. officials have been seeking an agreement that is at least 10 years in duration and possibly longer. Iran has said it will not agree to strict limits on its nuclear program for an indefinite period.

Even after the core limits on Iran's nuclear program expire Iran will be subject to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring that will promptly detect any noncompliance and in a manner that will allow timely action by the international community to disrupt any potential nuclear weapons effort.

Once and if Iran ratifies the IAEA additional protocol to its safeguards agreement as anticipated in the P5+1 and Iran deal, the additional protocol is permanent, and Iran, as a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, will be legally required to continue those inspections and be prohibited from acquiring nuclear weapons.

As Susan Rice noted on March 2, "[I]t has always been clear that the pursuit of an agreement of indefinite duration would result in no agreement at all.

"There's simply no alternative," she said, "that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon better--or longer--than the type of deal we seek."


P5+1 negotiators have an historic opportunity to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran that limits its nuclear program, blocks its pathways to a bomb, and guards against covert activities.

The gravity of the situation demands a discussion on a comprehensive nuclear deal that is based on realistic alternatives, not wishful or flawed thinking.--DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today