During his campaign for president, Joe Biden criticized President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and promised to reverse it.
Whereas Trump embraced a policy of “maximum pressure” to compel Iran to cease terrorism, covert nuclear and ballistic missile work, and other rogue behavior, Biden and Rob Malley, his special envoy for Iran, took the opposite approach. They sought to entice Iran with incentives such as sanctions relief, unfreezing assets, and the liquidation of restricted-use escrow accounts.
In May 2021, Malley was offering Iran relief equivalent to $7 billion, nearly equal to the budget of Iran’s entire conventional military for 2022. As Iranian negotiators stonewalled — they have not sat down with Malley or his team but instead insist on talking through intermediaries — Malley’s team upped the ante. Today, the Biden administration appears poised to provide Tehran with $12 billion, equivalent to a quarter of Iran’s total budget at the real exchange rate. This does not include, of course, the windfall Tehran seeks to gain from increased oil sales already augmented by lack of sanctions enforcement. This fund does not include off-budget spending, such as the oil revenue directly allocated to the Revolutionary Guards or the additional billions that Iran’s national oil company allocates for national stabilization and development but in actuality flows into Revolutionary Guards’ coffers.
Should Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accept Malley’s offer, the regime will receive an infusion of over $20 billion over the following year, essentially doubling the Revolutionary Guard’s budget. To put that conservative estimate in perspective , a suicide belt costs just $1,500, and the bombing of the Hebrew University cafeteria that killed five Americans cost only $50,000.
Nor does the money now offered to Iran account for the billion-dollar ransoms that the Iranians expect for hostage releases. After all, ever since Jimmy Carter’s administration acquiesced to release Iranian funds in exchange for hostages and Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages, the Iranian regime simply seizes new hostages to use as chits in their negotiations.
The logic of Malley’s approach appears to be the belief that he can overcome the Iranian regime’s enmity by acquiescing to nearly all its demands. These need not only be financial — it could also be to acquiesce to Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon, support the Syrian regime’s rehabilitation, or to normalize Yemen’s Houthis at a time they increasingly attack Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with Iranian-made drones and missiles.
While Biden has criticized maximum pressure, the fact is such pressure has a track record of success. Maximum pressure and diplomatic isolation ended the Iran-Iraq War and, under President Barack Obama, a decline of 5.4% in Iran’s gross domestic product forced Tehran to the negotiating table.
The problem with Malley’s approach is that it has never worked. Ideology matters. Both Democrats and Republicans understood during the Cold War that the key to success was grinding down the Soviet economy, not subsidizing it. When the Clinton administration sought to provide food and oil to North Korea, Pyongyang diverted that assistance to the military and held on to its nuclear program. Decades of aid and concession to Russia and China did not end their enmity; they simply pocketed the cash and focused on their own military programs. Likewise, Palestinian terrorism has surged in direct proportion to Western and U.N. assistance.
Simply put, there is a reason why the Biden administration does not put Malley in front of Congress. If Congress asked Malley for any precedent of success or evidence that administration logic works, he could not answer the question. Malley is not gambling with the future security of America, its allies, and, for that matter, an Iranian public that increasingly despises the regime. Rather, he is selling out each one for nothing in return other than a future of terrorist bloodshed and nuclear blackmail.
Michael Rubin ( @mrubin1971 ) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Why would any administration in its right mind permit an official state sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to have nuclear weapons, as well as billions of dollars that will assuredly not be used for a “GI Bill for returning members of the Revolutionary Guard”?
Just this week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called Iran, a “sponsor of terrorism.”
Last week, 45 retired U.S. Generals and Admirals sent an entreaty, titled “Open Letter from U.S. Military Leaders Opposing Iran Nuclear Deal”, to the Biden administration, warning against reviving of the nuclear deal. They wrote:
“In Ukraine, we are bearing witness to the horrors of a country ruthlessly attacking its neighbor and, by brandishing its nuclear weapons, forcing the rest of the world largely to stand on the sidelines.
“The new Iran deal currently being negotiated, which Russia has played a central role in crafting, will enable the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism to cast its own nuclear shadow over the Middle East.
“As retired American military leaders who devoted their lives to the defense of our nation, we oppose this emerging deal that is poised to instantly fuel explosive Iranian aggression and pave Iran’s path to become a nuclear power, threatening the American homeland and the very existence of America’s regional allies.”
Empowering Iran, alienating US allies
While the Biden administration is indefatigably trying to appease the ruling mullahs by lifting sanctions against the Iranian regime, the Islamic Republic has been ratcheting up its threats and attacks against the U.S. bases and its allies, presumably as a nudge.
In addition, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, recently commended “Palestinian martyrs” and threatened Israel as well:
“We are in the middle of the battlefield. The Islamic Republic of Iran is at the forefront of the scene against global arrogance and international Zionism, and we will continue on the path of their honor and greatness, thanks to the martyrs.”
Qaani also boasted about the Houthis’ access to weapons:
“Today, the heroes of Yemen and the new sons of the revolution are building the major weapons they use inside their country… they build missiles with a range of over 1,000 kilometers and drones with a range of over 1,500 kilometers, and all of these operations are carried out using tools and facilities in tunnels and basements, under enemy bombardment…”
The Biden administration is not only empowering the ruling mullahs of Iran and its militia groups but grievously alienating U.S. allies in the region. As the retired American U.S. Generals and Admirals accurately stated in their letter:
“America’s closest regional partners, attacked regularly by Iran, already strongly oppose the proposed deal. If we will not help protect them against Iran, we cannot expect their help addressing threats like Russia and China. We instead support diplomacy that would genuinely end the threat posed by Iran’s military nuclear program and counter Iran’s regional aggression, backed up by credibly drawn and enforced redlines against Iranian nuclear and regional escalation.”
Putin’s next ‘Ukraine’?
Worse, the Biden administration’s new deal with the Iranian regime is much weaker than Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal. With Biden’s deal, restrictions on the regime’s nuclear program would be lifted only two years after the agreement is signed, permitting the regime to enrich uranium at any level it desires and spin as many uranium enrichment centrifuges as it wants.
The new deal will not force the Iranian regime to reveal its past nuclear activities, which had military dimensions.
Astonishingly, Russia will be trusted to be the country that stores Iran’s enriched uranium, and Moscow will get paid for this mission. More uranium for Russia? How nifty: maybe Putin can use it for his next “Ukraine” — in Poland, Sweden or France?
The new deal will not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, meaning that the Tehran regime will continue attacking other nations with its ballistic missiles, provide missiles to its proxy militias in other countries, and advance the range of its intercontinental ballistic missiles to reach the U.S. territories. Iran could even use shorter-range ballistic missiles to reach the U.S., perhaps launched from Venezuela or Cuba, where Iran is already deeply entrenched.
Does the Biden administration care?
To meet the Iranian leaders’ demands, the new deal will most likely include removal from the terrorist list of the IRGC, which has killed countless Americans, both on American soil and off.
The Islamic Republic of Iran began murdering Americans in Beirut in 1983, and also had a hand in the 9/11 attacks.
Last but not least, economic sanctions will be lifted against the Iranian regime and will facilitate the flow of billions of dollars to the ruling mullahs. This will further assist the terrorist regime of Iran to destabilize the region, target and attack U.S. allies, and continue arming, funding and sponsoring its militia and terror groups across the world.
The Biden administration, if it actually cares about peace in the region — a subject that seems open to question — would do well to listen to the warnings of these many U.S. military leaders and Congressmen, and refuse to revive the disastrous nuclear deal.
It will only make even more dangerous a country that the U.S. State Department itself has called “the world’s worst sponsor of state terrorism,” as well as frankly creating an unnecessary security threat in the region, Europe and the U.S.
On 20 March 2003, US and allied forces invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The US said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to international peace, but most countries refused to support military action against it.
Why did the US want to invade Iraq?
In the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the US had led a multinational coalition which forced invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Afterwards, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 687 ordering Iraq to destroy all its weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) – a term used to describe nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and long-range ballistic missiles.
In October 2002, the US Congress authorised the use of military force against Iraq.
“Many people in Washington believed that there was significant evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that it posed a genuine threat,” says Dr Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the US and Americas Programme at Chatham House, a foreign affairs think tank in London.
However, he did not persuade the Council. Most of its members wanted weapons inspectors from the UN and International Energy Authority – who had gone to Iraq in 2002 – to carry out more work there to find evidence of WMDs.
Of the 30 countries in the coalition, the UK, Australia and Poland participated in the invasion.
The UK sent 45,000 troops, Australia sent 2,000 troops and Poland sent 194 special forces members.
Kuwait allowed the invasion to be launched from its territory.
Spain and Italy gave diplomatic support to the US-led coalition, along with several east European nations in the “Vilnius Group”, who said they believed that Iraq had a WMD programme and was violating UN resolutions.
What allegations did the US and UK make against Iraq?
Published 11:45 AM ET Mon, 14 May 2018 Updated 9:54 AM ET Tue, 15 May 2018 CNBC.com
HAIDAR HAMDANI | AFP | Getty Images
Iraqi Shiite cleric and leader Moqtada al-Sadr (C-L) shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag while surrounded by people outside a polling station in the central holy city of Najaf on May 12, 2018 as the country votes in the first parliamentary election since declaring victory over the Islamic State (IS) group.
More than 91 percent of Iraq’s votes have been tallied after polls closed over the weekend in Iraq’s first election since defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) late last year. And they reveal a shock win for firebrand Iraqi cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who wasn’t even running for prime minister, along with his coalition allies, the Iraqi Communist Party. He was followed by Iran-backed Shia militia leader Hadi Al Amiri, while incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, initially predicted to win re-election, trailed in third. Voter turnout was a low 44.5 percent, indicating widespread voter apathy and pessimism, observers said.
Reports show that Sadr’s “Sairoon” alliance won more than 1.3 million votes, translating to 54 seats in the country’s 329-seat parliament, taking the greatest share among a broad and fractured array of parties.
A win for Sadr, the populist Shia leader known for his anti-American campaigns and his populist appeal to Iraq’s young and poor, could dramatically change Iraq’s political landscape and its relationship with external powers like the U.S. and Iran. In addition to pushing for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Sadr is avidly opposed to Iranian influence in his country. That influence has grown significantly thanks to the pivotal role played by Iran-backed militias in driving out ISIS. The influential cleric, who has millions of religious followers, cannot become prime minister as he did not run for the position himself — but his electoral success means he will likely have a key role in deciding who does.
Sadr has spearheaded a number of political movements in Iraq, gaining infamy for directing attacks on U.S. troops in the wake of the 2003 Iraq invasion. His charismatic sermons have drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets over a range of causes. More recently, he’s led campaigns and protests against corruption within the Shia-led government as well as against Iranian influence, and pledged to overcome sectarianism by leading a secular coalition that includes Iraq’s communists. Sadr in 2003 created the Mahdi Army, which executed the first major armed confrontation against U.S. forces in Iraq led by the Shia community — and it posed such a threat that U.S. forces were instructed to kill or capture him. The group, which numbered up to 10,000, was also accused of carrying out atrocities against Iraq’s Sunnis. It was disbanded in 2008, but re-mobilized in 2014 to fight ISIS. The cleric owes much of his religious following to the legacy of his father, an influential Iraqi ayatollah murdered in the 1990s for opposing former President Saddam Hussein, and has spent much of his career championing Shia causes.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE | AFP | Getty Images
But in the last year, he’s undergone something of a reinvention: he has reached out to Sunni Gulf neighbors, most notably in 2017 visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) powers typically shunned Iraq’s Shia, but are now making headway in the country through investment and economic aid, seen partially as an attempt to counter arch-rival Iran’s entrenched influence in the country. Ahead of the election, Sadr pledged a commitment to abandon sectarianism by forming a coalition with secular Sunnis and Iraq’s Communist Party, who have as a result seen their best election performance ever. “Sadr‘s strong showing suggests that he maintains a relatively loyal following and that his nationalist, cross-sectarian platform was effective at mobilizing voters in challenging conditions,” said Ryan Turner, a senior risk analyst at London-based PGI Group. He has also stopped advocating violence, said Renad Mansour, an Iraq researcher and fellow at U.K. policy institute Chatham House. “He passed the use of violence for his political agenda,” Mansour said. “But say if the U.S. come back and occupy Iraq, I imagine that this would change.”
Because of the fractured nature of Iraqi politics, no candidate or bloc has won an outright majority. The winners of the most seats must negotiate a coalition government within 90 days, during which a long complex process of compromise will have to unfold. Winning the greatest share of votes does not directly translate to leading the government. “Depending on the final tallies and political jockeying, Sadr may find himself in a position to play kingmaker, which could see Abadi reappointed prime minister,” Turner said, referring to the current prime minister, who was widely praised for leading the fight against ISIS and for balancing relationships across sects and external powers. But to do so, Sadr would likely have to outmaneuver Iran, which would prefer to see Amiri — the candidate who finished second place — assume the premiership. Tehran wields much of its influence by pushing its preferred policies through Iranian-backed candidates and political players like Amiri. A major objective of Iran’s is to push the U.S. out of Iraq, where some 5,000 troops still remain.
Department of Defense photo
U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to Bravo Troop, 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, maneuver through a hallway as part of squad level training at Camp Taji, Iraq.
The extent to which the reforms Sadr has championed can take place will be determined by these fractured politics, said Mansour. “So far Sadr has been a very vocal voice demanding change — the question becomes whether he’ll actually be able to maneuver around the system that Iraq is, which is one where power is so diffuse among different entities that it’s hard for one group to have complete control. But I think he certainly will try and be more dramatic about it.” Labeled one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International, Iraq is still mired in poverty and dysfunction following its bloody, three-year battle against ISIS. Officials estimate they’ll need at least $100 billion to rebuild the country’s destroyed homes, businesses and infrastructure, and improvised explosive devices and landmines remain scattered throughout the country. The composition of the new government will be crucial in determining how Iraq moves forward. “It’s not clear that Sadr‘s rising political influence will undermine Iraq’s recent progress,” Turner said, noting that despite the cleric’s past, he has cooperated with Abadi and backed changes intended to reduce corruption. “Much will depend on what happens next, and whether Sadr is able to quickly form a governing coalition or Iraq enters a period of prolonged deadlock as after the 2010 election.”Natasha TurakCorrespondent, CNBC
The way the submarine deal is structured sets a bad precedent of supplying a non-nuclear weapon state and NPT member with weapons-grade fuelIf the Aukus partners want to set good standards for non-proliferation, they should expand IAEA safeguards or abandon using nuclear submarine technology
Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles speaks at a press conference in front of the USS Asheville, a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, during a tour of HMAS Stirling in Perth. The prospect of Australia acquiring nuclear submarines via the Aukus agreement has raised concerns around regional stability and global non-proliferation efforts. Photo: AAP / dpa
First, the supply of a conventionally armed nuclear submarine to a non-nuclear weapon state and member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is not only unprecedented but threatens the international non-proliferation regime.
Second, the trilateral deal could deepen geopolitical tensions in the region, setting the Australian navy against Chinese maritime forces in ways that would increase the nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean region and could violate Australia’s own pledge of a nuclear weapons-free zone.
The Aukus partners have said their trilateral partnership to provide Australia with a conventionally armed nuclear submarine would set “the highest possible non-proliferation standards” in ways that “strengthen the global non-proliferation regime”. To ensure this, the US and the UK would provide Australia with complete, welded power units, from which “removal or diversion of any nuclear material would be extremely difficult”.
Additionally, the nuclear material would not be in a form to produce nuclear weapons directly and instead would need further processing in nuclear facilities that Canberra does not have.
On top of that, Australia has been negotiating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to develop a “suitable verification arrangement” against the diversion of nuclear fuel.
China warns Aukus against going down ‘dangerous road’ over nuclear-powered submarine pact
China warns Aukus against going down ‘dangerous road’ over nuclear-powered submarine pact
But nuclear experts have warned that instead of the highest possible non-proliferation standard, the US was on its way to setting a bad precedent of supplying a non-nuclear weapon state and a member of the NPT with weapons-grade fuel. The nuclear material could remain outside IAEA safeguards for as long as the nuclear submarine remains on patrol.
During that period, it would be impossible for the IAEA to ensure the nuclear material is not removed or diverted for military applications. Some members of the IAEA such as China and Indonesia have argued that the Aukus partners have been less transparent and kept their negotiations with the IAEA private.
Some experts have said the IAEA needs to involve interested member states in these negotiations to reach uniform, non-discriminatory principles regarding the application of safeguards on nuclear submarines.
Another problem is that the IAEA is bound by its statutory obligations to ensure its assistance “is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose”, but the definition of “non-proscribed military activity” or “non-peaceful activities” is unclear. The Aukus partners cannot themselves assume the connotations of these terms and privately negotiate the application of safeguards without the input of other interested IAEA members.
Indonesian political and military officials see the Australian nuclear submarine capability as meant for war and the Aukus pact as a smaller Nato. Since a nuclear submarine could use weapons-grade fissile material, they suggest its use of Indonesian sea lanes could be blocked as it could violate the Asean nuclear-free zone.
What to know about Australia’s Aukus subs and why it’s causing anxiety in Asia16 Mar 2023
The US is expected to provide three of its Virginia class fast-attack nuclear submarines to Australia by the early 2030s. One of the pillars of the Aukus agreement is to provide Australia with a range of defence capabilities, including hypersonic and counter-hypersonic weapons systems to increase interoperability among the US allies.
It would be the first time the US provided a conventionally armed nuclear submarine to a non-nuclear member state of the NPT. Worse, in terms of damaging the global non-proliferation regime, Washington would follow an earlier precedent of Russia’s provision of nuclear submarines to India.
These plans appear to show that Australia could provide US forces with a “protective screen” to attack Chinese targets in the event of conflict and reinforce the US Navy’s strategy to deter Chinese nuclear capability in the region.
For a non-nuclear weapon state and member of the NPT, acquiring or developing an armed nuclear submarine is not the right way to go about doing that. China is not the only country with nuclear submarine capability in the Indo-Pacific. The US and India also operate submarines in the region.
Two Chinese nuclear-powered Type 094A Jin-class ballistic missile submarines are seen during a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters
While China and the US are NPT member states and nuclear powers, India is a non-NPT state. This would be the first time a non-nuclear weapon state and a member of the NPT would operate a nuclear submarine utilising what have been called “grey areas” around IAEA safeguards.
In addition, the US is planning to deploy its B-52 bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons on a rotational basis at the Royal Australian Air Force base at Tindal in the Northern Territory. There are concerns this move could have severe implications for the Treaty of Rarotonga that establishes the South Pacific nuclear-free zone.
If the Aukus partners want to set the best standards for the global non-proliferation regime, they would be better served to extend the IAEA safeguards to any submarines on patrol to ensure that the agency’s oversight does not stray from the nuclear material at any point. Alternatively, they could shelve the nuclear submarine technology and explore other options with similar military capabilities and features.
The IAEA would also have to address these issues and ensure the transparency and participation of all member states in these negotiations.
The concerned member states would do well to provide solutions to these problems in general terms, not just those specific to Australia, and sideline geopolitics to set a uniform, non-discriminatory criteria for all non-nuclear weapon states and members of the NPT.
Riaz Khokhar is a research associate at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) and a former Asia Studies visiting fellow at the East-West Centre in Washington
The world woke up last Friday to the surprise announcement that Beijing has brokered stronger ties between Riyadh and Tehran, radically upending the U.S.-led world order. This has reverberated in capitals all over the world. How does this change the calculus of Iran’s development of nuclear capability, of Israel’s ability to attack Iran through Saudi airspace? What does it say about America’s role in the world, China’s intentions and Saudi Arabia as a long-term ally of the United States?
According to the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA), Iran will have very shortly, if it does not have already, enough highly enriched uranium for at least three nuclear bombs. The IAEA has detected traces of uranium at the Fordow Enrichment Facility enriched to 83.7 percent, just a few days’ glide to the 90 percent level necessary for a nuclear bomb.
The IAEA also has said that it can no longer reestablish any certainty regarding Iran’s activities under a revived JCPOA, such as the production of advanced centrifuges and heavy water, due to Iran’s decision in February 2021 to deny the IAEA access to data from key JCPOA-related monitoring and surveillance equipment and because of Iran’s decision in June 2022 to remove all such equipment, including video cameras and online enrichment monitoring devices.
Yet, on Saturday, March 4, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other top officials in Tehran and gave vague assurances that these concerns would be addressed.
The questions remain: Can we trust the IAEA? And can Iran be stopped from developing a nuclear bomb before it is too late?
Here to answer these questions and more is Rich Goldberg.
Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. From 2019-2020, he served as the director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the White House National Security Council. He previously served as chief of staff for Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and deputy chief of staff and senior foreign policy adviser to former U.S. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois in both the U.S. House and Senate.
Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020)
“Whatever you do won’t be enough. … Try anyway.”
— President Barack Obama
It was December 2009 and the still-new president was in his hotel room in Oslo getting dressed in the tuxedo he would wear for the ceremony to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. An aide knocked on the door and urged him to look out the window. Pulling back the shades, Barack Obama saw several thousand people in the narrow street below holding lit candles over their heads to celebrate him. “[O]n some level,” he notes in his excellent new 700-page memoir, “the crowds below were cheering an illusion … The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to [this chaotic world] seemed laughable.” (p. 446)
Obama famously had questioned how he deserved this prize so early in his presidency. One answer was the “Prague speech” he had given that April, stating “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Now, 11 years later, Obama devotes more words in his memoir to describing the scene on the streets through which his motorcade lumbered en route to the speech site than he does to the content of the speech. (p. 348)
The reticence clearly is not an accident. Throughout the book he barely mentions and never explores in depth what had been hailed earlier as the Prague Agenda.
For example, in an insightful 12-page discussion of Russian politics and U.S. efforts to “reset” relations with Moscow, Obama writes merely that his initial meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev produced “an agreed-upon framework for the new strategic arms treaty, which would reduce each side’s allowable nuclear warheads and delivery systems by up to one-third.” (p. 462)
Nowhere in the text does he mention the considerable labor that he personally devoted to shaping his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which was completed in 2010. His signature nuclear policy innovation, a “forty-seven-nation nuclear security summit” to strengthen international efforts to keep nuclear materials away from terrorists, gets no more mention than these four hyphenated words. North Korea receives two glancing comments.
Why does Obama — who was deeply engaged in nuclear policy issues throughout his presidency — devote so little to the topic in his memoir? What does this omission reveal about the politics of nuclear weapons in the United States? And finally, what should those working to reduce nuclear risks around the world learn from Obama’s attempts to grapple with his own legacy on nuclear matters?
There are many ways to interpret Obama’s nuclear reticence. He paid more personal attention to nuclear policy than any president since Ronald Reagan, and he was more knowledgeable about details than any predecessor, except perhaps Jimmy Carter. Disappointment over the results are surely a factor. Although this memoir covers only the first 18 months of his presidency, it is informed by knowledge of what happened later, including the near collapse of arms control with Russia, renewed qualitative arms racing with Russia and China, North Korea’s burgeoning arsenal, and the impossibility of winning Republican support for a nuclear deal with Iran.
But Obama faced lots of other disappointments that he discusses at length. He writes 30 pages on climate change policy and his diplomatic intervention to save the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. You can imagine him saying of New START nuclear policy what he writes wryly about the Copenhagen effort:
All that for an interim agreement that — even if it worked entirely as planned — would be at best a preliminary, halting step toward solving a possible planetary tragedy, a pail of water thrown on a raging fire. I realized that for all the power inherent in the seat I now occupied, there would always be a chasm between what I knew should be done to achieve a better world and what in a day, week, or year I found myself actually able to accomplish. (p. 516)
An earlier passage may partially answer why nuclear issues barely register in the book. In recounting the 2009 press conference in Moscow with Medvedev where Obama had described the framework for what became the New START Treaty, Obama wryly (as usual) notes that Robert Gibbs, his press secretary, “was more excited by Russia’s agreement to lift restrictions on certain U.S. livestock exports, a change worth more than $1 billion to American farmers and ranchers.” This, Gibbs said, was “[s]omething folks back home actually care about.” (p. 462) Later, Obama bemoans the absence of a strong domestic constituency “clamoring” for the treaty’s ratification by the Senate, which left him no choice but to make “a devil’s bargain” with Republican leaders to boost funding to modernize the nuclear weapons infrastructure. (p. 608)
To sell books or political candidates today, the less said about nuclear policy the better. The public and media don’t follow the details. They can’t reasonably assess the pros and cons of policy options. Until there is a nuclear war — or a real scare that one is imminent — busy people are unlikely to demand big changes.
One could say that the public doesn’t care or follow what’s going on in Afghanistan, either, yet Obama writes much more about it. The difference is that Afghanistan was a war and topic of necessity — as Obama insisted in the 2008 campaign. He had to deal with it. Nuclear policy is an issue of choice so long as deterrence seems to be working. When the political payoff is negligible, it is better to turn to other things. People do get alarmed by Iranian or North Korean proliferation. The president should try to address those challenges. But neither the public nor Congress and the defense establishment see how stopping proliferation requires fidelity to nuclear disarmament, as Obama argued.
Public inattention means that Republican leaders could have relatively free hands to pursue arms control and disarmament measures if they wanted to. Their supporters will not protest, and Democrats by and large will go along. Democratic leaders face a much tougher challenge. The more public their arms control-related initiatives, the more that nativist Republican forces will counter them with narratives of weakness, naivete, and indulgence of evil Iranian Ayatollahs, Chinese Communists, or Russian cheaters. Those narratives win in cable news and internet combat in swing states and districts. To counter them and buy the necessary Republican votes, Democrats are compelled to fund new or different military capabilities that signify strength and revenue to defense contractors and host states. This says more about the public and the political-psychology of enmity than it does about Democrats, but the reader imagines that the Obama of the Prague speech underestimated the challenge.
For Democrats, the most plausible way around the mass constituency problem is to appoint motivated experts to key administration positions and to team them with military leaders who share the view that nuclear deterrence can be maintained between the United States and Russia and China with much leaner arsenals. Obama had a few such officials (e.g., Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller) but neither Secretary of Defense Robert Gates nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared his nuclear policy predilections or exerted themselves against domestic and international resistance to them.
The political logic of selecting and working with military leaders who share a president’s view on the relative importance of conventional versus nuclear forces for securing the United States and allies is affirmed, indirectly, in another line from Gibbs. Talking about what became the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Obama wonders if the public would understand the arcane rule changes involved. Gibbs assures him, “They don’t need to understand it. … If the banks hate it, they’ll figure it must be a good thing.” (p. 553) In nuclear policy, the equivalent line might be, “If the military hates it, the public will figure it’s a bad thing.” In general, Obama stays shy of arguing with the military. Indeed, the memoir’s discussions of Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Adm. Mike Mullen are sugarcoated compared to Bob Woodward’s account of White House-military relations in Obama’s Wars.
According to the Constitution, civilians should direct the military, of course. But the public trusts military leaders more when it comes to national security, especially compared to Democrats. To shift national nuclear policies in the current environment, the president needs to win 60 votes in the Senate to advance legislation — 67 to ratify treaties. This requires persuading senators from swing states to support the agenda. If the military joins opponents against a Democratic president, that president and his or her policies will lose. (This logic may, in part, be reflected in President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III as secretary of defense. Due to the public’s trust in the armed forces, Austin’s military experience is likely to be a political asset. His impact on potential nuclear policy is unclear. Austin comes from the Army, a service that is less invested in the nuclear enterprise, as they and the Marines don’t have any nuclear weapons. As former commander of U.S. Central Command, he will have the best possible credibility for arguing in favor of returning to the Iran nuclear deal — credibility that Biden will need in front of the Congress and the public.)
To win military leaders’ support for new nuclear policies, or at least their politically useful nonresistance, experts and civilian officials will need to offer the military better alternatives for deterring or defeating threats. The best such alternatives would be dialing down Russian and Chinese coercion of their neighbors, and negotiating verifiable reductions of Russian nuclear forces and limitations on China’s military buildup. The United States, of course, will have to provide reciprocal reassurance to Moscow and Beijing, which is easier said than done. The other, not mutually exclusive, need is to improve U.S. and allied non-nuclear capabilities to prevent Russia or China from taking small bits of disputed territory and then leaving Washington with the dreadful choice of capitulation or major conflict that could escalate — purposefully or inadvertently — to nuclear war. To allay concerns of arms racing, Washington should make clear to Moscow and Beijing that it prefers to negotiate confidence-building and arms control mechanisms with them if they want to.
Rather than the audacious hope of Senator Obama, President Obama’s experience suggests that people seeking the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons need an attitude more like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, whom “we must imagine happy” as he repeatedly pushes the rock up the hill. This is the Obama that comes through the superb memoir: patient, ironic, steadily trying, and grinning even as he knows that whatever we can accomplish may not be enough.
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George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
1957 – The United States signs a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran.
1958 – Iran joins the IAEA.
1967 – The Tehran Nuclear Research Center, which includes a small reactor supplied by the United States, opens.
1968 – Iran signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Mid-1970s – With US backing, Iran begins developing a nuclear power program.
1979 – Iran’s Islamic revolution ends Western involvement in the country’s nuclear program.
December 1984 – With the aid of China, Iran opens a nuclear research center in Isfahan.
February 23, 1998 – The United States announces concerns that Iran’s nuclear energy program could lead to the development of nuclear weapons.
March 14, 2000 – US President Bill Clinton signs a law that allows sanctions against people and organizations that provide aid to Iran’s nuclear program.
February 21, 2003 –IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei visits Iran to survey its nuclear facilities and to encourage Iran to sign a protocol allowing IAEA inspectors greater and faster access to nuclear sites. Iran declines to sign the protocol. ElBaradei says he must accept Iran’s statement that its nuclear program is for producing power and not weapons, despite claims of the United States to the contrary.
June 19, 2003 – The IAEA issues a report saying that Iran appeared to be in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but that it needed to be more open about its activities.
August 2003 – The IAEA announces that its inspectors in Iran have found traces of highly enriched uranium at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Iran claims the amounts are contamination from equipment bought from other countries. Iran agrees to sign a protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that allows for unannounced visits to their nuclear facilities and signs it on December 18, 2003.
October 2003 – The Foreign Ministers of Britain, France and Germany visit Tehran, and all parties agree upon measures Iran will take to settle all outstanding issues with the IAEA. Under obligation to the IAEA, Iran releases a dossier on its nuclear activities. However, the report does not contain information on where Iran acquired components for centrifuges used to enrich uranium, a fact the IAEA considers important in determining whether the uranium is to be enriched for weapons.
December 2003 – Iran signs the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with the IAEA voluntarily agreeing to broader inspections of its nuclear facilities.
February 2004 – A.Q. Khan, “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, admits to having provided Iran and other countries with uranium-enrichment equipment.
June 1, 2004 – The IAEA states they have found traces of uranium that exceed the amount used for general energy production. Iran admits that it is importing parts for advanced centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium, but is using the parts to generate electricity.
July 31, 2004 – Iran states that it has resumed production on centrifuge parts used for enriching uranium, but not enrichment activities.
August 8, 2005 – Iran restarts uranium conversion, a step on the way to enrichment, at a nuclear facility, saying it is for peaceful purposes only, and flatly rejects a European offer aimed at ensuring the nation does not seek nuclear weapons.
August 9, 2005 – Iran removes the IAEA seals from its Isfahan nuclear processing facility, opening the uranium conversion plant for full operation. IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky states that the plant “is fully monitored by the IAEA” and “is not a uranium enrichment plant.”
September 11, 2005 – Iran’s new foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, says the country won’t suspend activities at its Isfahan uranium conversion facility and it plans to seek bids for the construction of two more nuclear plants.
January 10, 2006 – Iran resumes research at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, arguing that doing so is within the terms of an agreement with the IAEA.
January 12, 2006 – Foreign ministers of the EU3 (Great Britain, France, Germany) recommend Iran’s referral to the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear program.
January 13, 2006 – Mottaki states that if Iran is referred, its government under law will be forced to stop some of its cooperation with the IAEA, including random inspections.
April 11, 2006 – Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, states that Iran has increased the number of functioning centrifuges in its nuclear facilities in Natanz and has produced enriched uranium from them.
August 31, 2006 – The IAEA issues a report on Iran saying the Islamic republic “has not suspended its enrichment activities” despite this day’s deadline to do so. Iran can possibly face economic sanctions.
December 23, 2006 – The UN Security Council votes unanimously to impose sanctions against Iran for failing to suspend its nuclear program.
February 22, 2007 – The IAEA issues a statement saying that Iran has not complied with the UN Security Council’s call for a freeze of all nuclear activity. Instead, Iran has expanded its uranium enrichment program.
March 24, 2007 – The United Nations adopts Resolution 1747 which toughens sanctions against Iran. The sanctions include the freezing of assets of 28 individuals and organizations involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. About a third of those are linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, an elite military corp.
May 23, 2007 – The IAEA delivers its report to the United Nations on Iran’s nuclear activities. The report states that not only has Iran failed to end its uranium enrichment program but has in fact expanded its activity.
June 21, 2007 – Iran’s Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi claims, “Now we have 3,000 centrifuges and have in our warehouses 100 kilograms of enriched uranium…We also have more than 150 tons of raw materials for producing uranium gas.”
February 20, 2009 – The Institute for Science and International Security reports that Iranian scientists have reached “nuclear weapons breakout capability.” The report concludes Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon but does have enough low-enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon. An official at the IAEA cautions about drawing such conclusions. The IAEA says Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium would have to be turned into highly enriched uranium to become weapons-grade material.
February 25, 2009 – Iran runs tests at its Bushehr nuclear power plant using “dummy” fuel rods loaded with lead in place of enriched uranium to simulate nuclear fuel. A news release distributed to reporters at the scene states the test measured the “pressure, temperature and flow rate” of the facility to make sure they were at appropriate levels. Officials say the next test will use enriched uranium, but it’s not clear when the test will be held or when the facility will be fully operational.
September 21, 2009 – In a letter to the IAEA, Iran reveals the existence of a second nuclear facility. It is located underground at a military base, near the city of Qom.
October 25, 2009 – IAEA inspectors make their first visit to Iran’s newly disclosed nuclear facility near Qom.
February 18, 2010 – In a statement, the IAEA reports that it believes Iran may be working in secret to develop a nuclear warhead for a missile.
August 21, 2010 – Iran begins fueling its first nuclear energy plant, in the city of Bushehr.
December 5, 2010 – Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s atomic chief and acting foreign minister, announces that Iran’s nuclear program is self-sufficient and that Iran has begun producing yellowcake, an intermediate stage in processing uranium.
January 8, 2011 – Salehi reports that Iran can now create its own nuclear fuel plates and rods.
September 4, 2011 – Iran announces that its Bushehr nuclear power plant joined the electric grid September 3, making it the first Middle Eastern country to produce commercial electricity from atomic reactors.
September 5, 2011 – In response to Iran’s nuclear chief stating that Iran will give the IAEA “full supervision” of its nuclear program for five years if UN sanctions are lifted, the European Union says that Iran must first comply with international obligations.
November 8, 2011 – The IAEA releases a report saying that it has “serious concerns” and “credible” information that Iran may be developing nuclear weapons.
January 9, 2012 – The IAEA confirms that uranium enrichment has begun at the Fordo nuclear facility in the Qom province in northern Iran.
January 23, 2012 – The European Union announces it will ban the import of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products.
January 29, 2012 – A six-member delegation from the IAEA arrives in Tehran for a three-day visit, shortly after the EU imposes new sanctions aimed at cutting off funding to the nuclear program.
January 31, 2012 – In Senate testimony James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, says there’s no evidence Iran is building a nuclear bomb. CIA Director David Petraeus agrees.
February 15, 2012 – Iran loads the first domestically produced nuclear fuel rods into the Tehran research reactor.
February 21, 2012 – After two days of talks in Iran about the country’s nuclear program, the IAEA expresses disappointment that no progress was made and that their request to visit the Parchin military base was denied.
March 28, 2012 – Discussions regarding Iran’s nuclear future stall.
April 14, 2012 – Talks resume between Iran and six world powers over Iranian nuclear ambitions in Istanbul, Turkey.
May 25, 2012 – An IAEA report finds that environmental samples taken at the Fordo fuel enrichment plant near the city of Qom have enrichment levels of up to 27%, higher than the previous level of 20%.
June 18-19, 2012 – A meeting is held between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, France, Russia, China, Great Britain and Germany) in Moscow. No agreement is reached.
June 28, 2012 – Iranian negotiator,Saeed Jalili writes to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warning world powers to avoid “unconstructive measures” such as the oil embargo that’s about to go into effect and that was agreed upon by the EU in January.
July 1, 2012 – A full embargo of Iranian oil from the EU takes effect.
August 30, 2012 – A UN report finds that Iran has stepped up its production of high-grade enriched uranium and has re-landscaped Parchin, one of its military bases, in an apparent effort to hamper a UN inquiry into the country’s nuclear program.
January 20, 2014 – The European Union announces that it has suspended certain sanctions against Iran for six months.
February 20, 2014 – Following talks in Vienna, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announce that a deal on the framework for comprehensive negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program has been reached.
July 14, 2015 – A deal is reached on Iran’s nuclear program. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reduces the number of Iranian centrifuges by two-thirds. It places bans on enrichment at key facilities, and limits uranium research and development to the Natanz facility. On July 20, the UN Security Council endorses the nuclear deal.
January 16, 2016 – IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano says Iran has completed all the necessary steps agreed under the nuclear deal, and that all participants can begin implementing the JCPOA.
February 3, 2017 – In reaction to the January 29 missile test, the US Treasury Department says it is applying sanctions on 25 individuals and companies connected to Iran’s ballistic missile program and those providing support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force. Flynn says the tests were in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution that bars Iran from taking steps on a ballistic missile program capable of launching nuclear weapons.
October 13, 2017 – Trump decertifies Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, declaring that the pact was not in US interests and unveiling a tough new policy toward the Islamic Republic. The move stops short of completely scrapping the agreement, instead kicking it to Congress, who then has 60 days to determine a path forward. Congress allows the 60-day deadline to pass without action.
May 21, 2018 – Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the Trump administration is “open to new steps” with Iran, including a diplomatic relationship. Part of 12 preconditions: Iran must acknowledge past military dimensions of its nuclear program and expand access given to nuclear inspectors. The United States will then be willing to end sanctions, re-establish commercial relationships and allow Iran to have advanced technology.
September 23, 2019 – In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Zarif outlines a proposal for an agreement that would augment the defunct nuclear deal. In return for lifting sanctions, Iran would be prepared to sign an additional protocol, allowing for more intrusive inspections of the country’s nuclear facilities at an earlier date than that set out previously. Khamenei would also enshrine a ban on nuclear weapons in law, Zarif says.
February 18, 2021 – The Biden administration announces that the US is willing to sit down for talks with Tehran and other signatories to the Iran nuclear deal and achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA. Less than two weeks later, Iran rejects an offer by the European Union for direct talks with P5+1 countries.
February 4, 2022 – The Biden administration restores a sanctions waiver that will allow countries to cooperate with Iran on civil nuclear projects. The move takes place a week after talks adjourn. US officials have warned that there are only weeks left to return to the deal given Iran’s rapid nuclear developments. Tehran has called for broad sanctions relief before coming back into compliance with the deal.
Some 2.5 tons of natural uranium stored in a site in war-torn Libya have gone missing
ByJON GAMBRELL and JACK JEFFERY Associated Press
March 16, 2023, 1:48 AM
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Some 2.5 tons of natural uranium stored in a site in war-torn Libya have gone missing, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Thursday, raising safety and proliferation concerns.
However, forces allied to a warlord battling the Libyan government based in the capital of Tripoli claimed on Thursday night that they recovered the material. U.N. inspectors said they were trying to confirm that.
Natural uranium cannot immediately be used for energy production or bomb fuel, as the enrichment process typically requires the metal to be converted into a gas, then later spun in centrifuges to reach the levels needed.
But each ton of natural uranium — if obtained by a group with the technological means and resources — can be refined to 5.6 kilograms (12 pounds) of weapons-grade material over time, experts say. That makes finding the missing metal important for nonproliferation experts.
In a statement, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said its director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, informed member states Wednesday about the missing uranium.
The IAEA statement remained tightlipped though on details.
On Tuesday, “agency safeguards inspectors found that 10 drums containing approximately 2.5 tons of natural uranium in the form of uranium ore concentrate were not present as previously declared at a location in the state of Libya,” the IAEA said. “Further activities will be conducted by the agency to clarify the circumstances of the removal of the nuclear material and its current location.”
The IAEA did not identify the site, nor did it respond to questions about it from The Associated Press.
Reuters first reported on the IAEA warning about the missing Libyan uranium, saying the IAEA told members reaching the site that’s not under government control required “complex logistics.”
One such declared site is Sabha, some 660 kilometers (410 miles) southeast of Tripoli, in the country’s lawless southern reaches of the Sahara Desert. Libya’s late dictator Moammar Gadhafi stored thousands of barrels of so-called yellowcake uranium for a once-planned uranium conversion facility that was never built in his decadeslong secret weapons program.
Estimates put the Libyan stockpile at some 1,000 metric tons of yellowcake uranium under Gadhafi, who declared his nascent nuclear weapons program to the world in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But the 2011 Arab Spring saw rebels topple Gadhafi and ultimately kill him. Sabha grew increasingly lawless, with African migrants crossing Libya, saying some had been sold as slaves in the city, the U.N. reported.
In recent years, Sabha largely has been under the control of the self-styled Libyan National Army, headed by Khalifa Hifter. On Thursday night, Hifter’s forces issued a statement claiming they had recovered the material.
They published a video showing a man in a disposable white suit and respirator in the desert, counting off what appeared to be 18 metal drums. Some of the blue-painted drums bore what appeared to be batch numbers. News footage from 2011 of the facility showed similar drums.
However, the man did not open the drums in the footage.
Hifter’s forces claimed they found the drums some 5 kilometers (3 miles) south of the facility. They tried to accuse Chadian separatist fighters, who operate in the region, of stealing the drums after mistaking them for weapons and ammunition. Hifter’s forces provided no evidence for the accusation.
The video footage resembled features of the desert surrounding the uranium stockpile site, though the AP could not immediately locate it.
Hifter’s forces also claimed the storage site had been found with an “opening” on its side. They claimed that a top IAEA official informed them of the “opening” nearly a week earlier than the agency described discovering the missing uranium. The conflicting timelines could not be immediately reconciled.
Hifter’s forces also asserted the IAEA failed to provide protective equipment and security for the site, though countries with nuclear material themselves bear responsibility for those sites. They also didn’t explain how the site had been secured — or if it was currently.
Asked about the claim by Hifter’s forces, the IAEA said: “We are aware of media reports that the material has been found. The agency is actively working to verify them.”
“Stressing that Libya viewed the question as primarily a commercial one, (the official) noted that prices for uranium yellowcake on the world market had been increasing, and that Libya wanted to maximize its profit by properly timing the sale of its stockpile,” then-Ambassador Gene A. Cretz wrote.
This development is not necessarily surprising, since Iran has been working toward advancing its nuclear enrichment program for years, before, during and after the 2015 nuclear deal with the Obama administration. “I’ll take (the Pentagon) at their word that the timetable is now about 12 days,” says Richard Stoll, political science professor at Rice University. “But even if they’re a little off, the principle is there—if you let (Iran) enrich, they can get closer and closer to what they need to have to build a nuclear weapon.”
While acknowledging Iran’s faster ability to produce fissile material, Pentagon officials do not believe Iran has the technology yet to actually build a bomb, nor the ability to launch one a long distance if it were built. Still, the idea of Iran one day possessing a nuke would be a game-changer on the international stage, especially for nearby countries. “Who would want to oppose them on any issue, including those issues where the United States opposes them, knowing that Iran has nuclear weapons,” says Stoll. “If Iran wants to be the dominant country in that region and I’m another country there, given that they have nuclear weapons I’m not going to oppose it.”
While Iran repeatedly threatens the U.S. and its allies, the Biden administration continues to promote diplomacy and push for a return to the 2015 Obama-era agreement. Stoll warns the solution is not that simple. “Go back to the nuclear agreement, if both sides will do that,” he tells KTRH. “But that should not blind us to the fact that we will continue to have to deal with an Iran operating against our interests in that region.”