Perhaps because of U.S. hesitancy on Syria, or our withdrawal from Iraq, or our transition out of Afghanistan, or talk of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, Iranian leaders seem not to believe that we will use force if diplomatic efforts fail. Obama insists that he means what he says on preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons and that he will do whatever is necessary. The Iranian misreading of this determination could put us on a fast track to conflict.
If diplomacy is to be given a final chance, the United States needs to shift its negotiating strategy away from the confidence-building “step-by-step” approach — which only deepens Iranian perceptions that they can string us along until we acquiesce. Instead, the United States needs to establish greater clarity about what we can and cannot live with regarding Iran’s nuclear program and give further credence to the administration’s statements that the time for diplomacy is running out.
The confidence-building approach, which seeks to reach a limited agreement in a bid to buy time for a wider deal in the future, simply cannot do that. Even if it were possible now, it is not clear that such a tactic would be in U.S. interests. A limited deal is based on the notion that capping Iran’s “medium-enriched” uranium at 20 percent enrichment will guard against it being able to upgrade its fuel to weapons-grade enrichment. Yet if Iran has a bomb’s worth of uranium enriched to 20 percent, it would take only 30 to 40 days for it to produce weapons-grade fuel.
With Iran expanding its number of first- and second-generation centrifuges, even if its medium-enriched uranium were capped or shipped out of the country as part of some international agreement, the Iranians could surge to weapons-grade almost as fast with their four to five bombs’ worth of low-enriched uranium.
Iran continues to stall negotiations under the cover of not ostensibly crossing a “red line.” The United States and its allies must change gears. It may be best to do so before Iran’s June 14 elections — not because a deal is likely to be reached before the vote but because the Iranians will need time to contemplate the meaning of an approach geared more toward a nuclear endgame.