We tried to avoid drawing comparisons between Obama’s deal with Iran and the infamous Munich Agreement championed by Britain’s feckless Neville Chamberlain in September 1938. In fact, we embarked on this essay with the intention of drawing distinctions between the two. Sadly, we found that the similarities outweigh the differences. To be sure, the issues are different. The dynamics, however, are much the same.
Munich did not deter Hitler (well, actually, it did for a year) and Geneva may not deter Iran (well, maybe for six months). We do not know for sure that Tehran is determined to build a nuclear weapon. We believe it is a certainty, however, that Tehran is determined to be able to build nuclear weapons on very short notice, and the agreement signed in Geneva does nothing to dampen that determination or that capability. In fact, in some respects it encourages it. The immediate pressure is off, sanctions are relaxed and getting the international community to re-impose them could be very difficult.
Now, Iran is not a nation whose military is on the march. Hitler had already annexed Austria in May of 1938 when he turned his attention to Czechoslovakia the following September using the large German population in a narrow strip known as the Sudetenland as an excuse for annexation.
We will not dwell on the post-Munich, non-stop fall of dynamos in 1938 that morphed into World War Two. Certain similarities between Geneva and Munich are, however, hard to overlook. Britain and France were war weary just as America is war weary. Germany understood that about the world’s presumed great powers in 1938, just as the Mullahs in Iran understand this about America in 2013.
Chamberlain knew Hitler couldn’t be trusted but he and French premier, Édouard Daladier, found the prospect of waving a piece of paper that promised “peace in our time” to be very seductive. Winston Churchill, who understood Hitler better, we suspect, than President Obama understands the Mullahs, declared of Chamberlain, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
Now, let us hasten to acknowledge that Iran is not on a conventional war footing as was Germany 75-years ago. Iran is, however, a major player in the deadly asymmetrical war being waged against the United States and its allies. This asymmetrical war began with the storming of the US embassy in 1979 followed by the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut four years later, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and similar aggressions in between and since. And while the intrigue goes both ways, giving both sides grievance chits against the other, one cannot view Iran’s plans for nuclear proliferation as though there is no long-standing context of conflict. There is. And oil-rich Iran is not pursuing nuclear enrichment to better perform tritium stress tests in Iranian clinics or to produce green energy for Iranian homes. They have spent many years and many hundreds of billions of dollars buying and installing centrifuges, building subterranean processing plants and erecting a Plutonium producing reactor to ultimately be able to threaten its enemies (who happen to be our allies) and to checkmate the United States in the Middle East. That’s the reality we were, or should have been, dealing with when we went to Geneva.
Given that this crisis is all about Iran’s large-scale development of nuclear enrichment capability, let’s take a moment to understand just what that means. Uranium naturally exists in nature. It is a basic element. Essentially, there are two, nearly identical, forms of natural uranium. These different forms are called isotopes. There are two variations (isotopes) in the uranium found in nature, U 235 and U 238. Don’t let the numbers confuse you. They simply refer to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the uranium atom. The 235 isotope consists of a nucleus with 92 protons and 143 neutrons. Add these protons and neutrons together and you get 235 — thus U 235, which simply refers to the atomic mass of the isotope. U 238 simply has three more neutrons in its nucleus than U235, thus it is called U238. Now, here is the important part; all Uranium found in nature consists of 99.3% U238, which by itself is not fissile, or suitable for producing a chain reaction. It is this chain reaction that releases energy, which creates heat that can be used in power plants for heating cities, or in bombs for blowing up cities.
Enrichment is the process that separates the .7% U235 from the 99.3% of U238 thus yielding a suitable quantity of pure fissile U235 with which to produce heat for power plants, or for medical use to save people or for nuclear weapons with which to kill people. That, in a nutshell, is what enrichment is all about.
Now, if you enrich to 5% U235 you have material suitable for power generation. At 20% U235 you can make isotopes with which to treat cancer (destroy tumors) and at 90% U235 you can begin blowing up cities. Here’s the catch. Once you have the capability of enriching to 5% there is little to stop you from enriching to 90% — you are 70% of the way there, and you are 90% of the way there if you can enrich to 20%.
So Iran, having produced substantial quantities, of uranium enriched to 5% and 20%, has the knowhow and the equipment, for producing 90% enriched uranium with which to make nuclear weapons. We can’t deprive them of the knowhow, but the equipment and the already enriched material should have been the primary focus of the negotiations.
Assuming that the capability to weaponize their already enriched uranium is the primary purpose of its secretive, deeply buried and highly fortified nuclear program, which the UN and, everyone including the United States, Saudi Arabia, all of the Gulf States, Israel and the rest of the world acknowledges, just what have we accomplished with the Geneva accords? Not much — especially when weighed against what the entire international community has repeatedly stated it would not tolerate – Iran as a nuclear-weapon capable country.
Iran is the only nation in the world openly calling for genocide (the annihilation of Israel), and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has called Israel’s leaders “beasts who cannot be called human.” Israel’s people have heard this sort of maniacle invective before and have learned from bitter experience to take it seriously, notwithstanding President Obama’s assurance that he has their back. Even Russia and China had joined the western nations in calling for a complete halt to enrichment activity. But that proverbial horse has now left the proverbial barn. Iran has accomplished what the world said it would not tolerate. It can produce nuclear weapons. Iran says it won’t (even though it can) if we just relax the sanctions. Sort of like Germany saying it wouldn’t grab the rest of Czechoslovakia if Britain and France would just stop threatening to intervene.
So, to be clear, Iran has promised not to use its nuclear enrichment technology to make nuclear weapons. However, none of the enrichment technology is to be dismantled. Furthermore they get to keep all of their already enriched material. True, they have agreed to neutralize their Uranium enriched to 20% by converting it to Uranium oxide, but that is an entirely reversible process unless the Uranium oxide is otherwise irradiated and utilized elsewhere, which Iran, curiously, is not required to do. Furthermore, while construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor capable of producing Plutonium, is suspended, the plant is not to be dismantled. Rigorous “intrusive” inspections are called for, but North Korea demonstrated that a determined nation can get away with cheating.
Removal of enriched material and the dismantling of sufficient enrichment technology to make production of enough U235 to produce weapons should have been a rock bottom negotiating position if our objective was to end (not merely delay) Iran’s march to the Nuclear Club. We achieved far less than even the UN Security Council had demanded. The Geneva accord is, thus far, an acknowledgement that we failed in our determination to keep Iran from becoming a Nuclear-weapon capable country. We have, essentially, relaxed sanctions in return for a pause and a promise by Iran.
Arguably, on the positive side, the United States and Iran have re-established formal contact after 35 years. On the negative side, Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons, at a time of their choosing, has not been seriously diminished, and Khamenei announced as we were preparing to release this essay that dismantling its nuclear plants will not be part of any future comprehensive agreement.
We suppose getting Iran to promise not to weaponize uranium is sort of a new Obama “redline.” But why go there.