What if the Iran deal had taken place in 2002, right after the country’s clandestine but nascent nuclear program had begun?
In announcing an historic agreement, President Obama asked skeptics to consider the alternative.
Without a nuclear deal, “Iran could produce, operate and test more and more centrifuges,” he said. “Iran could fuel a reactor capable of producing plutonium for a bomb. And we would not have any of the inspections that allow us to detect a covert nuclear weapons program.”
It was not a hypothetical.
Thirteen years ago, Tehran had fewer than 20 centrifuges that could barely spin. There were no stockpiles of enriched uranium, no U.N. inspectors poking around.
This was before Mahmoud Ahmedinajad came to power and while 100,000 U.S. troops assembled nearby to invade Iran’s neighbor to the east. The same Iranian Supreme Leader in power today was in power then. The current Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was serving at the United Nations and meeting, from time to time, with U.S. officials to discuss al-Qaeda and Afghanistan.
But the Bush administration would not discuss the nuclear program. One centrifuge was one too many and the administration’s position, as it prepared for a war in the name of disarmament, was nothing less than regime change and capitulation from “axis of evil” members.
It didn’t work.
By the time Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States in January 2009, thousands of centrifuges were spinning at high speeds at multiple facilities and Iran was sitting on more than 2,200 pounds of uranium it had enriched on its own. Precision engineering was bringing them ever closer to being able to produce bomb grade uranium. Nuclear scientists across the globe were warning that Iran was placing itself well within reach of weapons capability.
Obama hadn’t yet named an ambassador to the U.N. nuclear agency in Vienna when inspectors there reported that Iran was refusing to answer questions about weapon designs.
The agency was barred from inspecting facilities where centrifuge parts were being built and had no access to Iran’s heavy water reactor capable of producing plutonium.
It was the agency’s 23rd report since Iranian exiles first exposed the nuclear program.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spent four years together on the Senate foreign relations committee working to reduce nuclear stockpiles around the world and they committed to finding a way to halt Iran’s progress.
Covert operations allegedly slowed the progress with intelligence experts in Washington and Tel Aviv claiming some measure of success. But rumors, later confirmed true, were already circulating of a second, underground enrichment facility that Iran was hiding.
A deal with Iran was possible, if only the administration could find someone to talk to in Iran. That finally happened in 2013, 11 years into the “hypothetical” Obama has used to sell his new strategy. Iran returned reformist leaders to power and Zarif became foreign minister.
With Kerry, Biden and national Security Adviser Susan Rice leading negotiations, the Obama administration was able to convince Europe, Russia and China to support crippling international sanctions.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, echoing the Bush administration leaders of the past, said the sanctions should stay in place until they force Iran to change its behavior in the region. That is a serious misunderstanding of the purpose of the sanctions.
As a senior Obama administration official told me more than a year ago, “The sanctions need to force Iran to the table and keep them there till we have a deal.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Obama was specific about the deal's intent. "It is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior. It solves one particular problem, which is to make sure they don’t have a bomb."
When Iran finally came to the table 20 months ago, it had ceased all nuclear work as a condition for the talks. Under the terms of the deal reached this weekend in Vienna, that freeze will remain in place for a decade or more. Those who say this deal “only” works for a decade or so miss the central point. When it comes to high stakes intractable problems, a decade of breathing room can only be a win. And anything could happen in that time: the Iranian regime could change or reassess its interests. The next U.S. president and European allies could always reprise their use of carrots-and-sticks to renew the deal.
In the 13 years that critics, and Israeli leaders, complained and threatened, Iran gained significant expertise in precision engineering, centrifuge construction, enrichment and research and development. Iran took great pride in building a nuclear fuel cycle, in scaring the world with its scientific prowess.
Just imagine what another 13 years could have given them.