On Iran’s nukes, verify but don’t trust

Oren Kessler Research Fellow, Henry Jackson Society
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“Zionist officials cannot be called humans, they are like animals … Israel is the sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei uttered those words — so redolent of Nazi rhetoric casting Jews as “sub-humans” and “rats” ­– on November 20. The same day, his foreign minister was in Geneva trying to charm Western negotiators into a nuclear deal to help ease international sanctions. With a head of state blatantly threatening a fellow UN member country, those negotiators should simply have walked out. Sadly, when it comes to Iran, the West has long accepted its leaders’ annihilationist promises without so much as batting an eye.

Responding to Khamenei’s violent rant, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ventured meekly, “The last thing we need is names back and forth.” Kerry’s false equivalency symbolizes all that is wrong with Western dealings with Iran’s leaders. When has an official in the U.S. or Israel – let alone either’s head of state — negated the humanity of an entire country and equated its people with a frothing beast?

Just three days after Khamenei’s tirade (accompanied by the usual chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”), his exultant foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced a nuclear deal had been struck. The contrast between Khamenei’s bellicose bombast and the soothing reassurances of his minister is just the latest example of Iran’s decades-long doublespeak over its nuclear and regional ambitions.

In past years, Iran trotted out a string of supposedly reformist presidents, each of whom was undercut by Khamenei’s unrelentingly belligerent and anti-Western line. Today the role of “good cop” is filled by Zarif and new president Hassan Rouhani. Laying aside the fact that neither wields real power, it is worthwhile looking at the record of each to determine whether they truly and verifiably intend to come clean about Iran’s nuclear drive.

Let’s start with Zarif, who barely a week after the Geneva deal’s signing, had already revealed that he intends to wriggle through one of its many loopholes. Last month’s agreement called on Iran to freeze “further advances of its activities” at Arak, the facility where his government is believed to be trying to produce plutonium (both plutonium and uranium can form the core of a nuclear bomb). And yet on November 27, Zarif seized on the vagueness of that wording, telling his parliament that unspecified “construction” would continue at the site. Yet again, it seems the Iranians are double-dealing on the nuclear dossier.

As for Rouhani, he was head of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team between 2003 and 2005, during which he offered up this nugget: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the nuclear conversion facility in Isfahan… The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb… but Pakistan built its bomb.” In 2004, his team and their European interlocutors signed the Paris Agreement, suspending Iran’s enrichment and vowing full transparency of its nuclear program.

The next year, however, Tehran reneged on its obligations, restarted uranium enrichment and ultimately barred IAEA inspectors from Parchin, a key military base where it is believed to be conducting nuclear-weapons research (and from which inspectors have been barred ever since). The Europeans soon realized they had been fooled, and yet they continue today in a desperate search for good faith as if Iran’s years of deception had never occurred.

During the Cold War, “Trust but verify” was stated U.S. policy in nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union. Now, when dealing with a negotiating partner as demonstrably untrustworthy as Iran, trust must be taken out of the equation. Having signed a deeply flawed nuclear deal with Iran, the West now has little choice but to verify, verify, and verify again.

Oren Kessler is a Research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.