The big news on the Sunday talk shows involved Harry Reid ‘going nuclear,’ or ‘choosing the nuclear option,’ which is Washington hyperbole for a relatively minor revision of Senate rules. Now it’s going to be a little harder for the minority party to filibuster presidential appointees. Or, as one of my friends put it, ‘the Constitution was hanging by a thread, and was saved by the Priesthood.’ (Harry Reid’s a Mormon High Priest). I do think filibusters have a certain limited comedic appeal–I think they’re a silly annoyance for people trying to govern. So good for Senator Reid.
A much more important story, of course, involved real actual nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Kerry announced what’s basically a first-step agreement with Iran, in which the US would temporarily moderate economic sanctions in exchange for Iran putting a hold on its nuclear program and agreeing to nuclear inspections. Foreign Ministers from China, Russia, the European Union, France and Iran joined Secretary Kerry in intensive negotiations, which led to the agreement over the past weekend. This story in the Christian Science Monitor did, I thought, an excellent job describing the deal that was reached.
Not everyone’s happy with it. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu called it ‘an historic mistake,’ and promised to work with allies in the US Congress to scuttle it. Predictably, some of those Congressional friends-of-Israel already started speaking up against it. On the Sunday talk shows, Bill Kristol and Christianne Amanpour got into it a bit–Kristol, of course, has consistently argued for a US invasion of Iran, or at least, for the US to support an Israeli air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The Saudis are also against it–they have their own Sunni concerns about the possible implications of a Shiite nuclear power in the region.
The US imposed economic sanctions against Iran during the Bush years, joined by many of the countries who had representatives at the table last weekend. At the time sanctions were imposed, Iran has 160 nuclear centrifuges. Today, they have around 11,000. So it’s hard to say ‘we can’t stop sanctions; look how well they’ve worked.’ Import/Export bans have hurt the Iranian economy, and hurt everyday Iranians, but with an authoritarian regime in charge, it’s unclear how much that matters.
But there are several inconvenient facts regarding Iran’s nuclear program that nobody on the Sunday talk shows mentioned at all.
First of all, as my wife is fond of saying, how the heck is it any of our business? Iran is a sovereign state. If they want nuclear power, or if they want nuclear medical technology, don’t they have a right to pursue it? 99% of natural uranium ore is in isotope U-238. Only U-235 is fissile, useful in reactors, useful medically . . . and useful in bombs. Centrifuges can enrich uranium–turn U-238 to U-235–to around 3.5%. That’s the level needed for nuclear reactors, and that’s the level most Iranian uranium is enriched to. It can further be enriched to 20%–medically useful levels. It needs to be enriched to over 90% to be used in a bomb. And Iran hasn’t enriched past 20% at all. The fear is that they could. But the Kerry deal calls for frequent and open inspections. And the Iranians have agreed to inspections.
Second, countries that are way less stable than Iran have nuclear weapons, and really should be seen as a much bigger threat. Pakistan, for example, has seriously unstable leadership, a major problem with Islamist terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and a long-time beef with another nuclear power. Pakistan and India have a long history of violence and war. And right now, even as we speak, both countries have nuclear weapons. I’m opposed to nuclear proliferation too–why not start with Pakistan? And to achieve disarmament, India would need to disarm too, which again, doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. How ’bout we make those two countries a higher priority.
Third, in opinion poll after opinion poll, the Iranian people favor their country having a nuclear program, including nuclear weapons. The main value of nukes is psychological–getting nukes is like a country getting to put on its big boy pants. Iranians are every bit as patriotic about their country as Americans are about ours. And if Iran wants to embrace nuclear power internally, well, that would seem to be their choice. And that’s the level all their centrifuges are enriching to: nearly all of them are at 3.5%.
Fourth, if we really want to get rid of nuclear weapons internationally, why don’t we Americans set the example? Why do we need a nuclear arsenal? Especially since the US nuclear arsenal may well be degrading past the point of working.
I understand that the Israelis see a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to Israel’s very existence. I get that. And we Americans tend to side with Israel, even when it doesn’t make sense. This is, however, one of those times when it doesn’t make sense.
Let the process work. This is a good preliminary deal, and it sets up better deals in the future. Well done, Secretary Kerry.