As Iran Inches Closer to Nuclear Weapon, What US Can Do

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Iran is forging ahead with its nuclear program, and that’s creating more uncertainty in the Middle East. So what’s the best way to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Today Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation has some ideas. Read the transcript, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

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Daniel Davis: Iran continues to ramp up its uranium enrichment despite warnings from the U.S. and Europe.

Joining us now to unpack where Iran’s nuke program is going is Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies here at The Heritage Foundation.

Luke, thanks for being back on.

Luke Coffey: Yeah, it’s great to be back. Thank you.

Davis: Luke, Iran has been quite open in recent weeks about ramping up its uranium enrichment kind of on the path toward a nuclear weapon. They’ve done that past the point that was agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal.

Should we be worried about a possible uranium nuke in the coming years or even months?

Coffey: Certainly in the coming years, without a doubt. I wouldn’t say in the coming months.

Under the JCPOA, which is the fancy acronym for the Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action … they’re allowed to enrich uranium at, I think it’s just under 4%. It’s 3.67% and now they’re saying they’re going to enrich to 5%.

To have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, it needs to be at 90%. We’re pretty far off from that, but as they increase the level of enrichment, it becomes faster as it gets higher. So that’s one reason to be concerned.

But … why I think they’re doing this is for two reasons. I think firstly, they want to use this as a way to put more pressure on the Europeans, to then put pressure on the Trump administration.

Secondly, they’re doing this at what is still relatively a low level of enrichment, so they probably have something that they can give up when or if they do have negotiations again with President Trump.

Davis: Is that basically their calculus here that they’re just doing this to try to strike a new deal to get rid of sanctions?

Coffey: Well, President Trump is very clear he wants a new nuclear deal because the deal that was agreed under the Obama administration has some fatal flaws in it, namely the sunset clauses, which actually allow certain restrictions on uranium enrichment, for example, to end only after 10 or 15 years. The 24/7 international inspection regime that’s in place ends after just 25 years. Now, 25 years to us might seem like a long time but the Persian mindset has thousands of years of rich history and culture. Twenty-five years is a blink of the eye for them.

These are some of the main flaws with the Iran deal. And President Trump has made this very clear from the beginning even as a candidate and he wants to do what he can to get the Iranians back to the negotiating table to get a deal that he feels will better serve not only the U.S. but the region and the international community.

Kate Trinko: Israel is particularly concerned about this. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Iran. He is saying that Israeli F-35s can reach anywhere in the Middle East.

So, how does Israel play into this and are they potentially going to take action unilaterally?

Coffey: This is a very serious matter for not only Netanyahu but for Israel. They take this matter very seriously and they’ve shown a willingness in the past to do things that many people never thought they could do or would do.

That being said, we should not think that ending Iran’s nuclear program is a simple matter of a night of airstrikes.

It would probably require a sustained air campaign lasting weeks to fully destroy it and even that probably wouldn’t be able to get the job done.

It would certainly set it back without a doubt. But I think what Netanyahu is trying to do is support President Trump in pursuing this maximum pressure campaign against Iran, increasing economic sanctions, isolating Iran in the region even more while still keeping the threat of military force present.

Without a doubt, the Israeli military is very capable, the most capable in the region by far, but I don’t think we’re quite to that point where the Israelis would take preemptive military action, especially when it looks like there’s going to be another election very soon in Israel because Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition.

Davis: President Trump has also issued veiled threats saying Iran better be careful with their enrichment of uranium, but some people might wonder what reason does Iran have to not do that?

The U.S. is no longer party to the deal, so why should they feel bound to it? Was withdrawing from that deal, from the U.S. perspective, still a wise move?

Coffey: Yeah, absolutely. It was a terrible deal and there’s no reason why the U.S. should remain wedded to a deal that did not serve U.S. interests or the interests of our allies in the region.

Elections have consequences and we saw it with the election of President Trump that things can and have changed.

If you live by the executive order, you die by the executive order, and if President Obama was serious about this Iran deal, he should have submitted it to the U.S. Senate as a treaty and then it would’ve had more force, but he didn’t and now we are where we are.

I think on balance, President Trump was right to leave the deal.

Without a doubt, there are good arguments on both sides of this debate. But when you look at the bigger picture, when you look at the flaws of the Iran deal, when you look at the economic situation in Iran and the opportunity the U.S. has to put maximum pressure on the economy to try to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table, I think it was certainly the right thing.

Trinko: In a speech Tuesday at the Christians United for Israel Summit, Sen. Ted Cruz said, “I think we need to revoke every single one of the civilian nuclear waivers.”

Could you please explain what those are and whether you agree that they should be revoked or not?

Coffey: Iran is a party to the Non-proliferation Treaty, and under the Non-proliferation Treaty, countries have a right to civilian nuclear power. They don’t have a right to a nuclear weapon, but they have a right to civilian use of nuclear power.

Because of Iran being part of NPT, the Non-proliferation Treaty, they’re getting certain waivers on their civilian nuclear program.

It’s a very complex issue. It involves Russia and some other countries. But nevertheless, I get these waivers and I know that it wasn’t just at that speech where Sen. Cruz has said this.

He also co-authored a letter, I think, with Sens. [Tom] Cotton and [Marco] Rubio to President Trump outlining a number of measures that they think the U.S. administration should take and this was one of them.

I think this is being discussed in the administration, but I think they also realize that this is a process and not an event.

If they overnight throw the kitchen sink at Iran and do everything, then they’re left ultimately with one final option and that’s the military option.

So, I think the Trump administration is being very deliberate and responsible how they’re approaching this situation and they’re doing it in an orderly fashion through phases, gradually increasing the pressure on Iran.

Trinko: But it does sound like, from what you’re saying and from that letter you mentioned last week, that there are ways beyond sanctions that they could make life for Iran hard.

Coffey: Yes, and we just saw that actually last week when an oil tanker was en route to Syria from Iran.

It couldn’t go through the Suez Canal, so it went all the way around Africa, 18th-century style before the canal was there, all the way around Cape of Good Hope, back up the western coast of Africa, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and as it just barely creeped into Gibraltar’s territorial waters—which are British territorial waters—British Royal Marines commandeered the ship because it was en route to Syria.

… Without a doubt, there was coordination with the U.S. on that. That’s another way that the U.S. can act against Iran’s influence in the region.

Davis: European nations are still party to the 2015 nuclear accord. Recently, foreign ministers of the U.K., France, and Germany, as well as a high-ranking E.U. foreign affairs official, issued a joint statement.

They said, “These compliance issues must be addressed within the framework of the JCPOA and a joint commission should be convened urgently.”

Do you see much hope for Europe by itself, without U.S. participation, being able to really do much to restrain Iran’s uranium enrichment?

Coffey: With Europe, they view the relations with Iran through an economic lens and an energy lens, especially Germany and France where trade with Iran, since the JCPOA was agreed, has dramatically increased.

However, that being said, in the past year, it has slightly decreased because the fear of the reach of U.S. sanctions.

People still want to do business in the U.S. Companies want to do business in the U.S. and they’re not going to choose Iran over doing business in the U.S., right?

But with Europe, I think we need to wait and see what happens in the coming months because as you might have known, in May they had European Union elections across Europe and those European elections voted in a new European Union Parliament.

And then that new European Union Parliament will be involved in appointing a new European Union Commission, and then that new European Union Commission will have someone appointed called the high representative, which is essentially the EU’s foreign minister.

So, the current high representative, she is intimately linked, almost emotionally attached to the current deal. She’ll keep it on life support at all costs.

When the new EU Commission is appointed and when the new high representative gets his or her job, then you might have a different mentality. It could offer the EU an opportunity to maybe align slightly more with the U.S.

I don’t think they’re going to ever align fully with the U.S. on this.

One wildcard to keep an eye on is the U.K. When the U.K. actually formally leaves the European Union, they’ll be freer to take more of an independent stance.

I suspect that if it’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and that’s how it’s looking, when they leave the EU, we’ll see Britain align more with the U.S. position on Iran because right now, the debate inside the U.K. about Iran is linked to their negotiations with the EU on leaving because of Brexit.

Trinko: You were recently at the, I don’t know, scene of the crime is probably not the right word but—

Coffey:  Not yet.

Trinko: … the Strait of Hormuz and tell us about why that matters to the region and the politics there, but also what you saw there firsthand.

Coffey: Yeah, it was a fascinating visit. It was actually a long-planned visit that the timing just coincided to work really well considering the news cycle.

I visited Oman, which is an important U.S. ally that doesn’t get much attention or focus in the U.S., but funnily enough, it was the first Arab country to recognize America’s independence, first Arab country we had a trade deal with in 1833.

It was the first Gulf state to allow a U.S. military base there in 1980, so it’s a country that we have very close relations with, but very quiet relations.

Oman sits on the Strait of Hormuz across from Iran, so I visited the very tip of the peninsula next to the strait and went out in a dowel, a local ship, a boat—Not even ship, a boat—out in to the strait. …

When you see it firsthand, … it’s a lot clearer on why it’s very important. You can look at it on a map and see but seeing it firsthand, seeing the oil tankers go through, you get a newfound understanding of the importance of this region.

Oman, of course, is very concerned by this because they’re one of the two countries that are on either side of the strait. Of course, the other being Iran. They’re concerned by any threat of war or hostility.

Davis: Is this game with Iran really ever going to be over in terms of nuclear program? Are these negotiations ever going to be over without ultimately seeing a regime change, a new regime that doesn’t want to act maliciously on the world stage?

Coffey: The official U.S. position is not one of regime change. It’s one of change in behavior of the regime, which could happen but it’ll take a very long time and the important thing is it would have to come from within.

Davis: Right.

Coffey: In America, we view our engagement with Iran with a starting point of 1979 when the Islamic Revolution happened. They took our diplomats hostage in the U.S. Embassy.

This is kind of where history starts for most policymakers today and it’s unfortunate because the U.S. and Iran has had a very rich and long relationship and history, going back many decades.

Before 1979, Iran was one of America’s top allies in the Middle East. Culturally, we have far more in common as a country with Persians, with Iranians than we do with other countries in the region. But it was when the Islamic Revolution hijacked the society and made it what it is today, the U.S. and Iran just cannot work together.

Nothing since 1979 has shown that Iran can be a credible or trustworthy partner for the U.S. So, it is in the long-term interest that there is change in Iran.

I think someday, Iran could give up its ambitions to get a nuclear weapon or at least they can be enticed to do so but I think that it’s a long road between now and then.

The Iranian regime will allow a lot of suffering to take place between now and then and it will be a bumpy road.

Trinko: Well, on that cheerful note, thanks for joining us, Luke.

Coffey: Thank you very much.