Bloomberg View columnist Josh Rogin’s astonishing article revealing what George W. Bush had to say about his successor’s foreign policy raises so many questions, it’s hard to know which one to ask first. What’s the best way to respond to the man who invaded Iraq and forgot to think “what next?” when he tells President Barack Obama that, before using force, “you call in your military and say, ‘What’s your plan?’”
In any case, that’s a debate for the past. What Bush said Saturday at the Republican Jewish Coalition session in Las Vegas that’s relevant for the future concerns Iran. Like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, two former U.S. officials with rather better foreign policy records than his, Bush thinks the deal Obama is looking to strike is a disaster in the making: “You think the Middle East is chaotic now? Imagine what it looks like for our grandchildren. That’s how Americans should view the deal.”
Here again, when you consider Bush’s words, try to forget his invasion of Iraq, if you can. He’s on solid ground when he says the deal with Iran might end badly. After all, it can’t guarantee Iran never gets a bomb; it won’t eliminate Iran’s nuclear fuel production capacity; it won’t end the country’s long-range missile program; it won’t remove the incentive for Saudi Arabia and other Iranian rivals to acquire nuclear weapons; and it won’t change the nature of the regime in Tehran or its foreign policy goals.
That said, it’s impossible to make a good argument that this deal should be scrapped unless you can suggest and defend a better one. What if this one is the best of all bad possibilities? Bush didn’t offer any alternative, but we have a clue to what his might be in his record in dealing with the exact same threat Obama now faces.
It was in late 2002, almost two years into Bush’s presidency, that an Iranian opposition group exposed Iran’s covert nuclear fuel program to the public. In the first half of 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the information, and later that year, after the U.S. had invaded Iraq, France, Germany and Britain began negotiations with Iran to end the nuclear program.
When IAEA inspectors visited Iran in February 2003, the country’s nuclear fuel program consisted of a centrifuge production plant; a largely empty commercial-grade underground enrichment plant at Natanz, with about 100 casings for centrifuges awaiting completion; and a heavy water reactor at Arak under construction. Iran said the program was civilian; however, it could one day be used to produce weapons-grade fissile material.
In other words, at the start of Bush’s presidency, Iran had no operational centrifuge cascades and no stocks of enriched fuel, so it had no means of making a nuclear weapon.
In their talks, the Europeans sought to offer Iran trade and investment incentives to end to the fuel program. The Bush administration supported this approach, setting zero enrichment as a red line. The Iranians refused to consider abandoning their fuel cycle ambitions, but they agreed to suspend “enrichment activities” while talks progressed.
This was a temporary deal designed to give space for a final agreement to be worked out – and if that sounds familiar, it should. It was in many ways similar to the agreement reached in 2013 to enable the current talks. The 2003 language, however, was vague, and the Iranians gamed it.
Iran decided that the suspension applied only to actual uranium enrichment, and not to other activities. So by June 2004, there were 1,140 fully installed centrifuges at Natanz. In October of that year, Iran announced it had substantial feedstocks ready to enrich in the centrifuges.
The Europeans hurried to produce a proposed final deal, which again required that Iran make “a binding commitment not to pursue fuel cycle activities.” Iran refused, offering instead to limit enrichment capacity to a pilot program of a few thousand centrifuges and to send everything produced abroad for conversion into fuel rods. This was a better deal than the one that’s likely to be reached in June. Under pressure from the Bush administration, however, the Europeans refused to cross their zero-enrichment red line.
So the talks collapsed. The Iranian parliament voted to end its voluntary application of the IAEA’s enhanced inspection regime and, by 2006, Iran was enriching uranium. By the time Bush left office in January 2009, Iran had just under 4,000 working centrifuges and an additional 1,600 installed. These had, to that point, produced 171 kilos of low-enriched uranium. Oh, and Iran had covertly built a new enrichment facility under a mountain at Qom.
Obama at first continued with Bush’s policy of keeping to a zero-enrichment red line while piling on sanctions, to similar effect. Iran pressed ahead, producing 20 percent enriched fuel for use in medical equipment – an alarming development, because the time needed to enrich 20 percent fuel to weapons grade is short.
It was this shift, in fact, that persuaded the European Union to participate in the sanctions against Iran. By the time Iran was ready to return to the negotiating table – this time with the tacit agreement that any deal would leave them with a limited enrichment capacity – it had 19,000 centrifuges, about half of them operating, and had produced more than 7,000 kilos of low-enriched, plus 196 kilos of 20 percent enriched, uranium. That’s plenty for several nuclear weapons.
Since Iran entered into a second temporary agreement in November 2013, it has stopped producing 20 percent uranium; the number of installed centrifuges has been frozen; and the rate at which Iran has been increasing its production of low-grade uranium has slowed accordingly.
So what if now the two sides reconvene to produce a final agreement and can’t agree, as happened in Paris in 2005, because the U.S. takes Bush’s advice and again insists on zero enrichment? Would sanctions make the Iranians buckle? We already know the answer is no. Iran would go back to the trajectory it was on until 2013, ramping up its nuclear fuel program and speeding toward a breakout.
At which point either Obama or, more likely, the next U.S. president would need to go to his military planners and ask: What next? The answer to that question wouldn’t be pretty.
None of this is to say that Obama should sign a deal by June no matter what. Any agreement that doesn’t provide enough clarity on verification and other restrictions can’t work – the Iranians have already shown they’re willing to evade terms. That doesn’t mean, however, that it would be productive to return to Bush’s failed zero-enrichment policy.
But perhaps Bush now has a better alternative. I, for one, am all ears.
Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.