Great news: White House considers letting Iran run hundreds of centrifuges in, uh, fortified underground bunker

Somewhere the Taliban is watching these negotiations with Iran and thinking, “We should have asked for Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in return for Bergdahl.” At this point, I’m wondering whether they would have got him.

I asked on Twitter how it is that Iran can get Obama to give away the farm while the GOP brain trust has gotten basically nothing from him in six years. To which my pal Karl replied, “In fairness, O has always been tougher on those he perceives as his enemies.”

The trade-off would allow Iran to run several hundred of the devices at its Fordo facility, although the Iranians would not be allowed to do work that could lead to an atomic bomb and the site would be subject to international inspections, according to Western officials familiar with details of negotiations now underway. In return, Iran would be required to scale back the number of centrifuges it runs at its Natanz facility and accept other restrictions on nuclear-related work.

Instead of uranium, which can be enriched to be the fissile core of a nuclear weapon, any centrifuges permitted at Fordo would be fed elements such as zinc, xenon or germanium for separating out isotopes used in medicine, industry or science, the officials said. The number of centrifuges would not be enough to produce the amount of uranium needed to produce a weapon within a year — the minimum time-frame that Washington and its negotiating partners demand…

Experts say the compromise for Fordo could still be problematic. They note it would allow Iran to keep intact technology that could be quickly repurposed for uranium enrichment at a sensitive facility that the U.S. and its allies originally wanted stripped of all such machines — centrifuges that can spin uranium gas into uses ranging from reactor fuel to weapons-grade material…

And while too few to be used for proliferation by themselves, even a few hundred extra centrifuges at Fordo would be a concern when looked at in the context of total numbers.

If you’ve followed the Iranian nuke kabuki over the past 10 years, you know about Fordo. They built the site inside a mountain near Qom, a Shiite holy city, so that conventional American and Israeli bombs can’t reach it (in theory). It was a secret until 2009 and has been a focus of negotiations because of its fortifications, on the assumption that if Iran does try to “break out” and build a bomb, its most unbombable site will be the engine of its uranium enrichment. (Iran’s main enrichment facility at Natanz isn’t as well defended.) That may explain why Obama is willing to let centrifuges continue to operate at Fordo: Horrifying though it may be, this might be the best card he has to play. He’s almost certainly not going to bomb them if negotiations break off and Iran ramps up enrichment, but even if he does, he’s definitely not going to nuke them, and nukes may be the only way to take Fordo offline inside the mountain. He probably also suspects that Khamenei won’t let himself lose face by taking Fordo offline voluntarily. They built the site to defy the Great Satan; they’re not going to bow to the Great Satan now by shutting it down themselves.

So the face-saving compromise, supposedly, is to let Iran go on running 500 or so centrifuges there, less than 10 percent of the 6,500 total centrifuges they’ll be operating under the current terms of the deal, but only if they’re spinning something besides uranium and only if UN inspectors can verify that at any time they like. Will Iran agree to that? Er, no, probably not — they called “snap inspections” by UN investigators “illegal” just a few days ago. That’s the real sticking point between the two countries. Which means, unbelievably, that the possibility of keeping Fordo online under the conditions described above might not be the White House’s red line on this. It could instead be a starting point of negotiations on the site, with the White House even prepared to allow uranium enrichment inside the facility if Iran submits to all-important snap inspections. (Iran wants a deal that’s light on specific obligations, precisely so that it’s easier to cheat while remaining formally in compliance with the terms. The White House could accommodate them here by simply not specifying in writing what materials can and can’t be enriched at Fordo while insisting they have an “understanding” with Iran that uranium won’t be processed there.) This may be merely an initial ask, in other words, with an even bigger concession to come. This is the same guy who rolls John Boehner and Mitch McConnell routinely.

The deeper significance of this news is that it shows how far the White House has drifted from the original goal of sanctions and negotiations, namely, getting Iran to dismantle their nuclear infrastructure permanently. Not only won’t this be permanent — they get to gradually increase enrichment again beginning 10 to 15 years from now — and not only do they not have to dismantle thousands of their centrifuges, they don’t even have to dismantle the equipment they’ve installed at their most dubious enrichment facility. It’ll be there waiting for them whenever they decide to start processing uranium again. And all of this assumes that Fordo is the only heavily fortified enrichment site that Iran has. How many more are out there waiting to be discovered?

[T]he reality is that any cheating by Iran would always be incremental and never egregious. Throughout the duration of an agreement, there would be occasional reports of Iran enriching to unacceptably high levels and revelations of unreported nuclear installations and experimentation in weapon designs. Iran’s habit of lulling the world with a cascade of small infractions is an ingenious way to advance its program without provoking a crisis. In the end, a year simply may not be enough time to build an international consensus on measures to redress Iranian violations.

Show of hands: If another site in another mountain is exposed after the deal takes effect, who thinks Obama will tear up the agreement rather than go back to the bargaining table and patiently try to negotiate so that the terms apply to the newly discovered site too? Realistically, there’s no show of bad faith by Iran that’s going to end negotiations once and for all. At this point a bad deal is better than no deal for the White House, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Here’s Scott Walker assuring Hugh Hewitt yesterday that he’ll rescind any agreement with Iran the day he’s inaugurated as president. That’s a lie, but it’s a lie that every Republican candidate will tell conservative voters during the primaries, possibly up to and including Rand Paul. Exit question: Who recently said this about Iran negotiations? “I get more information about what’s happening from foreign ministers than I do from anyone.” Answer: Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If you’ve got a theory for why the top foreign-policy guy in the Senate is forced to rely on foreign diplomats for Iran updates rather than briefings from the White House, I’d love to hear it.

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