The agreement would make it easier to bomb Iran, administration officials have told lawmakers.
Want to bomb Iran? Then support the nuclear deal.
That’s the provocative argument coming from Obama administration officials and other backers of the deal as they promote it before a crucial vote in Congress next month.
In meetings on Capitol Hill and with influential policy analysts, administration officials argue that inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities under the deal will reveal important details that can be used for better targeting should the U.S. decide to attack Iran.
“It’s certainly an argument I’ve heard made,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “We’ll be better off with the agreement were we to need to use force.”
Schiff has already announced his support for the Iran deal. But the argument could be useful as the administration tries to persuade centrist Democrats with a hawkish view of Iran to support the agreement, which provides relief from sanctions for Iran in return for curbs and inspections of its nuclear program. Congress is expected to vote on the deal next month.
Obama officials rarely discuss the concept in public, partly out of concern over long-standing tensions between Iran’s clerical regime and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will monitor Iran’s nuclear complex under the deal. Iranian officials have often accused IAEA inspectors of being Western agents.
“I can certainly understand why the Iranians wouldn’t like that argument,” Schiff said. “But then the Iranians have made a lot of arguments that we don’t like.”
On Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the IAEA has privately agreed to allow Iran to conduct its own environmental sampling, under agency supervision, at a sensitive military base where Tehran is thought to have conducted past nuclear weapons research. The details of the agreement are unclear, but such an arrangement would reflect Iran’s deep suspicion of the IAEA and its concerns that the United Nations agency’s inspections might benefit American war planners.
While U.S. officials are guarded in their discussion of military options, “it’s been on their minds for some time,” said one person who has spoken often with the administration’s Iran policymakers.
Analysts said the military benefits of having a clearer view of Iran’s program is an undeniable feature of the agreement.
“If you want to bomb the program, you should be superexcited about this deal,” said Austin Long, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who studies U.S. military options against Iran. “The more you know about Iran’s nuclear program and the industrial infrastructure behind that program, the better you will be able to target it.”
Although the U.S. is already well aware of Iran’s major nuclear sites, such as its uranium enrichment plants at Fordow and Natanz, Pentagon planners lack detailed knowledge about the country’s “supply chain” — facilities that build essential components like centrifuges as well as its uranium mines and mills.
“These are exactly the kind of things you would want to destroy, so you don’t just cripple their ability to enrich uranium” but also Iran’s ability to reconstitute their enrichment program, Long said.
The White House has aired the argument once — drawing a furious Iranian response. In a July 17 briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest said “the military option would be enhanced” by the deal, adding that U.S. and Israeli targeting decisions “would be significantly informed … based on the knowledge that has been gained in the intervening years through this inspections regime.”
Iran quickly filed a formal complaint about Earnest’s remarks with the IAEA expressing “grave concern.” It accused the U.S. of breaching the deal with a threat, and warned against “any attempt aimed at obtaining its confidential information.”
The July 14 nuclear deal sets up intrusive inspections and monitoring regime that will be managed by the IAEA, which will assign up to 150 inspectors to the country full time. They will have round-the-clock access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, and a mandate to investigate suspected secret nuclear sites. Iran must also describe the entirety of its nuclear program to the IAEA in much greater detail than it has to date. Under IAEA procedures, and the text of the nuclear deal, the U.S. will have access to that information.
Tehran’s suspicions about Western spying and espionage were a major hurdle in the nuclear talks. Iranian officials have charged that the IAEA collaborates with Western intelligence agencies, saying that they pass information to the U.S. and Israel that has facilitated sabotage of Iran’s program and even led to the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.
After a mysterious 2012 power outage at Fordow and Natanz, for instance, Iran’s nuclear chief warned “terrorists and saboteurs might have intruded the agency.” And when an atomic scientist was murdered earlier that year, one Iranian official complained that people “who came to Iran under the pretext of inspecting the country’s nuclear facilities have identified Iranian scientists and given their names to the terrorist groups.”
On Monday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister said that Iran’s intelligence service would have to approve any IAEA inspectors seeking access the country. The nuclear deal already states that Iran “will generally allow the designation of inspectors from nations that have diplomatic relations with Iran,” apparently excluding Americans from the IAEA team.
The IAEA’s Iran Task Force had an initial full-time staff of 50 inspectors when it was created in 2012. The nuclear agreement envisions a team roughly triple that size, between 130 and 150. The task force includes technical experts, intelligence analysts and nuclear weapons specialists based in Vienna, where the atomic watchdog agency is headquartered.
New insight into Iran’s program isn’t the only benefit seen by U.S. military and intelligence officials, who worked closely with Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating team to help shape a deal to their liking.
For instance, the deal requires Iran to stop enriching uranium at Fordow, a facility buried more than 200 feet under mountain rock that presents a challenging target. Iran’s other enrichment facility at Natanz is also underground — but not as deep and thus far more vulnerable to American bunker-buster munitions.
Intrusive IAEA inspections also allow intelligence officials to worry less about keeping watch over Iran’s known nuclear sites, allowing them to focus on the hunt for any nuclear activity Iran might be conducting in secret.
Multiple intelligence arms of the U.S. government are focused on Iran, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA’s Iran operations division.
Schiff said he is urging his undecided colleagues to read a classified assessment prepared for Congress by U.S. intelligence agencies, which he said gives him confidence in the ability of U.S. spy agencies to catch Iran in the act of cheating.
He said that Washington would be stepping up cooperation with allies to monitor Iran beyond the declared scope of the nuclear deal’s IAEA inspections.
That point was echoed by Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, in a recent interview with POLITICO.
“I know something about the American [intelligence] capabilities, and I can tell you that some specific areas, we can improve them with some specific capabilities that we have,” Ayalon said. “I believe that we can reach the point at which, if we share our intelligence… we shall know almost everything what is happening at every site every moment in Iran.”
This article was written by Michael Crowley for Politico on Aug. 24, 2015. Michael Crowley is POLITICO’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, covering foreign policy and national security with a Washington focus.