Opinion: US Has Taken Its Eyes Off The Ball On Iran

Opinion: US Has Taken Its Eyes Off The Ball On Iran

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(CNN)All but lost in the noise of Russia’s “drumbeat of war” on Ukraine is an even more pressing warning siren — getting Iran back into the agreement that would keep it from building a nuclear weapon. And that is looking increasingly chancy.

“We are reaching a point where Iran’s nuclear escalation will have eliminated the substance of the JCPOA,” the Arms Control Association said earlier this month of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement signed by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the United States, as well as Iran, in 2015.

Three years later, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the pact and reimposed sanctions on Iran. While the JCPOA is still recognized by the remaining signatories, Iran has since embarked on an accelerated program of enriching uranium that could allow it to create a weapon more quickly.

Every delay in the negotiations that have just resumed after a brief break in the eighth round in Vienna allows Iran time to make further progress toward the ability — if not the will — to make at least a testable nuclear weapon. And indeed there is a theoretical off-ramp barely two weeks away when the sixth month of negotiations is reached and the talks could come to a real, and toxic, end.

Even now, there is considerable belief that Iran may be desperately close to the ability to create a nuclear device.

“Iran today is probably within a month or two of having enough material that could, with further enrichment, be sufficient to actually build a bomb,” Gary Sick, head of Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 project and the Iran expert on the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter, told me via email interview.

“The skill and experience that they have developed in this round, however, will not be forgotten. So even if Iran returns to the original status of 2015, it will be better poised to get there quicker the next time, if there is a next time,” Sick added.

However Sick and others believe that Iran has not yet made the final determination to go that last step toward a testable nuclear device. The Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make such a decision, has said an atomic bomb is “haram” or forbidden in Islam. Moreover, Sick points out that Iran is at least a year or two away from producing a device that could be mounted on a missile and fired at a neighboring country or beyond.

Meanwhile the White House is playing the blame game — ever more vocally laying Iran’s accelerating progress toward a bomb on Trump’s withdrawal from the process. But in fact, the US is at risk of taking its eye off the ball, focusing intently on talks with Russia over Ukraine, without seeing how they might in some fashion be tied together.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow no longer shares a land border with Iran, but the last thing Russia wants is another nuclear power that close by. Bring China into the equation and this quickly becomes three-dimensional chess. While concerned about a broader conflict in the Middle East that could disrupt some of its energy supplies, China shares few of Russia’s fears of a nuclear-armed Iran.

At the same time, as one of the very few customers for Iranian oil under sanctions, China has few incentives to see sanctions lifted. The White House insists, however, that the administration has been able to engage with Russia and China within the JCPOA format and that it is still only Iran that is dragging its heels.

Still, both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his top negotiator Wendy Sherman, the original architect of the JCPOA under President Barack Obama, have been focusing intentl

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Opinion: US has taken its eyes off the ball on Iran

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