In her book "They came to Baghdad," Agatha Christie tells of senior officials who convene in Baghdad for an important international summit (only to find their deaths). Christie teases her readers but finishes with a sort of happy end. In a rare coincidence, the representatives of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) who came to Baghdad last week for nuclear talks with Iran also faced a string of unpleasant surprises (though their lives were not at risk). The Iranians teased their negotiation partners, but unlike the book, this was no surprise.
While the talks were underway, inspectors discovered traces of uranium enriched to 27 percent at Iran's Fordo nuclear facility (while the West was talking to Iran about halting enrichment to 20% and removing all material enriched to 20% from Iran). It also emerged that Iran had doubled its amount of enriched uranium over the course of the last three months alone (from 73.7 kg to 145 kg [162 - 319 lbs]).
The Institute for Science and International Security, which describes itself as an independent institution dedicated to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, has concluded that Iran now has enough enriched uranium for the future production of five nuclear bombs.
At this point it is unclear whether the Iranian nuclear story will have a happy ending — will the sanctions and diplomacy, the West's preferred route, prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon? In Baghdad, as in the previous round of talks in Istanbul, the Iranians adhered to a transparent tactic: driving a wedge between the other party's delegates and cementing the concept of reciprocity. In other words, for every concession they would make, the West would roll back some of the sanctions.
The representatives of the West did not back down. It now appears that Tehran is worried above all else about a possible Israeli, or perhaps American, military attack, as the November U.S. presidential elections loom. Therefore, decision makers in Iran are engaged in a heated debate over what the best course of action would be to avert a military attack: more evasive and deceptive tactics or turning up the threats, including threats of terror attacks against Israel and the U.S.'s Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich emirates.
For its part, the Obama administration has decided not to confront the dilemmas surrounding a military strike, whether it is led by Israel or the U.S. As the president's National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said, the administration believes it shares Israel's objective of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But the question remains, according to Donilon, whether a military strike would be the most effective way to achieve this objective.
Washington appears to be sincere when it declares it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. To underscore the fact that the U.S. stance did not differ from Jerusalem's, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dispatched her deputy, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (who also served as the head of the U.S. delegation to the Baghdad talks), to Israel over the weekend.
But the U.S.'s strategy has elicited increasing criticism. Jamie Fly, a former top official in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and Matthew Kroenig, who until recently served as a special adviser to the Obama administration — both experts on foreign policy and national security — recently penned a Washington Post op-ed in which they argued, "There is little reason to believe that Iran is serious about doing anything other than using the coming weeks [during the talks] to enrich more uranium and make progress toward a nuclear weapon." They believe the U.S. must clearly lay out its demands and specify what failure to comply would entail.
That same week, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Mark Dubowitz, an executive director of the foundation and head of its Iran Energy Project, argued that while the sanctions may have brought Iran to the negotiating table, it would be a mistake to conclude that the West should reward Tehran.
"Given how advanced Iran’s nuclear program is, the West’s approach seems wildly underwhelming," they write. "As the tactician Anthony Cordesman recently noted, 'The threat Iran’s nuclear efforts pose [is] not simply a matter of its present ability to enrich uranium to 20 percent ... [The regime] can pursue nuclear weapons development through a range of compartmented and easily concealable programs without a formal weapons program, and even if it suspends enrichment activity."
The next chapter will begin three weeks from now in Moscow. The happy ending still seems far off, especially considering Iran's increasing confidence that the gun the West is reluctantly pointing at it has no bullets.