Vive la Freeze!

Why the French are better at diplomacy than we are.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman is back in Geneva, making another go at an interim agreement between Iran and the so-called E3/EU+3. (That's "E3" as in three European countries: Britain, France, and Germany; "EU" as in European Union High Representative Lady Ashton; and "3" as in the other three: China, Russia, and the United States.)

The purpose of an interim deal is to persuade Iran to suspend part of its nuclear program for six months in exchange for limited relief from international sanctions, while the parties hammer out a more comprehensive deal.

Everything looked set a few weeks ago in Geneva, until French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius raised some last-minute issues that sent the Iranians back to Tehran for further consultations. The French had a number of concerns -- some substantive, others procedural -- although early press reporting focused on the nuclear reactor that Iran is completing near Arak. The French were not entirely pleased with the terms of the draft agreement on the suspension at Arak, insisting on tougher language.

Within our own highly polarized political system, this news exploded. Proponents of the negotiations acted betrayed, as if the French had suddenly scuttled the deal. Plenty of pundits retreated to tired geopolitical conspiracies, like the notion that the French were scheming to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia. Opponents of negotiations, who had spent a decade demonizing the French over Iraq and munching on Freedom Fries, were dumbstruck. Vive la France!

But, really, it's not very surprising at all. Since President Jacques Chirac left office in 2007, the French have become increasingly hawkish on security issues, as evidenced by their enthusiasm for military action in Libya, Mali, and Syria. Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus, huh? You'll pry nuclear weapons from Marianne's cold, dead hands.

More importantly, though, the French were right on the merits. A freeze on Iran's nuclear program needs to include a freeze on construction work at Arak. France's insistence on a real suspension won't scuttle the deal. The parties are almost certain to work out some compromise on Arak this week, as part of a broader freeze on Iran's nuclear program. The deal will be better for France's intransigence.

Bien sur, Foreign Minister Fabius was wrong to grandstand in public over the terms of the negotiation in Geneva, but politicians do embarrassing things. He was miffed at getting the text just two days before the meeting, suspected the Iranians had already seen it, and saw Secretary of State John Kerry's presence as an intrusion. Fabius was acting out, but more to the point, he was driving a hard bargain.

That shouldn't be too hard to understand, yet somehow it is. In the polarized American political system, pundits must either be for every deal or be for none. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even condemned an agreement that had yet to be negotiated!) Americans like to imagine the French are irredeemable cynics, but maybe that just means they're better at diplomacy than the rest of us. Not everything can be reduced to a matter of principle.

The issue with the reactor at Arak is easy to understand, too. Although most Western observers have focused on Iran's program to enrich uranium, which offers one path to a bomb, the Arak reactor, called the IR-40, would open a second route to nuclear weapons, using plutonium.

All nuclear reactors produce plutonium. A reactor like the IR-40, which uses heavy water as a moderator, is especially useful for producing plutonium that would be well-suited to a weapons program. Many of the states that have built reactors of this type and size have done so precisely for the purpose of making nuclear weapons, including Israel, India, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The Iranian response to concerns about Arak has been to say that Iran does not have, and will not build, a facility to separate the plutonium from the used nuclear fuel. This is reassuring, but only somewhat. The United States long ago concluded that a state could quickly establish a covert facility to separate plutonium. Any long-term deal with Iran will have to address the plutonium that Iran plans to pile up at Arak.

Until recently, that plutonium was considered a long-term problem. The nuclear reactor at Arak has always been a more distant threat than Iran's growing number of centrifuges to enrich uranium. But in recent months, Iran has moved closer to bringing Arak into operation. According to a recent schedule provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran planned to conduct pre-commissioning tests with dummy fuel and plain old "light" water during the last quarter of 2013, and bring the reactor into operation in the first quarter of 2014 -- although it reportedly offered to refrain from starting the reactor for the duration of the six-month interim deal.

As best I can tell, under the original draft agreement, the Iranians committed not to bring the reactor online during the interim agreement. They could, however, continue to install equipment at Arak and manufacture fuel for the reactor, bringing it to the brink of operation during negotiations. The Iranians have now indicated that they are behind schedule, and will not have a load of fuel for the reactor before August 2014. In other words, the draft agreement would have allowed Iran to do everything it planned at Arak over the next six months, then start accumulating leverage in the form of plutonium if the terms of the deal were not acceptable. The weeks before Iran loads fuel at Arak will be a moment of maximum danger -- the United States and Israel will think long and hard about their last opportunity to destroy the reactor before it is filled with radioactive fuel.

Some observers think the dummy fuel tests are a ruse, a chance to sneak in real fuel under our noses -- although I doubt it. A simpler reason to oppose continued work at Arak is that we should only provide sanctions relief in exchange for a real suspension. The West shouldn't pay for delays that will happen in any event.

This is not some abstract problem. French researcher Bruno Tertrais has carefully explained France's "tough attitude" toward Iran in terms of its experience dealing with Tehran since 2003. The French have been here before -- and with Hassan Rouhani. In 2004, Rouhani negotiated something called the "Paris Agreement" with the E3, under which the Iranians agreed to suspend their conversion and enrichment of uranium for a few months, while talks continued. The suspension was later extended.

Although the suspension included "all tests or production at any uranium conversion installation," Iran continued installing equipment at its Esfahan conversion facility. In fact, work never stopped. The commitment to refrain from tests or production was largely symbolic, since Iran was not yet ready to do either -- it was still installing equipment.

In 2005, when Iran was ready to start up the Uranium Conversion Facility at Esfahan, the talks stumbled. Iran indicated that it would continue to forego enrichment, but that it would begin the conversion process, producing uranium hexafluoride that could later be enriched. The Iranian talking point was that conversion was never really part of enrichment, anyway. The Europeans realized that the Iranians had gotten the better of them. Frustrated with Rouhani, the Europeans stalled to see whether the Iranian presidential election improved the negotiating environment. Surprise! The Iranians elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Upon taking office, Ahmadinejad replaced Rouhani and moved quickly to restart the nuclear program. Of course, he was able to do this because Rouhani had arranged the suspension to inflict the minimum delay. The Europeans were not very happy.

Adding insult to injury, Rouhani, now out of office and under attack in Iran, gave speeches and interviews defending his handling of negotiations with the West. (He has also written a memoir.) Rouhani defended himself against hardline critics by arguing that the suspension had been a suspension only in appearance. "We only agreed to suspend activities," Rouhani told one group, "in those areas where we did not have technical problems." He added that the suspension actually benefited Iran's nuclear program "by creating a calm environment" that allowed Iran "to complete the work in Esfahan." Rouhani admitted that the Europeans were sore about the whole thing: "The day when the Esfahan project was completed and put into operation," he told the conservative newspaper Keyhan, "the Europeans just began to complain. In a session, they told our experts that we deceived them and did our work in Esfahan."

You can read Rouhani's full quotations in the box below. It is hard to read Rouhani's defenses of his actions, then blame French diplomats for taking a rather, shall we say, Cartesian view of what is, and is not, a suspension. Many of them, like Martin Briens, deputy chief of staff for Fabius, have been working on the Iran file for years. Chat échaudé craint l'eau froide. A suspension in Iran's nuclear programs needs to include activities at the Arak reactor. Allowing Iran to install equipment and accumulate fuel for the reactor is simply not a suspension. So the French pressed to toughen the terms, including a freeze on the production of new fuel for Arak.

Now, let's be clear: A negotiated agreement with Iran -- even an imperfect one -- deserves our support. The people categorically opposed to an agreement are playing a dangerous game. There are few appealing military options, which means the failure of diplomacy is more likely to result in an Iranian bomb than the bombing of Iran. And, in any event, attacking Iran will virtually guarantee that Tehran goes nuclear. This is probably our last, best chance at a deal.

I am not saying that Hassan Rouhani is a liar and cheat. I am saying, however, that Rouhani is politician. A distinction without a difference perhaps, but you don't get elected president of Iran by being an apologist for Washington. And, if such a person did get elected, he probably couldn't survive the rough and tumble politics in Tehran very long -- certainly not long enough to make a deal stick. Rouhani doesn't have to be an angel for diplomacy to work. Quite the opposite. The French understand that, which is why they insisted on stronger language regarding Arak.

Americans have a moral streak that doesn't serve us well in negotiations. Fortunately, the French have no such impairment. Let's not forget that this is a negotiation: Rouhani is going to try to get the best deal he can. We need to do the same. It's too bad Dennis Rodman is so busy with North Korea. Even he understands: "Don't hate the player, hate the game."

Interview with Hassan Rouhani, by Mehdi Mohammadi, Keyhan, July 26, 2005:

Rouhani: However, from a technical standpoint, the day we started this process, there was no such thing as the Esfahan project. But as of today, we have prepared and tested the Esfahan facility on an industrial level and produced a few tons of UF6. Today, we have a considerable number of completed and ready-to-use centrifuges. On the surface, it may seem that it has been a year and nine months since we accepted the suspension. But the fact of the matter is that we have fixed many of the flaws in our work during this period. We continued our production and assemblage activities until the time of the Paris agreement. It is true that at a certain juncture between February and June 2004, there was a pause in this process according to the Brussels agreement. But after June, we made up for that pause with extra effort. We didn't suspend the Esfahan project for even a moment until the project was completed and tested and its product was achieved. The Arak project was never suspended either.

Mohammadi: Dr. Rouhani, could we say this as a general rule -- that as long as a technology or a facility of ours was incomplete, we wouldn't accept to suspend it, and wherever a project was suspended, we already knew for sure that we were able to complete it.

Rouhani: Practically, this was the way it turned out. But the matter that we constantly had in mind was that when it came to suspension, we should suffice to the minimum extent, in order to suspend as little of our activities as possible. More importantly, when a certain activity was suspended, during that period we would concentrate all of our effort and energy on other activities. So the right thing to say is that wherever we accepted suspension, beside that we thought about another area of activity. The day when Natanz was suspended, we put all of our effort into Esfahan. Now that Esfahan is in suspension, we are fixing other existing flaws. Of course, we didn't adopt a high profile on this matter, though we always seriously though about an atmosphere of work along with the suspensions. The day when the Esfahan project was completed and put into operation, the Europeans just began to complain. In a session, they told our experts that we deceived them and did our work in Esfahan. But today, as you see, the political consensus that had formed against Iran at the outset has completely broken. Even the Americans, who always believed under no circumstances should they deal with Iran through negotiation and interaction, have now reached a point where they say not only that they support Europe's diplomatic talks with Iran, but also they are ready to take certain measures to contribute to the process. So that consensus against us doesn't exist any longer.


Hassan Rouhani, "Beyond the Challenges Facing Iran and the IAEA Concerning the Nuclear Dossier," Rahbord, September 2005:

Another development was that the Europeans gradually reached the conclusion that we had not accepted suspension in areas where we had technical problems. We only agreed to suspend activities in those areas where we did not have technical problems. This is what they are saying now in their negotiations. We completed the Esfahan project, which is the UCF where yellowcake is converted into UF4 and UF6 during suspension. While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Esfahan, but we still had a long way to go to complete the project. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Esfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake into UF4 and UF6, and this is a very important matter.


National Security

Poison Control

Why can't we get rid of nukes the same way we got rid of chemical weapons?

Last Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." I suppose the OPCW's role in averting 72 hours of airstrikes against Syria didn't hurt its chances.

The OPCW has been doing worthy work for more than a decade. The Nobel press release makes the point that the committee, having awarded "numerous prizes" to strengthen efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, now was "seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons."

So the Norwegian Nobel Committee wanted to share the love. I am glad. There are plenty of people toiling away under gray skies in Den Haag who deserve a moment of sunshine.

There is, however, an implicit criticism in the award. After all, what does the committee have to show for those "numerous prizes" intended to eliminate nuclear weapons? Despite eight different Nobels to nine individuals and three organizations, nuclear weapons remain at the core of our security policies. Chemical weapons, on the other hand, are very close to being a thing of the past.

Those of us interested in reducing the danger from nuclear weapons might well ask how the world made so much progress when it comes to chemical weapons. We might learn something.

The widespread abhorrence of chemical weapons, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee notes, dates to the horrors of the First World War. It seems fashionable to dismiss our aversion to poison gas on the basis that all kinds of awful things happen in war. It helps to read first-person accounts of gas attacks or even the fictionalized account in All Quiet on the Western Front. (Erich Maria Remarque had served in the German army during the war but was not, so far as I know, gassed.)

Six years after the end of the war, the ill-fated League of Nations held a conference that resulted in the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, better known as the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use, but not the possession, of chemical weapons. Most of the major powers, particularly the combatants in the First World War, acceded to the Geneva Protocol in relatively short order -- France in 1926, the Soviet Union in 1928, Germany in 1929, the United Kingdom in 1930. Many signed with reservations, such as warning that the protocol would cease to be binding with regards to enemies that did not observe it. This was deterrence before Hiroshima.

The United States did not sign until 1975. (The State Department has a whiny little fact narrative that points out the United States accepted a similar prohibition on chemical weapons in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, then blames the French for rejecting that treaty over its submarine limits. Charles Evans Hughes surely spat out his freedom toast.)

Despite the hold-outs and reservations, norms and some measure of deterrence (largely) kept chemical weapons from being used on the battlefield during the Second World War -- although let's not pat ourselves on the back when it comes to the subject of poison gas and fascism. Over time, though, we've come to regard chemical weapons as basically awful. The post-war leaders that have used chemical weapons reads like a who's who of nutjobs -- Muammar al-Qaddafi against Chad, Saddam Hussein against Iran, and now Bashar al-Assad against his own people. There are other disputed cases, but they don't change the fundamental fact that chemical weapons use is popular largely with the world's worst countries.

Eventually, the international community negotiated the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC expanded the 1925 Geneva Protocol's prohibition on the use of chemical weapons into a verifiable ban on the development, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and it created the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help implement the convention.

Syria's accession to the CWC leaves only a handful of countries outside the treaty -- charming little garden spots like Angola, Egypt, South Sudan, and North Korea. (Israel and Myanmar have signed, but not ratified.) Although the United States and Russia are, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee notes, lagging on CW destruction, the delays relate to funding and local opposition by environmental groups. Neither country retains an operational chemical weapons stockpile. It's taken nearly 90 years since the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but the end of chemical weapons is more or less in sight. The norm against chemical weapons is so strong President Obama ad libbed a military threat against Syria before realizing he didn't really mean it. There is a deep, visceral disgust toward chemical weapons.

Which brings us to nuclear weapons.

We hear a lot about the elimination of nuclear weapons. President Obama is for eliminating nuclear weapons, although he doesn't think it will happen in his lifetime. Global Zero and other disarmament groups want a treaty that sets a time-frame for elimination.

Well, I don't know how long Barack Obama is going to live. (What's the life expectancy for a 52-year-old smoker, anyway?) But this process is going to take longer than 20 years -- particularly if we keep going about it the same way.

It is worth noting that it took 70 years to go from a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons to a verifiable regime that bans their development, production, and stockpiling as well. It took so long because many people continued to believe that chemical weapons had military or political uses, that our chemical weapons were necessary to deter their chemical weapons, and that you couldn't "un-invent" a technology that was commonplace. Of course, these weren't the real barriers. We didn't ultimately get the Chemical Weapons Convention because of a breakthrough in verification technology or because we'd solved all the problems that led people to arm themselves in the first place. We got the Chemical Weapons Convention because we, collectively, decided to eliminate chemical weapons. It took 70 years to convince ourselves, collectively, that we didn't want to live with poison gas anymore.

By contrast, we haven't even started that process with regard to nuclear weapons. Disarmament proposals are clever, but they leave intact the possibility that we might use nuclear weapons for one goal or another. In 1961, Mort Halperin wrote a proposal to ban the use of nuclear weapons. This proposal had all the hallmarks of a good idea ahead of its time, including falling on deaf ears. We needed nuclear weapons -- to keep the Red Army in its barracks, to keep Soviet missiles out of Cuba, to keep Taiwan and South Korea free ... well, non-communist at any rate. Those rationales ended with the Cold War, but we kept saying nuclear weapons are useful, to the point that you'll get a nice little homily from any U.S. or U.K. official involved in the nuclear business about how we "use" nuclear weapons every day. (I actually jab a pen in my hand to avoid rolling my eyes when I hear that hoary old chestnut.)

Even our disarmament talk pays homage to the continuing utility of nuclear weapons. We spend a lot of time talking about how the vision of elimination is necessary to create the political will to take more modest steps, or how we can work to create the political conditions that will allow elimination. But we won't say what we said about chemical weapons in 1925: that their use "has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world" and that "this prohibition shall be universally accepted ... binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations."

And that's why we haven't banned them. Instead, we are willing to say that we would use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances or circumstances that are extremely remote. But if, for example, you state that we should never again use nuclear weapons "under any circumstances," you can hear the lawyers sucking in air through their teeth. Even the International Court of Justice, in its 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of the use of nuclear weapons, punted, noting that while the use of nuclear weapons was generally illegal, there might be exceptions.

If we really believe that nuclear deterrence cannot go on forever, that relying on nuclear weapons for our security is at some level ultimately unsustainable, the place to start is by observing that nuclear weapons belong in the same category as chemical weapons. I suspect that our reluctance to do so explains in large part why nuclear weapons are still with us, nearly 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There is now a growing interest among some observers to start building the consensus against the use of nuclear weapons. The Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative -- a group of 12 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates -- is pressing the United States and other nuclear-weapons states to face up to the human cost of a nuclear war. In March, Norway hosted a conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The United States and the other nuclear-weapons states skipped it. (Maybe Oslo's famous $20 beers were too rich for TDY. Norway totally should have held it in a casino. What? Too soon?)

The conference was, I am told, a smashing success. (Mexico will host a follow-on conference next February in Nayarit.) Afterward, 80 countries, including some important U.S. allies, sponsored a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. More than 80 countries! It's harder than it should be, getting 80 countries to say that using a nuclear weapon would be unwelcome from a humanitarian standpoint. The trouble was this line: "It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances." It's a reasonable sentiment, not so far off from Reagan's common-sense observation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

But that phrase -- "any circumstances." That phrase caused a lot of heartburn, especially among Japanese lawyers who worried that the language might be inconsistent with U.S. nuclear policy and, therefore, U.S. security guarantees to Japan. Japan was not one of the 80 signatories. The Japanese public, on the other hand, is well aware of the human toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They don't seem to have a lot of time for the hypothetical concerns of lawyers. They know that nuclear bombs are a bad thing for the people getting bombed and don't mind saying so. Under political pressure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has now decided to sign the statement. Abe has also invited world leaders to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to "to witness first-hand the impact that could be inflicted by the use of such weapons."

I visited Hiroshima this summer as part of a group convened by the prefectural government. It was a very moving experience, particularly the museum. The hardest part, for me, were the children's school uniforms, with the dark numbers burned out. For a colleague of mine, it was the child's tricycle, its surface bubbled from the intense heat. These objects matter. It's hard for a person to contemplate the enormity of the loss all at once. It's only when you confront a singular instance of tragedy -- the story of the child who wore the uniform or rode the tricycle -- and start to multiply that suffering by a few, then by a score, and then by the thousands, it's only then you start to have trouble breathing. Well, that's how I experienced it, at any rate. It is easy for us to talk about deterrence in a cold, analytical manner that obscures the horror of what it would mean to make good on a threat to use a nuclear weapon. A visit to Hiroshima makes that ugly reality a little harder to push aside.

President Obama really ought to take Abe up on his offer. The president has said he seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons, but I wonder if he's really thought about why we should recoil at the threat of nuclear war. When Obama talks about the destruction of nuclear weapons, he remains as cool and detached as ever. The closest Obama has come to describing the horrors of nuclear war is telling his audience in Prague that the beautiful city would have ceased to exist in a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange. Yet even this observation was prefaced with an odd, false note -- that the destruction would have happened "in a single flash of light."

That's not how it works. The ruin and dying continue after the flash of light, for days. Hence the most depressing comment about the reality of nuclear war -- the survivors would envy the dead. If you visit Hiroshima, you'll find monuments to Marcel Junod, the Red Cross official who visited the city days after bombing, bringing much needed medical supplies.

If Obama were to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would realize how lucky Hiroshima would have been to have all the death and suffering over in a "flash of light." I have no doubt that the president would find the courage do the right thing. What's holding him back? It isn't as though our allies would be upset. I sometimes hear that "more than 30 countries around the world rely on the U.S. nuclear weapons umbrella." Setting aside my many objections to that claim for the moment, a goodly number of those countries attended the conference in Oslo and signed the statement on humanitarian consequences. These are our allies.

The United States should sign the statement and send a delegation to the conference in Nayarit. This isn't so hard.

Oh, who am I kidding? The United States is going to refuse to sign the statement and skip the next conference, too, just as it refused to sign the Geneva Protocol in 1925. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but good Lord, is it a long arc. It is too bad. President Obama speaks movingly about his commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. If only he knew how! Well, if he's really interested, he has a model in the decades-long fight against chemical weapons. It starts with a recognition that we can't use these weapons, then takes decades of hard work to persuade others to join us. It's a long slog, with plenty of low points and setbacks. But, Mr. President, it's not impossible. Just ask your fellow Nobel laureates at the OPCW.

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