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Obama’s Iran ‘Framework’*

*Details to be disclosed, and even negotiated, later.

Wall Street Journal

obama_speechThe fundamental question posed by President Obama’s Iran diplomacy has always been whether it can prevent a nuclear-armed Middle East—in Iran as well as Turkey and the Sunni Arab states. Mr. Obama unveiled a “framework” accord on Thursday that he said did precisely that, but the claims warrant great skepticism, not least because they come with so many asterisks.

The framework is only an “understanding” among Iran and the six powers because many of the specifics are still being negotiated. But Mr. Obama wanted to announce some agreement near his self-imposed March 31 deadline, lest Congress ratchet up sanctions on Iran, and now Secretary of State John Kerry will go back to negotiate the crucial fine print.

The general outline of the accord includes some useful limits on Iran, if it chooses to abide by them. Tehran will be allowed to operate a little more than 5,000 of its first-generation centrifuges at its Natanz facility, and only there. It will not enrich uranium above civilian-grade levels for at least 15 years, though it will retain some of its unnecessary current stockpile.

Even better, the reactor at Arak will be retooled to render it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The underground nuclear facility at Fordo will remain open but be converted into a “nuclear, physics, technology, research center,” with no fissile material present and centrifuges under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

All this would be somewhat reassuring if the U.S. were negotiating a nuclear deal with Holland or Costa Rica—that is, a law-abiding state with no history of cheating on nuclear agreements. But that’s not Iran.

Consider the Additional Protocol, a 1997 addendum to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that was meant to expand the IAEA’s ability to detect and monitor clandestine nuclear activities. Iran signed the Additional Protocol in December 2003, about the time Saddam Hussein was pulled from his spider hole. The signature meant nothing: By September 2005 the IAEA reported that Iran wasn’t meeting its commitments, and Iran abandoned the pretense of compliance by February 2006.

Now Iran has promised to sign the Protocol again. But as former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen observed in a recent paper for the Iran Task Force, “contrary to what is commonly observed, the AP does not provide the IAEA with unfettered access.” Mr. Heinonen adds that the agency “needs ‘go anywhere, anytime’ access to sites, material, equipment, persons, and documents.”

The framework lacks this crucial “anywhere, anytime” provision, even as Mr. Obama calls its inspections the most intrusive ever. Instead it says the “IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Does that mean inspectors have to schedule an appointment? With how much notice? The obvious way to evade inspections is to start a new and secret facility that isn’t part of the accord. This is exactly what Iran did with the operations at Fordo.

Another giant asterisk concerns the lifting of sanctions, which is the main reason Iran agreed to negotiate. The framework suggests, without being explicit, that the toughest sanctions will be lifted immediately when a final deal is struck. Mr. Obama made much of a “snap-back” provision that would reimpose sanctions if Iran is caught cheating. But that too is vague. Would Russia and China be able to veto that at the United Nations?

And what if Iran is suspected of cheating? The framework says that “a dispute resolution process will be specified,” which would allow any of the deal’s signatories “to seek to resolve disagreements.” That sounds suspiciously like a U.N. committee, perhaps of Iran’s peers or protectors. And this is before sanctions could be “snapped back.”

We stress monitoring and enforcement because these are precisely the loopholes that allowed North Korea to field nuclear weapons after reaching its diplomatic deals with the U.N. and U.S. from the 1980s onward. Iran is probably North Korea’s best friend in the world and Tehran has borrowed heavily from Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It has clearly studied its diplomatic cheat sheet as well.

The framework has other asterisks, all of which will provide ample room for Congress to examine. And on that score it was dispiriting to hear Mr. Obama resort to his usual false dilemma gambit that Americans have only two choices—his agreement or war. He claimed to “welcome a robust debate” while all but declaring a difference of opinion to be illegitimate.

He also made clear that he plans to box in Congress by warning “critics” that this a “deal between Iran, the United States of America, and the major powers of the world—including some of our closest allies.” He added that “if Congress kills this deal,” then the U.S. “will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy.” He will go first to the U.N. for approval, and then he will dare Congress to disagree. So much for welcoming debate.

Yet the President did give a hint of his own anxieties when he said he’d invite the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates—to discuss the deal at Camp David. After Israel, these countries are most threatened by Iran’s nuclear ascendancy, which they would match with nuclear programs of their own.

Perhaps Mr. Obama will offer to extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella to cover them. But we doubt most Americans will be enthusiastic about putting themselves on the nuclear hook against Iran for the security of, say, Qatar.

The truth, contrary to the President, is that the critics of his Iran framework do not want war. But they also don’t want a phony peace to lead to a nuclear Middle East that leads to a far more horrific war a decade from now. That’s why this agreement needs a thorough vetting and genuine debate.