Editorial: In nuclear talks, a most dangerous day

The Detroit News
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With the deadline for reaching a nuclear arms agreement with Iran coming at midnight today, negotiators eager for a deal might be tempted to look past or minimize some of the red flags that have been waving wildly the past few weeks.

It would be dangerous to do so.

As important as it is to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it remains true that a bad deal is worse than no deal. Reports from the bargaining suggest that the pact is getting worse by the day.

Over the weekend, Iran backed balked at a critical requirement that it ship its atomic fuel out of the country, most likely to Russia. Allowing Iran to keep its stockpile of uranium would make checking its breakout ability — the amount of time it would take to actually build a bomb — far more difficult.

The Obama administration is signaling that Iran’s sudden rejection of off-shoring its fuel does not have to be a deal-breaker, since the uranium could be diluted and made less of a risk. But assuring the fuel is properly diluted would require close monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

If Iran follows the course North Korea took and bans or limits inspections after the deal is struck, the pact will be all but worthless.

There are other concerns, most notably a new paper from the former head of the IAEA, Olli Heinonen, that questions whether the deal as currently shaped will meet the one-year breakout time the administration has set as a minimum. Heinonen sets the time it would take Iran to produce a weapon at closer to seven or eight months.

Iran continues to resist answering questions about the military aspects of its nuclear development. Such answers are critical to establishing the final monitoring framework.

Also, there are no indications that Iran will be required to abandon its secretive, underground enrichment facility at Fordow. Instead, the centrifuges there will continue to spin to produce what the Iranians say is fuel for energy and medical purposes. If that turns out not to be true, the heavily fortified bunker facility will be very challenging to neutralize.

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is how Saudi Arabia and others in the region will react to the deal if it appears Iran is not sufficiently contained.

The Saudis, a key U.S. ally, are now engaged in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are concerned as well about the ongoing support of Iran of the Syrian regime, which is slaughtering thousands of its own citizens.

A deal that does not deter Iran from a nuclear weapon will surely set the Saudis in pursuit of nuclear capability of their own.

The worst outcome of these talks would be to trigger what they sought to prevent — a nuclear arms race in the most unstable region of the world.

This is a very dangerous day. These last hours of negotiations must be rooted in the reality that Iran cannot be fully trusted. Any agreement, or framework for one, must be structured to give Iran as little wiggle room as possible for violating it.

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