Michael KreponThe President, Congress & Iran

The Obama presidency has greatly disappointed supporters who view the President as being too aloof and for losing his progressive focus. The best rebuttal to these complaints is to read — or better yet watch — the President’s speech in Selma honoring those who were beaten by Alabama state troopers while demonstrating for their right to vote fifty years ago. In this place, on this anniversary, Obama’s words echoed powerfully, part Church sermon, part civics lesson — a reminder of how he won the presidency despite long odds. Seven years later, intractable problems and relentless opposition have turned his hair gray. His commitment to many causes has not wavered, but his passion has been applied selectively.

At Selma, Obama was the best he could be. A second chorus of criticism is that Obama is not a master of the legislative process, twisting arms, building bridges and framing terms of debate. The result has been gridlock on Capitol Hill. In other words, he’s not Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose string of domestic legislative accomplishments was second only to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Supporters yearn for Obama to be the LBJ captured in photographs of him towering over and browbeating Senator John Pastore. One of these photos hangs in President Frank Underwood’s Oval Office in “House of Cards,” evoking this fictional President’s brutal powers of persuasion.

Nobody will confuse Obama for LBJ, but the Grand Old Party of the 1960s was a different breed than the Republican Caucus today. LBJ’s nemesis and foil, 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, famously said during his nomination speech that, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The current Republican vernacular holds that, “Extremism in opposition to Obama is no vice. And moderation in pursuit of bipartisanship is no virtue.”

Obama’s cool demeanor on all but a few issues belies his commitment, now evident in his pursuit of an agreement with Iran that constrains its bomb-making capability in verifiable ways. This intention has prompted extreme measures by Republicans on Capitol Hill. Forty-seven Republican Senators signed an “open letter” making common cause with Iranian hardliners opposed to an agreement, following on Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver a speech before Congress depicting Obama as a modern day Neville Chamberlain. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not previously known as an acute observer of the American scene, characterized the Republican senatorial missive as “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.”

The open letter and Netanyahu’s speech did not spell out an effective way to block Iran’s path to the bomb. If these Senators and Netanyahu were more candid, they would acknowledge that the only way to achieve their agenda is through military strikes rather than negotiations. In this event, Iran would have far more reason to build a stockpile of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible.

If Members of Congress who favor an agreement were candid, they would acknowledge that it will weaken global norms for non-proliferation. If, however, the Congress kills a deal that effectively constrains Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the consequences for proliferation will be far worse.

Congress, like Obama, is in a bind. Both are long past the point of closing the barn door on Iran’s enrichment capability. Tehran built this capability during the George W. Bush administration, which rejected diplomatic initiatives to constrain Iranian nuclear capabilities at very low levels. Tehran expanded its capabilities greatly in the Obama administration. At this juncture, the best of a poor set of choices is to limit Iran’s nuclear capability under close scrutiny.

Alternatively, Congress can seek ways to reject or block an agreement, assuming one can be successfully negotiated. The open letter by all but seven Senate Republicans aims to do just this. Rejecting a useful agreement limiting Iran’s capabilities to make nuclear weapons could well lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, increased enrichment and air strikes. Air strikes would lead down many roads, none of which point to safe destinations.

Non-proliferation has taken a hit because Iran’s nuclear facilities are sized for bomb-making rather than electricity. Non-proliferation will take a more severe hit unless these facilities operate at only a small fraction of their capacity. Iran’s neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, have also decided that they must have nuclear power plants – the purported rationale for Iran’s enrichment facilities. Uranium enriched to five per cent, appropriate for generating electricity, is readily available for purchase. Purchasing low-enriched uranium, however, comes with inspectors and safeguards. Enriching uranium to 90 per cent suitable for bombs requires having an unsafeguarded, indigenous capability.

Whether more uranium enrichment plants are built in the Middle East, and whether enrichment occurs under inspection depends, in large measure, on the outcome of these negotiations. The same holds true for the design and safeguards associated with Iran’s Arak research reactor. The spread of unsafeguarded enrichment or reprocessing plants in the Middle East will doom the Non-proliferation Treaty.

An effective agreement will be possible if Iranian leaders see more risk than reward in acquiring nuclear weapons. Opponents of an agreement cannot imagine this to be the case. They are convinced that Iran’s leaders will use the Bomb to backstop their ambitions in the region. Even worse, religious zealots in Iran might not hesitate to start a nuclear war. Just read their threats about burying Israel.

This pessimistic appraisal might be right. It might also be wrong, in which case it would be foolish and tragic to assume the worst and then unwittingly help make it happen. Nikita Khrushchev threated to bury the United States during the Cold War. This threat was taken seriously, but was overtaken by realism and affected by political engagement. The Soviet Union decided that the Bomb was too dangerous a weapon to use. Instead, a succession of Soviet and U.S. leaders agreed to do things that only wishful thinkers could have hoped for: Washington and Moscow agreed to limit, reduce, and even eliminate many of their most powerful weapons and means of delivery. They even agreed not to test nuclear weapons – and haven’t done so for over twenty years.

These achievements, which remain in place even under Vladimir Putin, happened despite the warnings of pessimists who couldn’t envision how geopolitical and ideological adversaries could reach such accommodation. Rewards came to those who took risks for negotiated settlements, while being prepared for the consequences of failure. U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union and Iran are different in many ways, but alike in how little the two sides can relate to each other. During the Cold War, U.S. war plans were predicated on managing escalation, while the Soviet General Staff disregarded this. The two superpowers nonetheless found common ground and reached accords despite their differences.

How do Iran’s leaders really think about nuclear weapons? Are we to take Iran’s Supreme Leaders literally when they talk about annihilating Israel, but not when they say that the Bomb is an “un-Islamic” weapon? If the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations practiced selective literalism, they wouldn’t have been able to reduce nuclear dangers. The Obama administration seeks to constrain Iran’s nuclear capabilities in ways that can dampen proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East. U.S. interests and those of friends and allies in the region would be better served by limiting Iranian capabilities in verifiable ways than by demanding the impossible, watching sanctions erode, and seeking temporary solutions in bombing runs.

Nuclear dangers have been reduced and our worst nightmares have been avoided, thanks to leaders who were willing to take risks to reach unlikely agreements. The Obama administration and Congress are at this juncture once again. Demanding a say in any agreement that is reached is one thing; torpedoing it is another. An agreement with Iran that effectively constrains its bomb-making ability in verifiable ways is worth trying. Rejecting or blocking such an agreement concedes failure without trying.

Note to readers: A shorter form of this essay ran in Roll Call on March 12th.


  1. yousaf (History)

    “Non-proliferation has taken a hit because Iran’s nuclear facilities are sized for bomb-making rather than electricity.”

    True but misleading because Iran’s enrichment capacity is so small. One needs a much smaller enrichment capacity to refine the material needed for a bomb compared to that needed to refuel the reactors for a nuclear energy program.

    Misleading because Iran actually does want more enrichment capacity — appropriate for a nuclear energy program — but is getting international resistance which forces its size to be limited to that needed for a bomb.

    Ironic but true.



    One element that’s fully expected in a long-term arrangement is a limit on the number and kinds of centrifuges Iran can use to enrich uranium. Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said there’s an irony in that.

    “If you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 is pretty much the number you need,” Morell, now a CBS analyst, said on Charlie Rose. “If you have a power program, you need a lot more. By limiting them to a small number of centrifuges, we are limiting them to the number you need for a weapon.”

    • krepon (History)

      Surely you are not suggesting that the number of centrifuges spinning in Iran and their degree of sophistication is immaterial to Iran’s bomb-making capacity.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    While I fully agree with your argument, I’m going to be a pest and quibble about a couple of minor points along the way.

    Many people saw LBJ’s forceful personality and his success in getting legislation through Congress and concluded that the first led to the second. In fact, LBJ benefited in 1965 and 1966 from having 2-to-1 majorities in both houses, and it was often Democrats in Congress, rather than LBJ, who were pushing the agenda forward. (Also there were some liberal allies within the Republican Party in those days.) When the Democratic margins were reduced in the elections of 1966, LBJ’s success rate fell off as well.

    “We will bury you” is in fact a literal translation of what Khrushchev said (“Мы вас похороним!”) in offhand remarks during a diplomatic reception at the Polish embassy in 1956. The context, however, suggests that he meant something more in the sense of “We will still be around long after you’re gone,” rather than “We will kill you off.” It was paired, for instance, with references to peaceful coexistence and the notion that history was on their side.

    • krepon (History)


      Thanks for weighing in.

      I agree with your qualifications. My reasoning for including this material: “Balanced reporting” about the Obama administration has focused on his and the White House’s shortcomings in terms of legislative tactics. This, combined with Republican obstruction is used to explain the gridlock on Capitol Hill. I have concluded otherwise: that even if Obama were more like LBJ, he’d be handcuffed on most fronts, especially during the second term. Part of this, as you write, is because of the numbers, and part because of how much the DC wing of the Republican Party has changed.

      As for Khrushchev’s famous quote, I used it devoid of context because that’s how it was used by those who were against engaging the Kremlin. Selective literalism is a device to use against diplomacy — then and now.

      Best wishes,

  3. SteveL (History)

    I had the same thought as Yousaf when reading this otherwise-useful post, which notes correctly that Iran’s program adversely impacts non-proliferation efforts.

    I accept your assertion, Mr. Krepon, that 5%-enriched reactor fuel is readily available commercially, and thus that Iran does not need indigenous enrichment capacity, but this, by itself, has no bearing on whether “Iran’s nuclear facilities are sized for bomb-making rather than electricity.”

    Your response to Yousaf, Mr. Krepon, is inapt. There is no suggestion whatsoever in his comment that Iran’s enrichment program is immaterial to its bomb-making capacity.

    Care and precision in description are critically important in discussion of this highly charged issue.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)

      Reactor fuel may be available commercially but that does not mean that it would be supplied to iran,one only has to look at the games the west played over the supply of fuel for the trr,it would be very foolhardy of iran to invest in the construction of reactors without having a substantial indigenous fuel production capability as both the west and the russians have shown themselves to be rather less than reliable or trustworthy

  4. Greg Jones (History)

    You say “Enriching uranium to 90 per cent suitable for bombs requires having an unsafeguarded, indigenous capability.” This is not true. IAEA safeguards in themselves do not limit the enrichment of the uranium produced by any enrichment plant. Once the follow-on nuclear agreement with Iran as lapsed, all Iran would need to do is inform the IAEA a day in advance and say the HEU is for some research purpose. Similarly safeguarded reprocessing plants produce plutonium all the time. Japan has a 10 metric ton stockpile of separated plutonium waiting for the advent of the breeder reactor which is now 45 years overdue and nowhere in sight.

    I might take Iran’s claims to find nuclear weapons “un-Islamic” more plausible, if it had not already had a nuclear weapon program prior to 2004. Iran continues to deny it ever had such a program and is still stonewalling the IAEA on this issue. I find the fact that Iran is willing to suffer a good deal to retain the centerpieces of that nuclear weapon effort (centrifuge enrichment and the plutonium production reactor at Arak) rather telling.

    • rba (History)

      I’m sure others here could comment better – but following the current agreement on TRR with 20% HEU, “a day in advance and say the HEU is for some research purpose” isn’t believable. Not to say it couldn’t be in a far flung future with an agreement, but I imagine existing transparency would make it highly unlikely.

      “I might take Iran’s claims to find nuclear weapons “un-Islamic” more plausible, if it had not already had a nuclear weapon program prior to 2004.”

      There’s a very large gulf between having knowledge (e.g. AQ Khan’s papers, etc) and actually building something – especially in Islamic jurisprudence. There’s no single source for this but you can look up terms for “intention” (niaz) and “earthly knowledge.” It’s worth mentioning there’s a lot of seemingly paradoxical Islamic laws in Iran (govt sponsored sex changes with illegality of homosexuality, free needle exchanges while executing smugglers, etc) that do have a genuine Islamic self-consistency. Because of the theocracy, there’s more stringency in that self-consistency than scholarship in other nations (Grand Mufti of KSA, AlAzhar).

      Under the same religious thought, a breakout capability is not the same thing as actually developing a weapon from understood technologies, let alone testing and fielding it.

      Anyway, here’s a good blog post surrounding the ruling: http://www.middleeast-armscontrol.com/2013/02/28/dont-misunderstand-khameneis-nuclear-fatwa/

    • Greg Jones (History)

      rba believe it or not it is true. Transparency is not an issue. After the new nuclear agreement lapses, Iran can simply announce to the world that it is going to produce HEU for a new research reactor. Germany and others have HEU fuelled research reactors, why not Iran? This is at least as believable as Japan’s stocking plutonium for the breeder reactor. Maybe Iran could use a similar pretext to justify extracting some plutonium from the Arak reactor fuel.

      A day in advance sounds unbelievable, but it has already happened. In 2010 Iran gave the IAEA one day advanced notice that it was going to produce 20% enriched uranium. The IAEA asked Iran to wait to give them more time but Iran went ahead anyway.

      Iran had a full fledged nuclear weapon program prior to 2004. Its object was to build nuclear weapons, not just learn a little about them. The Iranians had built and tested various nuclear weapon components including an advanced lens-less implosion system, the design of which had been provided by a Russian nuclear weapon designer. So it seems that Iranian religious views do not exclude the production of nuclear weapons.

  5. Amir (History)

    Historically Iran has been denied from buy nuclear fuel before. Why on earth should it trust west or east for something that it can produce domestically?

    • Cameron (History)

      Trust building measures are almost always against perfect selfishness, but can give better results in both the long and short term. The 47 signatories are playing this as a zero sum game, which is a trap that they’ve created for themselves with their rhetoric and the positions that they’ve taken. Doing so is a mistake.

  6. Dan Joyner (History)

    I think this is a very good article, Michael. It contains a lot of wisdom.

    • krepon (History)

      Many thanks, Dan.

    • Wiedniu (History)

      Yes. Im here first time but i think this is good blog with very good article. Good luck Michael:)

  7. krepon (History)

    An insider view of the Obama administration’s dealings with the Republicans on Capitol Hill: