SHELLEY BERKLEY: Deal in works with Iran much worse than imaginable

Details are still emerging of the deal that was nearly reached in nuclear talks in Geneva over the weekend — a deal the Obama administration will be pushing hard when talks resume next week.

By all reliable accounts, and despite repeated denials, the United States is actively pursuing a catastrophic agreement with Iran, one that would facilitate the nuclearization of one of the most extreme, violent and anti-American tyrannies on Earth, with consequences that will be regretted for generations.

The centerpiece of the deal, from the West’s perspective, is Iran’s agreement to convert its stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel for civilian use, and to halt further enrichment to 20 percent for a period of six months, in exchange for the release of billions of dollars in frozen assets and the lifting of sanctions on a variety of products such as gold, automobiles and aircraft parts.

The entire question of 20 percent enriched uranium is a smokescreen.

For many years, making a bomb went like this: First you spent a lot of time enriching uranium material to 3.5 percent purity, which was difficult. Then you enriched what you had created to 20 percent purity. When you had enough of that, you would be in a position to easily and quickly convert that material to 90 percent purity — good enough for a nuclear warhead. That took time.

In recent months, however, Iran has advanced dramatically in both the number of centrifuges at its disposal and their efficiency. Today, experts say that given just a few weeks, Iran can go from 3.5 percent all the way to 90 percent. The whole issue of 20 percent enrichment has become irrelevant. Instead, the most important questions are how much 3.5 percent enriched uranium they have, and whether they are allowed to keep their centrifuges spinning. If the answer to both is yes, they are moving forward on a bomb.

The new agreement would allow Iran to continue to enrich freely to 3.5 percent at its Natanz and Fordow facilities, and to continue building centrifuges that can easily and quickly be installed. At the end of the six-month period, Iran would be even closer to breakout capacity — the ability to build a nuclear warhead so quickly that no one could mobilize forces in time to stop it — than it is now while enjoying six months of quiet and the lifting of the most painful sanctions.

A more recent, totally separate path to making a bomb involves the Iranian plant under construction at Arak, which, once operational, will produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several nuclear weapons a year. Yet the emerging agreement does not involve dismantling the plant or even halting its construction, but merely a commitment not to operate the plant for the next six months.

Iran has said that it only wants its nuclear facilities for legitimate, civilian purposes. This is untrue. There is no need to enrich uranium to fuel a power plant, as has been shown by many countries — including Sweden, Italy, Canada and Argentina — that are happy to purchase uranium enriched elsewhere. Nor is there any civilian purpose for the plutonium-producing reactor at Arak.

It is difficult to overstate the consequences of a nuclear Iran. Overnight, immense pressure would come to bear on Gulf states such as Bahrain and others that have been subjected to repeated Iranian attempts to undermine their rule, and that have maintained their allegiance to the United States on the strength of American promises, now proved empty. American naval hegemony in the Persian Gulf would be dramatically undermined, further eroding our control over the sources of oil.

Soon after, Iran would develop the ability to mount its weapons on its mid- and long-range missiles that can reach Israel and our allies across Europe. The nightmare of nuclear deployment by Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad or other Iranian proxies would be just a matter of time. A nuclear arms race would immediately break out, with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, no longer believing in American protection, concluding they must arm themselves to survive. A rapidly swirling strategic typhoon could engulf the Middle East, completely out of America’s control, leaving us and our friends incredibly vulnerable, not just strategically and militarily, but also economically.

The sanctions have indeed worked, bringing the Iranian regime to a point of desperation. But sanctions should be eased only in exchange for the Iranians’ unequivocally and irreversibly abandoning their nuclear ambitions. Now is the time to increase the pressure, not withdraw it.

A bad deal, we have been told, is worse than no deal at all. The emerging agreement, however, is much worse than a bad deal. It rewards the Iranians with billions of dollars while enabling them to build the nuclear weapon they so desperately want — all under the veil of détente. Signing it would mean taking a big step toward the unthinkable.

Shelley Berkley represented Southern Nevada in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2013. She is a member of the Board of Directors of The Israel Project.