Why the Deal with Iran Is Less than Good

By now, you have likely heard that the United States and five other countries (Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany–also known as “the P5+1 ,” with “P5” standing for the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council), have entered into an interim nuclear deal with Iran. The deal’s provisions are supposed to expire in six months, at which point the P5+1 hope that they will be replaced with a permanent treaty dealing with Iran’s nuclear capability. This report does a good job in detailing the terms of the interim deal, which are as follows:

  • To the extent that Iran has uranium stockpiles that have been enriched to 20%, those stockpiles need to be diluted until they are only at 5%, since 5% enrichment is all that is needed for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. As the CNN report notes, this is important because “once you’re at 20%, you’re about 80% of the way” to a nuclear weapon.
  • Iran also has to “cut back on constructing new centrifuges and enrichment facilities, and freeze essential work on its heavy-water reactor under development at Arak.”
  • Iran must “provide daily access to inspectors from the international agency, IAEA.”
  • If Iran fails to abide by the terms of the interim agreement, the P5+1 may push for more sanctions.
  • In return for Iranian cooperation, Iran will get $6-7 billion in sanctions relief.

The United States claims to be happy with this deal, with President Obama and Secretary Kerry presenting it as a tremendous diplomatic victory. The other members of the P5+1 claim to be very happy with the deal as well. Iran and its allies also claim to be happy with the deal. The two most unhappy countries around are Israel and Saudi Arabia, which feel threatened by a nuclear Iran and which do not for a moment believe that Iran will content itself with peaceful nuclear energy. Although the other Gulf states have not said much about the deal, one presumes that they do not feel warm and fuzzy about a nuclear Iran either, and the Gulf states may well join Saudi Arabia in seeking nuclear weapons of their own in order to balance against a potential Iranian threat. We may be seeing the beginnings of an arms race in the Middle East.

It is worth noting that the Iranians claim the interim agreement recognizes their right to enrich uranium, while the Obama administration claims that it recognizes no such right. It is also worth noting that the agreement does not place a 3.5% enrichment level ceiling on Iranian stockpiles of uranium, and that not a single centrifuge needs to be dismantled. As the second bullet point says, Iran need only “cut back on constructing new centrifuges and enrichment facilities,” which implies that centrifuges and enrichment facilities can continue to be built, but should be built at a slower rate. Additionally:

Even with improvements, the interim agreement fails to bring Iran into compliance with its key international legal obligations as spelled out in United Nations Security Council resolutions. The agreement comes closest on compliance with the resolutions’ requirement that Iran “suspend” work on “all heavy water-related projects” including “construction” of the Arak reactor. While the Geneva agreement commits Iran to refrain from the most significant activities at Arak, it does not preclude Iran from general construction work at the site. Iran will easily be able to restart or threaten to restart the more dangerous work at Arak when the six-month interim period ends.

[. . .]

The U.N. resolutions require Iran to “provide such access and cooperation as the IAEA requests” to resolve the International Atomic Energy Agency’s concerns about Iran’s research into nuclear-weapons design. Multiple IAEA reports, including from March 2011 and November 2011, have provided extensive descriptions of Iranian research involving activities related to the development of a nuclear explosive and noted that some of the research “may still be ongoing.” Yet the interim agreement does almost nothing to gain such access and cooperation or to require Iran to come clean or provide access and cooperation to ensure that such research is not continuing.

Remarkably, not even the agreement’s “elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution” make clear reference to Iran revealing its past nuclear-weapons research. Thus, Iran’s affirmation, in the interim agreement preamble, that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons” is, with respect to weapons-design research, all trust and next to no verify.

The Security Council resolutions also explicitly require Iran to “not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” However, the interim agreement includes no Iranian commitments related to its ballistic-missile program. Not even the agreement’s “elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution” make any reference to Iran halting its activity related to ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons.

In the absence of verifiable Iranian commitments not to proceed with nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile research, there is nothing to stop Iran from having a designed bomb and ballistic missile ready to go. Once Iran completes a dash to weapons-grade uranium, it can insert the warhead and quickly have a deliverable nuclear weapon.

Thus, even if Iran faithfully implements each of its commitments under the interim agreement, it could find itself, in May 2014, a mere month further away than it is now from having weapons-grade uranium—but six months closer to having the rest of a deliverable nuclear weapon.

David Sanger characterizes the agreement thusly:

The deal does not roll back the vast majority of the advances Iran has made in the past five years, which have drastically shortened what nuclear experts call its “dash time” to a bomb — the minimum time it would take to build a weapon if Iran’s supreme leader or military decided to pursue that path.

There is an additional problem related to the deal, as Josh Rogin points out:

Obama previously set a red line regarding Syria, warning that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would trigger an international response. Following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack there that killed over 1,400 Syrians, Obama decided to launch limited military strikes against Syria and then reversed himself when Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons capabilities.

Several foreign officials said that the Syrian red line episode had eroded the Obama administration’s credibility around the world, which raises questions over promises made about Iran.

“When you draw red lines and then they are crossed and you don’t do anything about it, two things happen: Your enemies become emboldened and your allies become less sure,” said British Member of Parliament Liam Fox, a former Secretary of State for Defence. “That’s been the problem.”

Being exposed as a bluffer, it seems, has its consequences. More problems with the deal are revealed by Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution:

. . . On the nuclear question specifically, I don’t see this as stage one. In my view, there will never be a final agreement. What the administration just initiated was, rather, a long and expensive process by which the West pays Iran to refrain from going nuclear. We are, in essence, paying Ayatollah Khamenei to negotiate with us. We just bought six months. What was the price?

We shredded the six United Nations Security Council resolutions that ordered the Islamic Republic to abandon all enrichment and reprocessing activities. We exposed fractures in the coalition against Iran. And we started building a global economic lobby that is dedicated to eroding the sanctions that we have generated through a decade of hard, very hard, diplomatic work.

That’s the price that we can see clearly before our eyes. But I also wonder whether there were hidden costs — in the form of quiet commitments to Iran by third parties. I assume that the Iranians demanded economic compensation for every concession that they made. Will all of the promised payments appear in the text of the agreement? Did parties less constrained than our president by US congressional oversight also offer up sweeteners on the margins? At this point we do not know whether there is, in effect, a secret annex to the deal. Only time will tell.

But a hidden cost that is more easily verified is the free hand that the United States is now giving to Iran throughout the region. This is the price that troubles me most.

I would like to think that the interim agreement is a step forward in the West’s dealings with Iran. I would like to think that it will serve as a prelude to a comprehensive treaty that will replace the interim agreement and will provide a just and fair resolution to the West’s dispute with Iran over the latter’s burgeoning nuclear capability. I would like to think that the interests of American allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel–and thus, the interests of the United States itself–are met by this interim agreement and will be further met by a comprehensive treaty in the future.

But given the foregoing evidence, I just can’t believe that, I’m afraid. This deal wasn’t Munich, but the Iranians got more out of it than did the United States and its allies. Much more.

Related to this issue, I hope and trust that others were appalled and disgusted by former Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s noxious suggestion that if Israeli jets are sent to attack Iran, the United States should “be serious about denying them that right. That means a denial where you aren’t just saying it. If they fly over, you go up and confront them. They have the choice of turning back or not. No one wishes for this but it could be a ‘Liberty’ in reverse.” We all know what buttons Brzezinski was trying to push with his “Liberty” reference. One waits to see whether or not he will also advocate attacking Saudi fighter jets that decide to launch bombing campaigns against Iranian nuclear facilities, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Brzezinski’s rhetoric on this issue is pretty much par for the course.