The tentative nuclear agreement with Iran was initially hailed as a triumph of diplomacy on the part of the Obama administration. But the more one examines the deal, the more one ought to be concerned about its terms.
For starters, it is worth noting that no less than the president of the United States has admitted that the terms of the tentative agreement do nothing to cut off Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon. As the president himself has stated, per the outline of the preliminary agreement, “in Year 13, 14, 15, [the Iranians–ed.] have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” This is an incredibly startling admission; one that completely undermines the administration’s claim to have permanently prevented Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. At best–and this is being very generous indeed–the deal kicks the can down the road. But eventually, there will have to be some kind of reckoning with an Iran that possesses nuclear weapons.
Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz show how the Iranians outwitted and outmaneuvered the United States during the course of the negotiations:
Debate regarding technical details of the deal has thus far inhibited the soul-searching necessary regarding its deeper implications. For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests—and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.
Mixing shrewd diplomacy with open defiance of U.N. resolutions, Iran has gradually turned the negotiation on its head. Iran’s centrifuges have multiplied from about 100 at the beginning of the negotiation to almost 20,000 today. The threat of war now constrains the West more than Iran. While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal. In the process, the Iranian program has reached a point officially described as being within two to three months of building a nuclear weapon. Under the proposed agreement, for 10 years Iran will never be further than one year from a nuclear weapon and, after a decade, will be significantly closer.
[. . .]
In a large country with multiple facilities and ample experience in nuclear concealment, violations will be inherently difficult to detect. Devising theoretical models of inspection is one thing. Enforcing compliance, week after week, despite competing international crises and domestic distractions, is another. Any report of a violation is likely to prompt debate over its significance—or even calls for new talks with Tehran to explore the issue. The experience of Iran’s work on a heavy-water reactor during the “interim agreement” period—when suspect activity was identified but played down in the interest of a positive negotiating atmosphere—is not encouraging.
Compounding the difficulty is the unlikelihood that breakout will be a clear-cut event. More likely it will occur, if it does, via the gradual accumulation of ambiguous evasions.
When inevitable disagreements arise over the scope and intrusiveness of inspections, on what criteria are we prepared to insist and up to what point? If evidence is imperfect, who bears the burden of proof? What process will be followed to resolve the matter swiftly?
The agreement’s primary enforcement mechanism, the threat of renewed sanctions, emphasizes a broad-based asymmetry, which provides Iran permanent relief from sanctions in exchange for temporary restraints on Iranian conduct. Undertaking the “snap-back” of sanctions is unlikely to be as clear or as automatic as the phrase implies. Iran is in a position to violate the agreement by executive decision. Restoring the most effective sanctions will require coordinated international action. In countries that had reluctantly joined in previous rounds, the demands of public and commercial opinion will militate against automatic or even prompt “snap-back.” If the follow-on process does not unambiguously define the term, an attempt to reimpose sanctions risks primarily isolating America, not Iran.
The gradual expiration of the framework agreement, beginning in a decade, will enable Iran to become a significant nuclear, industrial and military power after that time—in the scope and sophistication of its nuclear program and its latent capacity to weaponize at a time of its choosing. Limits on Iran’s research and development have not been publicly disclosed (or perhaps agreed). Therefore Iran will be in a position to bolster its advanced nuclear technology during the period of the agreement and rapidly deploy more advanced centrifuges—of at least five times the capacity of the current model—after the agreement expires or is broken.
In response to this devastating critique, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said that the Kissinger/Shultz analysis should not be taken seriously, because it was filled with “a lot of big words and big thoughts.” Yes, you read that right; the best that a spokesperson in the United States Department of State could do in taking on an op-ed written by two former–and esteemed–secretaries of state was to speak as though she had not yet graduated from nursery school. If you are an American citizen and you are not embarrassed by this display of underdeveloped cognition, you are not paying attention.
Another former secretary of state–James Baker–has himself penned an op-ed on the subject of nuclear weapons negotiations with Iran. Baker is known as someone who believes that a deal with Iran could work towards the long term national security interests of the United States, so the following should count as an especially biting critique:
Within days of the April 2 announcement of the tentative agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, it was apparent that there are substantial misunderstandings about a deal the administration has hailed as “an historic understanding.” Clearly, much work must be done if there is to be a final agreement by the June 30 deadline.
Iranian leaders quickly disputed key points about the White House’s description of the terms of the agreement. Among them was Iran’s demand that all sanctions be removed once a final deal is signed. That is a far cry from the U.S. understanding that sanctions will only be removed over time, as Iran meets its obligations. This different Iranian position may have been aimed at Iran’s domestic audience. But if Iran holds to it, there should be no final agreement.
Arms-control negotiations are rarely easy, and there remain serious questions about more than the phasing out of sanctions. These include verification mechanisms (including access to Iran’s military bases for inspections); the “snapback” provisions for reapplying sanctions; and Iran’s refusal so far to provide historical information about its nuclear-enrichment program so that there is a baseline against which to measure any future enrichment. The proposed snapback and verification provisions, while still being negotiated, look like they will be particularly bureaucratic and cumbersome.
[. . .]
Iran should not be rewarded for waffling and re-trading. Even before it began complaining about the tentative agreement, Iran has reneged on prior agreements. Two days before a March 31 deadline, for example, Iran backed away from its pledge to send a large portion of its uranium stockpile to Russia, where it could not be used to make weapons. Our P5+1 partners should understand that if we can’t trust Iran to stick to its promises during negotiations, we cannot trust that it won’t resume its nuclear-weapons program after a final deal is reached.
Only after we have the necessary support from the P5+1 should we resume our discussions with Iran. And then, only after the Iranians have been told in no uncertain terms that we have reasonable specific demands they must meet. Let Iran and the world know what those demands are. If Iran balks at such an arrangement, then it will be that country’s fault that the talks broke down.
There are, to be sure, moderately sized words and somewhat large-ish thoughts contained in this op-ed, but people at the State Department should read Baker’s piece, nonetheless, as it does throw a welcome wet blanket on all of the euphoria surrounding the tentative agreement with Iran. Perhaps we can take up a collection to buy a whole crate of Chapstick for Marie Harf so that she can make her way through the piece and so that she might be prepared to speak intelligently about it at the next State Department briefing.
As things stand, the tentative agreement has already led to the deterioration of sanctions on Iran. And naturally, the Russians have pounced:
The Kremlin lifted its self-imposed ban on the delivery of a powerful missile air-defense system to Iran on Monday, stoking sharp criticism from the White House and Israel and casting fresh doubt on the international effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
U.S. lawmakers seized on Moscow’s announcement Monday to warn Russia was among a host of foreign countries using the prospect of a nuclear deal to begin seeking out lucrative business deals that could bolster Iran’s military and economy.
Any delivery of an air-defense system would complicate airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel or the U.S. should the diplomatic track fail.
Iran thinks that Russia will deliver the missile system this year, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Interfax news agency in Moscow on Tuesday.
As Dave Majumdar writes, this latest gambit by the Putin regime makes life very difficult indeed for the United States:
This nuke deal with Iran had better work. Because the Kremlin is lifting a ban on selling a powerful air defense system to Iran that would render an airstrike on Tehran’s nuclear weapons facilities nearly impossible.
The delivery of the new weapon, called the Almaz-Antei S-300PMU-1—known as the SA-20 Gargoyle in NATO parlance—would effectively force the U.S. to rely on its small fleet of stealth aircraft to strike targets inside Iran in case the mullahs make a dash for the bomb. But even those aircraft might have a difficult time.
“This would be a huge deal depending on where they [the S-300s] are based…The Persian Gulf would be an interesting place to fly,” said one senior defense official with experience on multiple stealth aircraft types. “These new [surface-to-air missiles] change the whole complexion…It’s a big move.”
According to a report from Russian state media, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday that would allow the sale of the fearsome S-300 air defense system to Iran.
“[The presidential] decree lifts the ban on transit through Russian territory, including airlift, and the export from the Russian Federation to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and also the transfer to the Islamic Republic of Iran outside the territory of the Russian Federation, both by sea and by air, of air defense missile systems S-300,” reads the Kremlin statement, according to RIA Novosti.
The U.S. government has lobbied Russia hard for years to prevent the sale of the S-300 to Iran. In 2010, convincing Putin to suspend the sale of the S-300 to Iran was heralded as a major foreign policy coup by the Obama administration. In many ways, it was one of the central achievements of the so-called reset in relations with Moscow, said Heather Conley, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Since then, of course, relations with Russia have cooled to nearly Cold War levels of hostility. Making life difficult for American policymakers is once again a Kremlin priority. “Mr. Putin’s policies are not designed to assist the West or to make our jobs and ability to affect policy much more difficult,” Conley said. “It’s also a reminder to Washington and other Western capitals that they have some cards to play here.”
Given all of the problems with the tentative agreement–and given the difficulty that the United States will encounter in being able to formulate any final agreement with Iran–it should come as no surprise that Congress has demanded a role in determining the merits and demerits of any agreement. The sentiment that Congress should be involved is a bipartisan one, and it is so overwhelming that the Obama administration has had to back down from its previous stance stating that Congress should not play a role in verifying any agreement. A good thing; there is much to dislike and to be concerned about when it comes to dealings with Iran, and while the Obama administration continues to try to assure us that all is well, the facts plainly suggest that we have reason to be skeptical about how any deal with Iran might play out.