I would like to think that the nuclear deal with Iran is a good one. I would like to think that it will succeed and prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear power. I would like to think that it will increase regional stability and security, and that in doing so, it will increase global stability and security. I would like to think that those who staff the Obama administration–from the president on down–will be able to point to the agreement decades from now and say “we did good. We made the world safer. We have every reason to be proud.” And I would like to think that Americans and people across the world will have every reason and every justification to agree with such a statement.
But as of this writing, I have my doubts that this is a good deal.
Let’s start with the concession that no deal with Iran will be perfect. Let’s also start with the concession that there is absolutely no will whatsoever for military action in order to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. In order to dismantle the program, Iran would have to be invaded and occupied, the current government would have to be displaced and overthrown by force, and the United States would have to settle in and fight the inevitable insurgency. We have seen this movie before, and whatever you think about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Americans ended up not liking it.
But having stated all of these concessions, none of us are obliged to check our critical thinking skills at the door. We can examine the deal, we can figure out what its good and bad points are, and we can decide whether the deal, on balance, is a good or a bad one.
Here is the text of the deal. I cannot claim that I read it with the loving and lingering care that would be employed in reading Gibbon’s history of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, but I read through it. And I have concerns. Let me list them.
For starters, check out section A7, which is found on page 8 of the agreement (you have to download it):
During the 15 year period, and as Iran gradually moves to meet international qualification standards for nuclear fuel produced in Iran, it will keep its uranium stockpile under 300 kg of up to 3.67% enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) or the equivalent in other chemical forms. The excess quantities are to be sold based on international prices and delivered to the international buyer in return for natural uranium delivered to Iran, or are to be down-blended to natural uranium level. Enriched uranium in fabricated fuel assemblies from Russia or other sources for use in Iran’s nuclear reactors will not be counted against the above stated 300 kg UF6 stockpile, if the criteria set out in Annex I are met with regard to other sources. The Joint Commission will support assistance to Iran, including through IAEA technical cooperation as appropriate, in meeting international qualification standards for nuclear fuel produced in Iran. All remaining uranium oxide enriched to between 5% and 20% will be fabricated into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Any additional fuel needed for the TRR will be made available to Iran at international market prices.
Obviously, the Russians can wreak havoc with the agreement by providing lots and lots of enriched uranium to Iran. I imagine that there must be some kind of upper limit on how much can be shipped, but still, given Vladimir Putin’s willingness to make life as difficult and miserable as possible for the United States and its allies, one can easily imagine that he might take advantage of this provision in order to enhance Iran’s uranium stockpile. This concern becomes especially pronounced when one examines section 59 of the agreement, on pp. 35-36:
Russian designed, fabricated and licensed fuel assemblies for use in Russian-supplied reactors in Iran do not count against the 300 kg UF6 stockpile limit. Enriched uranium in fabricated fuel assemblies from other sources outside of Iran for use in Iran’s nuclear research and power reactors, including those which will be fabricated outside of Iran for the initial fuel load of the modernised Arak research reactor, which are certified by the fuel supplier and the appropriate Iranian authority to meet international standards, will not count against the 300 kg UF6 stockpile limit. The Joint Commission will establish a Technical Working Group with the goal of enabling fuel to be fabricated in Iran while adhering to the agreed stockpile parameters (300 kg of up to 3.67 % enriched UF6 or the equivalent in different chemical forms). This Technical Working Group will also, within one year, work to develop objective technical criteria for assessing whether fabricated fuel and its intermediate products can be readily converted to UF6. Enriched uranium in fabricated fuel assemblies and its intermediate products manufactured in Iran and certified to meet international standards, including those for the modernised Arak research reactor, will not count against the 300 kg UF6 stockpile limit provided the Technical Working Group of the Joint Commission approves that such fuel assemblies and their intermediate products cannot be readily reconverted into UF6. This could for instance be achieved through impurities (e.g. burnable poisons or otherwise) contained in fuels or through the fuel being in a chemical form such that direct conversion back to UF6 would be technically difficult without dissolution and purification. The objective technical criteria will guide the approval process of the Technical Working Group. The IAEA will monitor the fuel fabrication process for any fuel produced in Iran to verify that the fuel and intermediate products comport with the fuel fabrication process that was approved by the Technical Working Group. The Joint Commission will also support assistance to Iran including through IAEA technical cooperation as appropriate, in meeting international qualification standards for nuclear fuel produced by Iran.
Vladimir Putin appears to have an awful lot of power with which to influence the course of this agreement. Anyone really believe that he will exercise that power in a fashion that will please the United States, or will advance American national security interests?
Then, there is the text from sections B11-12:
Iran intends to ship out all spent fuel for all future and present power and research nuclear reactors, for further treatment or disposition as provided for in relevant contracts to be duly concluded with the recipient party.
For 15 years Iran will not, and does not intend to thereafter, engage in any spent fuel reprocessing or construction of a facility capable of spent fuel reprocessing, or reprocessing R&D activities leading to a spent fuel reprocessing capability, with the sole exception of separation activities aimed exclusively at the production of medical and industrial radio-isotopes from irradiated enriched uranium targets.
Notice the word “intends.” This language does not impose any particular obligations on Iran.
From section C26:
The EU will refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions that it has terminated implementing under this JCPOA, without prejudice to the dispute resolution process provided for under this JCPOA. There will be no new nuclear- related UN Security Council sanctions and no new EU nuclear-related sanctions or restrictive measures. The United States will make best efforts in good faith to sustain this JCPOA and to prevent interference with the realisation of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting specified in Annex II. The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions specified in Annex II that it has ceased applying under this JCPOA, without prejudice to the dispute resolution process provided for under this JCPOA. The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions. Iran has stated that it will treat such a re-introduction or re-imposition of the sanctions specified in Annex II, or such an imposition of new nuclear-related sanctions, as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.
One can easily imagine a series of disputes that cause the United States and the European Union to re-impose sanctions on Iran, thus causing Iran to decide that it is no longer bound by the terms of the nuclear agreement with the United States and the European Union. In the run-up to the agreement, we were assured that in the event of any Iranian violations of the terms of an agreement, the United States and the European Union would be able to reimpose snapback sanctions. The excerpted language from C26 restricts those sanctions from being reimposed, because both the United States and the European Union would have to fear that Iran will commence in earnest a program to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
Here is language from sections E18-20, found on p. 25 of the agreement:
For 15 years Iran will not, and does not intend to thereafter, engage in any spent fuel reprocessing or spent fuel reprocessing R&D activities. For the purpose of this annex, spent fuel includes all types of irradiated fuel.
For 15 years Iran will not, and does not intend to thereafter, reprocess spent fuel except for irradiated enriched uranium targets for production of radio-isotopes for medical and peaceful industrial purposes.
For 15 years Iran will not, and does not intend to thereafter, develop, acquire or build facilities capable of separation of plutonium, uranium or neptunium from spent fuel or from fertile targets, other than for production of radio-isotopes for medical and peaceful industrial purposes.
There is that word “intend,” again. Intentions are not obligations.
Here is section 67, found on pp. 39-40:
Iran will increase the number of designated IAEA inspectors to the range of 130-150 within 9 months from the date of the implementation of the JCPOA, and will generally allow the designation of inspectors from nations that have diplomatic relations with Iran, consistent with its laws and regulations.
Notice that the inspectors have to come “from nations that have diplomatic relations with Iran.” Guess who doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. That’s right; the United States. So American inspectors can apparently play no role in the inspections process. Are we supposed to feel good about this?
Pages 55-56 of the agreement indicate that sanctions that are meant to limit Iran’s supply of ballistic missiles will remain in place. This is nice to know. However, there is nothing in the agreement that discusses the imposition of a hard ceiling on Iran’s supply of ballistic missiles. I have long stated that one of the shortcomings of the nuclear negotiations with Iran was a lack of focus on preventing Iran from acquiring a large stockpile of ballistic missiles. While it is good that sanctions will remain in place that are intended to keep Iran from dramatically increasing its ballistic missile stockpile, it is more than a little distressing that there are no provisions in the agreement that will place certain and strict limits on Iran’s supply of ballistic missiles.
Finally, there is the fact that the word “inspection” only occurs three times in the text of the agreement, and none of those instances discusses snap or surprise inspections that can verify that Iran is not cheating on its obligations under the agreement. Team Obama appears to be confused as to whether it has ever demanded that snap inspections should be able to take place “anywhere, anytime.” Again, no one should be comforted. Indeed, the design of the inspection regime is a fundamental failing of the agreement, and reveals an unforgivable lack of attention given to the terms of the agreement by Team Obama.
Henry Kissinger and George Shultz nicely summarize what the deal is likely to bring about:
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.
[. . .]
Under the new approach, Iran permanently gives up none of its equipment, facilities or fissile product to achieve the proposed constraints. It only places them under temporary restriction and safeguard—amounting in many cases to a seal at the door of a depot or periodic visits by inspectors to declared sites. The physical magnitude of the effort is daunting. Is the International Atomic Energy Agency technically, and in terms of human resources, up to so complex and vast an assignment?
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.
And there is another reason to be highly skeptical of the deal:
John Kerry denied it. So did Iran’s foreign minister. But the world’s most notorious spymaster stands to benefit—big time—from the accord with Tehran.
Among the big winners in the agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, count a notorious and shadowy Iranian general who helped Shiite militias in Iraq kill American soldiers and who has come to the rescue of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
You’ll find his name, Qasem Soleimani, buried in an annex (PDF) of the unremittingly dense Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, along with some of his colleagues from the senior ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as its various divisions and corporate fronts. They’ll all be granted some sanctions relief as part of the U.S.-brokered deal to curtail Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon.
That Soleimani—who runs Iran’s elite paramilitary and covert operations group, the Quds Force—was even on the list appeared to catch some U.S. officials by surprise. A senior administration official briefing reporters on Tuesday morning didn’t have a ready response when asked when and why Soleimani was added. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly denied that the 58-year-old general was on the list to be freed from the sanctions yoke. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, agreed, saying Soleimani—whom the U.S. accused in 2011 of plotting to launch a terrorist attack in the United States—had been confused with someone else with a similar name.
They were all wrong—or maybe didn’t want to be right. Soleimani is, in fact, on the list, a Treasury Department official later confirmed to The Daily Beast. And his presence definitely surprised some powerful lawmakers, who are already sharpening their knives for a filleting of the Iran deal.
“He’s got American blood on his hands,” Sen. John Cornyn said of Soleimani. “I’m not sympathetic to lifting sanctions on him, that’s for sure.”
“Soleimani is the guy that sent the copper-tipped IEDs into Iraq,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, referring to powerful improvised explosive devices, which Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford testified last week were responsible for the deaths of 500 soldiers and Marines. “That is really unbelievable,” McCain said when asked about Soleimani’s name showing up in the bowels of the Iran nuclear deal.
I’d really like to think that the nuclear deal that has been struck with Iran is a good one. But I have lots of reasons to think that it isn’t.