Nov 26 2013

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Iran & the “Cult of the Agreement”

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Still Calling the Shots - and He's No Friend...

Still Calling the Shots – and He’s No Friend…

This past weekend, the United States and five other powers cut an interim deal with the Iranians as a first step toward a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear question. The agreement provides Iran with limited relief from Western sanctions. In return, the Iranians have agreed to mostly freeze its nuclear program in place, with certain caveats and carve-outs.

So, is it a good deal?

The immediate international reaction would indicate not.

The Israelis, who have more at risk than any other country if Iran goes nuclear, are voraciously opposed to the agreement. And in a breathtaking display of the chasm that has opened up diplomatically since the deal was inked, the Saudis are also opposed. You don’t have to have a doctorate in international affairs to recognize that when a US action places the Jewish state and the protectors of Mecca and Medina on the same side, that something is not right.

On the face of it, at least what is known publicly, the Iranians clearly came out in a better position in the interim agreement.  The Islamic Republic agreed to something akin to a six month pause in its nuclear program.

It will stop enriching uranium and will install no new centrifuges (used in purifying uranium). It will convert the uranium that it has already enriched to 20 percent into something slightly harder to convert into bomb making material (thought the process can be reversed). It will cease work on the nuclear components of a new reactor at Arak. The Iranians also agreed to augmented monitoring of its nuclear facilities.

What is interesting is what about the deal is what Iran did not have to do.  There was prohibition on Iran enriching uranium at less than 3.5 percent (the hardest step in the enrichment process). There was no requirement to destroy any of the thousands of first generation, and newer more sophisticated second generation centrifuges. No requirement to ship the most highly enriched uranium out of the country for safe keeping. While Iranians may not be able to install the nuclear components of Arak,  the agreement does not stop them from finishing the physical construction of the reactor site.

So, for all practical purposes, at six months and one day, the Iranians can effectively pick up right where they left off.

In return for the Iranian pause, the US and other powers agreed to ease sanctions. In the White House release on the agreement, the sanctions lifting was termed, “ limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible.”  The US estimates that Iran will reap about $7 billion from the relief.

The White House was at pains to note that, “This relief is structured so that the overwhelming majority of the sanctions regime, including  the key oil, banking, and financial sanctions architecture, remains in place.  The P5+1 will continue to enforce these sanctions vigorously.  If Iran fails to meet its commitments, we will revoke the limited relief and impose additional
sanctions on Iran.”

But that rings hollow.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie note the interim deal, “..suspends for six months a 2011 US law that requires countries buying crude oil from Iran to significantly reduce those purchases.” The deal also suspends the core EU and US insurance and transportation sanctions for these Iranian oil sales that have been one of the most effective sanctions on Iran.

The easing may be anything but reversible. The US worked for months to persuade major Iranian crude importer (India, China and Japan) to reduce their purchases.  The EU agonized for months to put its sanctions in place. Now that the policy has changed, how easy will it be to again get these countries to sign up to on again-off again sanctions?

As a result, the deal is not proportional.  The Iranians got a great deal of relief that is vital to their economy – and to the credibility of the regime – by simply pausing in place. The US and the other powers get six months breathing space.

Which backs into the larger question.

The deal that Obama has struck might – might – be considered reasonable if it were a stepping stone to a genuine final settlement on the Iranian question in the next six months. But who realistically believes that is possible?

The ink wasn’t even dry on the agreement before the Iranian foreign minister was trumpeting that Iran’s right to enrich uranium had been codified in the accord that John Kerry signed. Kerry fairly dismissed this as mere semantics, but it is vitally important to the US how Iran interprets what it has signed.

And then there is the issue of the UN.  Normally, anything that comes out of the UN has been diluted to the point of irrelevancy. So it is interesting to note that the deal that was struck in Geneva fell short of even the thresholds that the UN passed as part of Security Council resolutions on Iran. If the P5+1 cannot achieve the measly UN thresholds in an interim agreement, how does that bode for the next step?

These questions cannot be ignored or dismissed in the euphoria over “an agreement.” Indeed there has been much ink spilled about how “historic” the deal is as a first between the US and Iran since 1981.


Agreements for the sake of agreements serve no useful purpose, and can be inimitable to strategic goals. See North Korea for a primer on the sometimes banal faith in paper and signatures. Or Munich. History is stocked with the best intentions committed to paper that could not prevent eventual catastrophe.

Any successful agreement is little more than a recorded set of mutually understood expectations. By their very nature, agreements cannot bridge the gap between two mutually exclusive goals. At best, it can only paper over them, to one side’s hope or delusion.

Iran is revolutionary regime. It does not seek to join the “family of nations;” as we would understand it – where economic integration into the existing system is the goal;  it wants to overthrow the current system. “Death to America” isn’t just a chant; it is a deeply imbedded reactionary policy that seeks to counter the cultural, political and economic power of the United States and replace it with Shia Islam.  That may sound fantastical to anyone in the West, but it does not change the legitimacy and power of the “Great Satan” within Iran.

On a local, strategic basis, Iran has vexing security issues. The country has physical borders with seven nations. All but two (Azerbaijan and Iraq) are Sunni majority countries. One (Pakistan) has an operational nuclear weapons capability. Another (Turkey) has ties to a military organization run by the United States – NATO. Across the Persian Gulf sits Tehran’s nemeses with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, all Sunni and hostile to Iran’s theological foundations. And only a missile flight away are the Israelis who, politics and religion aside, possess a formidable nuclear arsenal of their own.

Despite Iran’s successful 20 year effort to build a Shia crescent from Iran to the Mediterranean, supporting Assad in Syria, arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, regime survival, in the face of US power and multiple local threats, remains the number one goal of Iranian foreign and domestic power.

The only way to ensure that the regime will survive is the possession of operational nuclear weapons. No paper agreement or “no attack” pledge by the US will ever take the place of the Iranian need – at least under this government – to have the capacity to defend itself. In that thinking the Iranians are not that different from the North Koreans. Indeed, it is not unreasonable for the Mullahs to wonder why the West would “permit” North Korea to go nuclear but prevent the Islamic Republic from doing the exact same thing.

It is that simple.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry can choose to recognize that reality or ignore it at their own peril.

That said, war is not something to be rushed into lightly; particularly war with Iran. There is no shame or weakness in aggressively pursuing a diplomatic channel. But this initial agreement is a victory only if it leads to a denuclearized Iran. The red line in this process is the ability to understand when diplomacy becomes an end unto itself and serves no larger strategic purpose.

So, give Obama his six months. Swallow the unbalanced deal and hold off on new sanctions.  See if – against all history and reason – there is a possibility that a core change of thinking has taken place in Tehran.

But six months is it.

Either Iran gives up its nuclear ambitions in a verifiable manner, or it will have to be taken away  by other means.

That is the test of Obama’s mettle with Iran.


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