Mar 02 2015

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The Complexities of an Iranian Nuclear Deal

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A Complex and Complicated History...

A Complex and Complicated History…

Bibi Netanyahu will deliver a speech Tuesday, before a joint session of Congress, outlining the perils of cutting a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Obama administration, which was not consulted in advance about the invite extended by the Republican congressional leadership, has attempted to derail, then sabotage the speech, resorting to the kind of incendiary rhetoric that past Administrations might have employed if Congress had invited an American enemy to speak in its hallowed halls, as opposed to our strongest ally in the Middle East.

The fierce Obama administration reaction is a good barometer of the impossibly high stakes involved right now in cutting a nuclear deal with Iran.

The clock is ticking.

The negotiating parties (the P5 – US, Russia, China, Britain, France, +1 – Germany)  have set a June 30th deadline for an Iranian nuclear agreement, which means that a framework – where all the major decisions have been made – needs to be in place by the end of March. Setting aside the content of what has been put on the table,  US officials familiar with the negotiations still put the chances of a final deal, with all components agreed to among the parties, at no better than 50-50.

The core question that animates all other discussion of an agreement is this: is a “least-worst” deal with Iran better than no deal at all?

The Framework:

The US government has vigorously denied specific leaks in the press about the deal, but the broad outlines of an agreement have emerged nonetheless.

Iran will keep a reduced and restricted nuclear program. Iran will be permitted to keep up to 6,000 centrifuges that will allow the country to continue to purify uranium, but enrichment will be capped at five percent, a level that is both too low for a bomb, or which can rapidly be enriched  to make bomb quality uranium rapidly. Plutonium stores would be reduced and spent fuel rods from the Arak nuclear facility, which will remain in operation, would continue to be sent to Russia. A robust monitoring program would be put in place to ensure against cheating.

The goal would be to create tangible obstacles that would prevent Iran from building a bomb in less than 12 months if its leaders chose to renege on the deal. The agreement would apparently have a “sunset” clause, where the agreement would expire. Public leaks state that the agreement would last for 10 years, after which, presumably, Iran could pick up where it left off.

In return for the controls on its nuclear program and intrusive inspections,  multilateral sanctions would be lifted and normal trade restored, with the possibility of integration into the world economy and normalization of relations with the US.

Why This Deal is Essential:

By most estimates, Iran is currently between 3-6 months away from constructing a nuclear weapon. Through complex technical controls and restrictions, a fully executed agreement based on the terms outlined above would extend that period to a full year, ostensibly providing the international community the time necessary to address an Iranian nuclear breakout.

From an American perspective, more stringent terms – for instance,  abolishing the Iranian nuclear program in return for lifted sanctions – would be much more advantageous. But the US is not simply negotiating with Iran – which has never ceded its right to have a nuclear program – it must also reach consensus with the other P5 +1 whose strategic calculations are different from those of the US. Maintaining international pressure – and above all, sanctions – cannot be achieved by a “my way or the highway” approach by the US.

The decade long “strategic pause” for Iran’s nuclear program provides a window for social and cultural forces to influence the Iranian regime, perhaps even leading to a new, more moderate government, amenable to living up to both the spirit and the letter of the agreement, joining the international community instead of trying to topple the international order.

An agreement closes the door to the possibility of a new, costly and unpredictable war with Iran that would result from any military strike on its nuclear facilities. It buys the West breathing room, as the globe is convulsed with other social, economic and military upheaval.

Why This is a Bad Deal:

If the details released so far are accurate, it does appear as if the US and the other parties have been out-negotiated by the wily Persians.

A genuine research and development program for nuclear power can be credible with half as many centrifuges that the US will allow Iran to maintain under the agreement. By leaving so much nuclear infrastructure in place, the key determinant to the agreement’s success will be the inspection regime. Iranian efforts to hide its nuclear weapons program since 2002 does not instill confidence that even the most intrusive verification protocols will provide 100 percent assurance that Iran is in compliance. By all accounts, Iran will remain a nuclear weapons threshold state, with the power to rapidly assemble a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing, instead of having to reconstruct the program from scratch, which would buy time for the rest of the world.

In addition,  a strategic pause on these terms may be to Iran’s advantage. The P5 +1 negotiations only cover the nuclear program. A pause not only lifts sanctions and improves the prospect for economic growth, it provides the Iranians with time to perfect their missile technology; the guidance systems, range and all important ability to deliver a nuclear payload. Little reported, Iran is developing an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). They don’t need that type of weapon to attack Israel; the only purpose for an ICBM is to attack the United States.

And the sunset clause is itself a provocative new development in international relations. If Iran abides by the agreement for a set period of time, it is free to pursue a nuclear program – a legitimized nuclear weapons program – at its convenience.  Nuclear weapons powers have never provided a legal path to nuclear weapons development.

The leaked substance of the talks leads to another consequential question; is the agreement enough?

Clearly, Bibi Netanyahu will warn of the existential threat to Israel that the current framework agreement represents – at least as seen by the Israelis.  But what about other powers in the region? The Saudis, the Turks and Egyptians – all Sunni Muslim nations – will not stand by and allow Shia Iran to construct a nuclear arsenal. If the agreement is not perceived as strong enough to deter an Iranian bomb, the contemplated deal could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, vastly complicating the security situation for Israel and the US.


What is publicly known about the Iran deal makes this a leaky, kick-the-can strategy, with the hope that as yet unidentified forces/events will moderate Iranian behavior within a set period of time.

It is a huge gamble.

Ironically, the best outcome might be if the Iranians walked away. Even after all the concessions, the Iranians have to deal with their own “hard-liners” who are still holding out for a complete lifting of sanctions once an agreement is signed, not a phased lifting based on implementation and compliance, as the P5 have insisted.

If the Iranians walk away from what can only be considered a generous deal, it would pave the way for additional, painful economic sanctions on Iran that would seriously strain the regime, damage the economy and perhaps embolden the people who in 2009 took to the streets to protest, and became a genuine threat to the theocracy.

But the alternative to an agreement is also stark.

If the talks collapse, the Iranians, in all likelihood, would redouble efforts to finalize and test a nuclear device.  It is at that point that the window for a military option will be at a premium, to destroy Iran’s stores of nuclear material and the production facilities. The knock on impact from such an attack would proliferate geometrically and inevitably involve the US.

Absent an attack, once Iran is an official nuclear weapons power, the political dynamics in the Middle East change radically and not for the better, sparking an arms race where no one can win.

It is difficult to come up with a win-win formula with the current regime in Tehran.  At the end of the day, that is the actual problem that no one is grappling with. It is the regime – not the programs that they pursue that is the ultimate problem.  Everything else is nibbling on the margins.
























1 comment

  1. Thomas M.C.Wong

    The issue is we should not be making any kind of deal with such a barbaric people. They should not be allowed as many centrifuges as they already have and growing. Bibi said, the Persians were once a great and noble people under they were “hijacked” by the mullahs and become a regime that cannot be trusted. Since the joke of “inspectors” were not allowed to inspect and cannot come up with any solid conclusions…how do we know that there are not other sites, underground or otherwise actively producing nuclear material? What we see, is what they are allowing us to see. So why would anyone in their right mind trust these jokers?

    And why would a standing POTUS threaten Israel with violence or worst, war should she act alone? Is that not a clear message to all Muslims, friendly or otherwise, with who, the USA stands with? The Muslims? This speech should make the history books as the “INSULT OF THE CENTURY” where a standing US POTUS and his minions in congress sides with the Muslims and Islamic terrorist against a free and democratic state of the Middle East. Any and all arguments put forth by Obama, Kerry, Rice and all is MUTE…it’s political “nit picking” NO DEALS!! THIS IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE WHERE IT SHOULD BE “MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY, JACK!!” Unbelievable, don’t this administration realize that they are toying with peoples lives? Of future generations? All because of personal issues?? Where are the grown ups?

    The bottom line is, Iran cannot have the “bomb”. End of story. It’s bad enough N. Korea has it, and they don’t need a carrier system to reach the USA…just one of it’s allies, just enough to hold it hostage.

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