The Buzz

The Iran Deal: An Agreement Worth Supporting?

Ahron Shapiro’s critique eloquently expresses the strongest arguments against the P5+1 interim deal. In many ways this debate is “the principle versus the technical.” It’s regrettable that in 2015 the discussion is about how many thousands of centrifuges Iran may continue spinning. The mere fact that we have arrived here reflects a condemnable failure of policy over many years.

Ahron is also absolutely correct in saying that Iran’s nuclear program serves no legitimate civilian purpose. Iran does not require its existing nuclear infrastructure to service its fuel needs. Demanding that Iran dismantle its entire nuclear program on these grounds is therefore a defensible position—just not an effective one.

To say the deal will “legitimize Iran as a nuclear weapons threshold state” is a major overstatement. Once the deal is implemented Iran will have significantly less capacity to build a nuclear bomb than it does now. Although Iran’s nuclear facilities will remain in place, what makes this deal surprisingly effective is the degree to which Iran is surrendering those elements that could lead to a bomb. As Joe Cirincione puts it “Iran gets to keep its buildings. And we get to move out most of the furniture.”

Admittedly, this deal does legitimize Iran’s enrichment activities. This is plainly undesirable and undermines those seeking to limit the kinds of nuclear activities that individual states can legitimately engage in elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the interim deal with regard to enrichment is still quite strong. One risk was that the P5+1 would negotiate a ceiling on the number of centrifuges, while allowing Iran to upgrade its existing cascades with more advanced models. This did not occur. Iran is only permitted to use IR-1s in its enrichment activities, and strict limitations are being placed on Iran’s LEU stockpiles. Ahron’s speculation that Iran may utilize IR-8 centrifuges in its enrichment program is therefore incorrect. Moreover, Foreign Minister Zarif’s claim that Iran may “operate its high-speed centrifuges from the first day” does not contradict this. Iran will be able to undertake “limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges.” Iran will not, however, be permitted to use those centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

Ahron also understandably raises Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missile program, Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and the continued outrages from Tehran denying Israel’s right to exist. These are all serious matters that must be addressed—but the fact is sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program are not in place for this purpose. The interim deal expressly states that “U.S. sanctions on Iran for terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missiles will remain in place under the deal.”

Finally, Ahron asks two key questions:

1. What happens after the agreement ends?, and;

2. What happens if Iran doesn’t keep to the deal?

When the agreement ends, we will be in another world. The good news is that the interim deal is not one that just allows Iran to bide its time. Another risk in the negotiations was that Iran would get relief from sanctions and achieve acceptance of its nuclear program, only to be in a position to race for bomb on the deal’s expiry date. However the interim deal sufficiently winds back Iran’s existing program in a manner that makes this a difficult proposition. As part of the deal, Iran will be expected to join the IAEA Additional Protocol and comply with an intrusive inspections regime. Once the deal expires those inspections will continue to be in place.

What happens if Iran cheats is perhaps the most important question. I share Ahron’s scepticism regarding the effectiveness of "snap back" provisions for sanctions, especially those sanctions imposed by the UN. For a substantive violation my recommendation would be for a limited military response. For instance, if Iran was found to be secretly enriching uranium then the offending sites should be targeted. Leaving the remaining facilities unscathed (at least at first) would provide Iran with a clear incentive for returning swiftly to compliance. Moreover, a targeted military strike against Iran under those conditions would likely be seen as legitimate by the international community, far more so than any such action would be today.

This is where Israel should have focused its attention. Obtaining from the US clear and specific commitments as to what consequences Iran would face for cheating would have been an achievable and useful Israeli objective.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here