Iran Nuclear Deal: Why Washington Shouldn't Settle

The international community must not be drawn into the false sense of complacency that any deal with Iran is better than no deal.

Here we go: the P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations are entering the homestretch, with the parties set to negotiate continuously up until the July 20 deadline in an effort to secure a comprehensive nuclear deal. At this point, there are four possible outcomes: a good deal that will cover all of the problematic aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and largely dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure; a decision to continue negotiations for up to six months; major P5+1 concessions that would result in a deal that does not cover all the problematic aspects of Iran’s nuclear program (a mediocre to bad deal); and an impasse or suspension of the talks due to a mutual sense that a deal is (currently) unachievable.

A good deal is quite obviously the best outcome for the international community and from Israel’s point of view as well—a decision to continue negotiations would basically keep Israel in a ‘wait and see’ mode for a few more months. It is the latter two options—an impasse in the talks or agreement to a bad deal—that would pose the more complicated policy dilemmas for Israel, with the ‘bad deal’ scenario posing the most difficult one of all.

A breakdown and suspension of the talks would be a problematic development, leaving the issue unresolved, and with the prospect of Iran returning full force to advancing its nuclear program in all respects. However, the crisis would nevertheless remain squarely in the court of the P5+1, and there would be an expectation of continued international commitment to resolve the crisis, although—depending on what led to the impasse—the six parties could also find themselves facing some internal dissent that undermines their continued ability to work as a group. Still, continued pressure on Iran through existing and most likely stepped-up sanctions would be expected, and perhaps more concrete threats of military consequences. Israel’s main course of action in this scenario would be doing whatever it could to continue to help beef up P5+1 determination and pressure on Iran.

It is therefore the ‘bad deal’ option—namely, a deal that does not dismantle the significant elements of Iran’s nuclear program—that would have the most severe implications for Israel. The very fact of having concluded a deal would likely mean that the international community will feel that it has done its part, and there is likely to be a sharp decline in the attention or concern devoted to Tehran’s efforts in the nuclear realm. Everyone will be happy to point to whatever minimal Iranian concessions were secured, while underscoring that the inspection regime will do the job, and to have this off their collective agenda so they can get back to business with Iran. This will leave Israel and other regional powers exposed to the threat, and with the need to carve out their own approach to this new and very dangerous regional reality.

Before moving to Israel’s options if the P5+1 concede to a bad nuclear deal with Iran, here are a few words on what we mean when we say ‘bad deal’, as well as on the conditions under which the international negotiators might end up agreeing to such a deal—that would leave Iran dangerously poised to move to breakout in what could be unstoppable short order.

If we consider the list of problematic elements of Iran’s nuclear program, the main issues are Iran’s uranium enrichment activity, its work at Arak which could support a plutonium route to nuclear weapons, the weaponization aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and the delivery mechanism: ballistic missiles. The lack of strong and intrusive verification is also a major current concern. The issues that must be addressed regarding uranium enrichment are the number of centrifuges and their type, Iran’s vast stockpile of 5 percent enriched uranium, and the Fordow facility. There are different tradeoffs that could be made, and therefore, there is not only one way to define a bad deal; moreover, a prospective deal could fall anywhere between a mediocre deal to a bad deal, such that there are degrees of ‘badness’.

But a ‘bad deal’ would be one that does not dismantle many thousands of centrifuges, that does not address the issue of advanced new generation centrifuges, that does not substantially reduce enriched uranium stockpiles, that does not alter Arak so that plutonium cannot be extracted and that does not directly confront Iran with evidence of its decades of cheating and working on a military nuclear program. This last element is of paramount importance, because Iran’s violation of its commitment not to work on a military program is the reason why the international community is in a position to demand the extensive dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program that it is demanding. A deal that does not address weaponization is inherently a lousy one, and will ultimately undermine any concessions that Iran temporarily agrees to offer.