For anyone who genuinely wants to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon and whose attitude toward the nuclear negotiations with Iran has not been shaped by some other agenda, the “Joint Plan of Action” that was agreed to in Geneva this weekend is a major achievement that deserves enthusiastic applause. Without delving into minutiae that understandably would spin the heads of most Americans who are not nuclear technology enthusiasts, several key attributes of this agreement stand out.
First, it unmistakably moves Iran farther away than it is now from any ability to make a nuclear weapon, and even farther away from any such ability it would have in the future in the absence of this agreement. Among the facets of the deal that do this are the stopping of enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and the conversion of all current material enriched to this level into forms making it unavailable for enrichment to the level required for weapons.
Second, Iran's program will be subjected to an unprecedented degree of international inspection, going beyond the treaty obligations of Iran or any other country and providing additional assurance that any Iranian departure from the terms of the agreement would be quickly detected.
Third, for anyone keeping score of such things, any imbalance in the deal is markedly against Iran and in favor of the P5+1. Iran has accepted significant restrictions—for now as a matter of the next six months—on the very aspects of its program that matter most regarding possible military use, while getting sanctions relief during the same time frame that is minor compared to the crippling oil and financial sanctions that remain in place.
And fourth, the deal does exactly what a preliminary agreement was supposed to do, at least from the viewpoint of the P5+1: to provide time for further negotiations without fear that Iran would use that time to work closer toward the capability of making a bomb. The agreement achieves the very result that was the ostensible objective of the repeatedly voiced demand by critics in Congress for Iran to cease all uranium enrichment. That objective is that Iran should have no more partially enriched uranium, available for possible further enrichment, after several more months of negotiations than it does now. The deal assures that objective, through an Iranian commitment not to increase its stock of 3.5 percent uranium in addition to the provisions dealing with 20 percent enrichment. If anyone still has reason to fear negotiations being used as a stalling tactic, it is Iranians who will see their country continue to lose billions each month as the oil and banking sanctions continue to inflict additional economic damage.
Everyone involved in the negotiations, and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry on the U.S. side, deserves much credit for what has been accomplished. As Kerry observed, however, the next phase of negotiations “will be even more difficult.” The difficulty will not come from any lack of a basis, consistent with both Western and Iranian interests, for reaching a final agreement. The outlines of such an agreement have been clear for some time, and the Joint Plan of Action has made them even clearer. The chief difficulty will instead consist of continued resistance from those opposed to any agreement and to any reduction in estrangement between the United States and Iran. Those opponents, and American politicians who follow their lead, will strive to inhibit the negotiations and prevent a final deal, no matter what the terms.
It will not matter to these opponents that negotiations that have already occurred and the preliminary agreement already reached have invalidated what used to be some of their principal arguments. They have abandoned arguments before when shown to be wrong and simply shifted to other lines of attack. With the new deal invalidating the argument that Iran could use a period of negotiations to work toward producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon, that argument will be abandoned as well. The opponents will look for other ways to screw up the process and spike a final agreement.
There are several things the opponents can do. The principal one is a continuation of moves in Congress to slap still more sanctions on Iran—a subject of much of the immediate comment by members of Congress in the first 24 hours after the preliminary deal was announced. Never mind the complete lack of logic in the notion that inflicting more punishment immediately after negotiations have borne more fruit than ever before, and the Iranians have made more concessions in an agreement than ever before, is somehow a way to induce still more concessions from them. Logic and reason will take second place to resourcefulness in trying to sabotage a further agreement. One tactic opponents may use is to enact more sanctions against Iran in the name of issues other than the nuclear program (such as terrorism or human rights) and to claim that they do not violate the interim agreement. There may be legislation along such lines in the months ahead that will raise the issue of whether President Obama needs to exercise his veto power.
Probably even a greater hurdle than this kind of procedural sabotage is the eventual need for concurrence of the U.S. Congress in removing most of the existing sanctions as part of a final agreement, not just in refraining from enacting new ones. This concurrence will be tough to get. A substantial slice of the Congress still appears inclined to stick to a deal-killing insistence that Iran be allowed no uranium enrichment at all. In this respect Kerry and the Obama administration, despite what in other respects has been a virtuoso performance in handling the latest rounds of negotiations, may have tactically erred in its effort to dance around the “right to enrich” issue. It has long been clear that any conceivable deal would need to involve some Iranian enrichment of uranium. Indeed, the Joint Plan of Action refers specifically to “a mutually defined enrichment program” in laying out parameters for a final agreement. This language is presumably part of what made it possible for the Iranians to concur in the preliminary agreement. It might have been better for the administration to have made clear all along that enrichment would be part of a curtailed Iranian program, rather than leaving this matter hanging out there as a handle for opponents to grab in the later and more difficult phase of negotiations.
It will be in trying to sell to the Congress a final agreement that a drawback of the two-phase approach to negotiations may become apparent. The very negotiating success in phase one may, in one way, make it harder to overcome opposition to an agreement in phase two. Because the Iranians conceded so much and the P5+1 so little in phase one, a follow-on agreement may look like it exhibits the opposite imbalance. Iranian obligations under a final agreement will consist chiefly of making permanent the sort of restrictions on their program that they agreed to on a temporary, six-month basis in the preliminary agreement. If they do that, the assurance the whole process provides against an Iranian nuclear weapon will remain strong. What the P5+1 will have to do if a final agreement is to be reached is to grant sanctions relief that is far more substantial than the modest amount granted in the preliminary deal. Without that, the Iranians have no incentive to make further concessions. Accusations being heard today that the preliminary agreement is unbalanced in favor of Iran lose credibility with even a cursory look at the terms of the agreement. Similar accusations against a final agreement, however, may sound more believable to many ears, in Congress and among the public.
Hope in offsetting these hazards lies partly in an offsetting advantage of the two-phase approach. The achievement of a substantial preliminary agreement—a historic departure after all the missed opportunities and non-dialogue of past years—imparts a sense of momentum. It of course buys negotiating time. It serves as a confidence-building measure, wiht the Iranians having more opportunity to demonstrate good faith and seriousness. And it provides more opportunity to demonstrate the invalidity of arguments being used by those out to undermine the negotiations. One of the arguments that is next likely to be shown invalid is the notion that limited sanctions relief would cause the entire sanctions regime to start to unravel.
The agreement reached in Geneva is an important positive development with regard not only to the nuclear weapons issue but also to broader U.S. interests in the Middle East and the conduct of U.S. diplomacy there. In this respect the agreement represents two beneficial things, both of which the principal opponents of the agreement are trying to prevent (which is why they will continue to try hard to undermine the process). First, it is a modest step toward a more normal relationship between the United States and Iran, in which points of disagreement as well as agreement can be managed in a businesslike way, as part of a wider conduct of U.S. foreign policy in which matters of disagreement and agreement with all other powers in the region also would be handled in a normal, businesslike way. Second, it is a demonstration that when a U.S. administration puts its mind to it, it can conduct initiatives and achieve results to advance U.S. interests even when opposed by hardline foreign governments with influence in Washington. To sustain these benefits requires a continued sustained push to the finish line: a final agreement in the next phase of the negotiations with Iran. The stakes are high, for reasons that go well beyond what the Iranians do with their nuclear program.