Late last year, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France—plus Germany) reached an interim deal with Iran to freeze and even roll back some of its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions. The arrangements went into effect on January 20 and will expire after six months. According to the "Joint Plan of Action" of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, another six-month stopgap deal may be signed after the first one expires, but a comprehensive long-term agreement should be reached within a year, by late January 2015.
This comprehensive final deal will be very challenging to negotiate because of the very different expectations of the end state held by Tehran versus the P5+1 powers. Essentially, the interim deal is a halfway house to very different destinations, depending on which side of the table the negotiators are sitting at. Iran and the P5+1 powers remain on fundamentally different trajectories.
The P5+1 nations—or at least the Western faction of the P5+1—are expecting the arrangements of the interim deal to be ratcheted up such that Iran's nuclear program is even further constrained. Meanwhile, the Iranian side sees the interim deal as part of a confidence-building measure that would generate goodwill and eventually lead to their country being treated like any other non-nuclear weapons state of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Ultimately, Iran would like to be treated like Argentina or Brazil—NPT non-nuclear weapons states that also enrich uranium, but with far more lax nuclear inspections. In fact, the Joint Plan of Action explicitly says that following the implementation of the comprehensive deal, “the Iranian nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.”
So in the spirit of “hoping for the best while preparing for the worst”, one should be ready for a breakdown in future talks due to the divergent visions of the end state.
But while the final comprehensive deal may prove elusive, this ought not be a cause for alarm or for a rush to military action. The negotiations, after all, are about agreeing on equitable mechanisms to make sure Iran's nuclear program continues to remain peaceful. They are not about stopping Iran from weaponizing, because—while nuclear technology can be dual-use—there is no evidence whatsoever that Iran is on a mad rush to make nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, several well-meaning commentators, in their enthusiasm for further negotiations—and understandable opposition to piling on more sanctions just yet—have cast the alternatives far too starkly. Writing in the New York Times, Senators Carl Levin and Angus King, Jr. state that “There are only two ways to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon: negotiations or military action.” The president of the Carnegie Endowment, Dr. Jessica Mathews, in the New York Review of Books, echoes “There are...two remaining choices: an agreement or an attack.” Even the usually sober and carefully fact-checked New York Times editorial board miscasts the alternatives: “if negotiations fail...Iran is likely to embark on an even more aggressive search for a nuclear weapon. And that could leave war as the only option.” Such hyperbolic binary war/no-war statements are probably a bigger threat than Iran's nuclear program ever will be: should negotiations fail, such statements could be disastrously misused.
According to U.S. intelligence, Iran is not searching for a nuclear weapon—aggressively or otherwise. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said in 2011 that he had a “high level of confidence” that Tehran had not decided to restart its nuclear weapons program. And in his testimony on January 29 of this year, he again repeatedly distinguished between what Iran was capable of and what it had actually decided to do. The DNI's confidence is not based on an absence of evidence but on highly credible information that whatever weaponization research Iran may have been doing up to about 2003 was wrapped up a decade ago. The nuclear negotiations are not about stopping Iran from getting a bomb but about the methods used to verify that Iran's program continues to remain peaceful.
Dr. Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, recently stated: “So far Iran has not violated the NPT,” adding, “and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.” And Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, is on record stating he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb. “All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran,” he concluded.
Even if a final deal is not struck, IAEA inspectors will remain on the ground and continue to provide extensive oversight of Iran's nuclear program. Out of all the countries it inspects, the IAEA spends the second-highest amount on Iran's nuclear inspections—Japan, with a vastly greater nuclear infrastructure, accounts for the biggest chunk. About 12 percent of the IAEA's $164 million inspections budget is spent on Iran. This is due to go up to about 19% during the period of the interim deal because of the even more intrusive—and thus expensive—inspections to be carried out during this time.
Deal or no deal, the IAEA will continue to conduct in Iran one of the most thorough and intrusive inspections it carries out anywhere.
If we—or our allies—bomb Iran just because we could not reach an agreement on the parameters of Iran's nuclear program, the IAEA inspectors would almost certainly be expelled, Iran would likely leave the NPT, and Tehran would probably kick off a full-blown nuclear weapons development project.
Before getting carried away with war talk, it is useful to review how we got here, and just how much of a threat Iran's nuclear program really poses. Most importantly, Iran has never been accused of manufacturing nuclear weapons. The IAEA did determine, in 2005, that Iran was in “non-compliance” with its safeguards agreement. But this finding has to do with technical nuclear material accountancy matters—“non-compliance” does not mean Iran was making nuclear weapons. Back then, Iran did not even have the material needed to make a nuclear bomb factory, even if it wanted to do so.
Because of this technical non-compliance finding, the IAEA referred Iran's nuclear 'file' to the UN Security Council. In an unorthodox and controversial application of international law, the Western faction of the Security Council then pressed—and eventually succeeded—in applying Chapter 7 sanctions on Iran, when normally such a step is reserved for situations when there is a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression”. Such a finding was, in fact, never officially made.
Objectively, the non-NPT states that covertly developed nuclear weapons—Israel, India, and Pakistan—are far larger “threats to the peace”, but due to flawed IAEA-UN bureaucratic practice their cases never percolate up to the Security Council. The net result is that NPT member nations with nuclear material accountancy errors are treated more harshly by the Security Council than non-NPT states that covertly make nuclear weapons. This practice is a disincentive for nations to remain in the NPT and, unless rectified, will discourage countries from signing on to future nonproliferation pacts.
By 2008—according to the IAEA itself—all substantial safeguards issues had been resolved in Iran's favor. As of 2008 Iran was again largely in compliance with its safeguards agreement yet Iran's nuclear file continues to remain hung-up in the UN Security Council. The main issue outstanding is the so-called “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) dossier supplied to the IAEA largely by third-party intelligence agencies.
Even if it is mostly authentic, the substance of this dossier may not be relevant to IAEA safeguards. But according to Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector and a 30-plus-year veteran of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, at least some of the evidence purporting to show weaponization research work continuing past 2004 may be less than compelling:
“[The] evidence, according to the IAEA, tells us Iran embarked on a four-year program, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction. Though I cannot say for sure what source the agency is relying on, I can say for certain that this project was earlier at the center of what appeared to be a misinformation campaign.... Mohamed ElBaradei, who was then the agency’s director general, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity...”