The details of a first step in a comprehensive deal with Iran have not been made public. Both the P5+1 (U.S., UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran have managed to keep them a secret, fearing that hardliners on both sides may try to sabotage the deal before an agreement is signed. However, this has not prevented those with maximalist positions on the nuclear program, including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from opposing the first step. Netanyahu, among others, has demanded that the entire Iranian nuclear program be dismantled, and has encouraged the U.S. Congress to pass more sanctions against Iran. According to media reports, it appears that Iran and the P5+1 are close to agreeing for Tehran to suspend major aspects of its program, including the enrichment of uranium to a medium level of 20 percent, and installation of more advanced centrifuges, in return for reversible and limited easing of sanctions, including allowing Iran to export petrochemicals and access oil revenue frozen by sanctions.
Critics of the first step claim that it gives Iran too much without anything substantial in return. They are wrong. Sanctions against Iran will only be lifted under a final comprehensive deal in which Iran rolls back its program. The sanctions regime itself would not be weakened in the first step, as access to limited funds and additional exports (estimated in the range of $6-10 billion) will not fix Iran’s declining economy, which will continue to suffer even after an initial agreement is reached. Iran is now earning from its oil less than half of what it did before the worst of the sanctions hit. The first step of the current deal under discussion will not change that, since Iran’s oil exports will not increase; but it may be enough for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to sell the deal at home. Given the past decade of Iranian intransigence, Tehran’s adherence to the first step could be a great victory for the United States and the entire international community. So why are the maximalists against it?
A potential nuclear deal between Iran and the United States has caused a lot of anxiety for U.S. allies, notably Saudi Arabia and various Persian Gulf states, but primarily Israel. The sources of anxiety are understandable. Israel is a geographically small state with many enemies in the Middle East. Its powerful conventional military and stockpile of nuclear weapons make it the regional Goliath. However, this does not erase Israel’s vulnerability to even one nuclear bomb, which could devastate the entire country. Netanyahu may have adopted a maximalist position in order to enhance Israel’s interests in the nuclear negotiations. He may secretly believe that Israel can live with a limited amount of enrichment capability, but wants to make sure Tel Aviv drives a hard bargain. Or he may truly believe that the entire Iranian program should be dismantled. Let us assume the latter is true; Netanyahu feels he cannot tolerate even a limited Iranian capability.
The problem with this approach is that Iran has already mastered knowledge of the nuclear fuel cycle. Israel is rightly concerned about Iran’s physical nuclear facilities, some of which it can damage or maybe destroy through military strikes. However, Israel cannot destroy Iran’s mastery of nuclear technology. Any facilities dismantled through military force, or even through pressure by sanctions, can be reconstituted by Tehran at an opportune moment, and without the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who currently monitor Iranian installations. It is therefore in Israeli interests to keep the inspectors in Iran. A military strike, and even the collapse of negotiations, could put that in jeopardy. A more realistic approach is one that allows Iran to keep limited enrichment under the scrutiny of the international community.
A Resilient Iranian Regime
A negotiated deal with Iran would also not have the power to completely erase Iran’s nuclear knowledge. Nor would it have the ability to dismantle the entire program. The Iranian regime is not made of fools; it has survived thirty-four years of war, insurgency, sanctions, isolation, assassinations, and the opposition of its own people. A dismantling of the entire nuclear program could demonstrate that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his system are weak, a signal the regime cannot afford to send to its many enemies.
Additional sanctions by Congress may choke off the Iranian economy, but they will not choke the regime. While unpopular and weakened, the Islamic Republic is hardly on its last legs. It is a regime, ostensibly ruled by God’s representative on Earth, that is willing to sacrifice its own people. After all, it is the same regime that sent thousands of young Iranian boys across Iraqi minefields to clear them for advancing Iranian troops in the 1980s. It is the same regime that systematically raped Iranian protestors as part of their crackdown against the 2009 Green uprising.
At the same time, Iran is no North Korea; it is not a dictatorship, but an authoritarian regime that responds to pressure. However, there are certain red lines that cannot be crossed, and humiliation is one. The maximalist approach by Netanyahu and others is a call for the regime’s surrender, and Khamenei is not, and may never be, ready for surrender.
But Khamenei and Rouhani do want to rid Iran of sanctions. The regime’s business interests are suffering and Khamenei no doubt feels pressure from his loyal constituents. Hence, his support for negotiations. It remains to be seen whether Tehran will sign off on the first step, as nothing is guaranteed. But there are indications that Iran and the P5+1 were very close to sealing a deal in the November 7-8 Geneva negotiations. The next round of negotiations, set to take place on November 20, could lead to a first step by Iran to halt its nuclear activities.
Take Your Pick: A Deal, Or a War and/or Nukes
Israel’s concerns and anxieties have been felt in the U.S. Congress, which is considering new sanctions against Iran. Many members of Congress argue that sanctions brought Iran to the table, so more sanctions are needed. However, additional sanctions would come perilously close to crossing Iran’s red line of humiliation. They could also confirm Khamenei’s belief that the U.S. seeks to implode his regime through endless sanctions.
Like most rulers, Khamenei would be concerned about the effects of a total oil embargo (through sanctions) on Iran. But it would be no surprise that Khamenei has thought through the consequences of such a possibility. He has the political motives to continue with the nuclear program even in the face of total sanctions. He could tell Iranians that it was the U.S. Congress, pressured by Israel, which reneged on a deal. The Iranian regime, including the suave Rouhani, may then tell foreign powers that Iran was the victim of American ‘duplicity.’ Many Iranians, even those opposed to the Islamic Republic, may believe Khamenei. And many countries that have enabled the sanctions regime against Iran may also come to have their doubts. Finally, the collapse of negotiations would mean a permanent sanctions regime, which means Iran would have no reason to stop its nuclear progress toward a weapons capability.
The United States would face two choices: to attack Iran, since the Israelis likely lack the means to completely destroy the nuclear program through air strikes; or accede to a nuclear Iran. But even a U.S. military strike against Iran would not destroy Iran’s nuclear knowledge, or its willingness to build nuclear weapons in order to deter future attacks.
Americans and Israelis cannot let their anxieties rule the day. There is good reason to be skeptical of the Iranian regime, and that skepticism should not go away until Iran sees a fundamental change in its political system. In 2009 the Iranian people demonstrated that they wanted change. They have not given up. However, a better future for Iran, and ultimately for U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East, cannot be achieved through war or endless sanctions.
The Islamic Republic may not be on its knees, and it may survive the worst of economic pressures, but it cannot survive the demands of the Iranian people. But the Iranian people need space to achieve a more democratic country. Giving diplomacy a chance, without more sanctions at this point, could be the first step.
Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.