IT WAS LONG PAST MIDNIGHT IN GENEVA last November when the rumors began to fly. Iran and the world powers had just reached a deal on its nuclear program. An international crisis that had been building toward what seemed like war for more than a decade was now on the path to resolution. The deal, a haggard John Kerry confirmed, was real. It wasn’t comprehensive—Iran would still be heavily sanctioned and heavily centrifuged—but it was unprecedented. All prior efforts had fallen apart. Now the two sides had agreed to initial trust-building measures, had outlined the terms of a final deal and had made plans to work toward it. And what allowed the deal to happen was equally important—a glimmer of rapprochement between Iran and the United States, whose mutual distrust and occasional enmity is the root of the nuclear issue.
No sooner had the deal been reached than Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as a snare and a delusion. Similarly, a chorus of American neoconservatives insisted that the Obama administration had cut a lousy deal. “Abject Surrender by the United States” was the headline on former ambassador John Bolton’s story the next day at the Weekly Standard. The surrender, said Bolton, was that under the deal, “Iran retains its full capacity to enrich uranium, thus abandoning a decade of Western insistence and Security Council resolutions that Iran stop all uranium-enrichment activities.” William Kristol announced, “The American people won’t be able to repeal Iran’s nuclear weapons once Iran has them. That’s why serious people, in Congress and outside, will do their utmost to expose and scuttle Obama’s bad Iran deal.” And writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens did Bolton and Kristol one better. He didn’t say the deal was as bad as the 1938 Munich agreement. He said it was even worse.
Such overwrought piffle exposes the weakness of the neocon case. For the truth is that the deal does not amount to surrender. It will not lead to regime change or other utopian goals. It represents something more plausible—an armed truce that is in the interest of both Iran and the United States and that could lead to a broader détente between the two nations.
HERE’S WHY THE AGREEMENT’S CRITICS have it wrong. While Iran’s gains may have defied Security Council measures and worked around international sanctions, in pragmatic terms the limits on Iran’s nuclear program were being set in Tehran. Fearing war and deeper international cooperation against it, Iran had converted some of its stockpile of 19.75 percent enriched uranium into fuel plates. The challenge of converting them back added time to any rush for bomb-grade uranium. Yet it continued to install new centrifuges and expand its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. Both would be useful in a nuclear breakout. Iranian officials regularly declared their intentions to vastly expand parts of the nuclear program in the future. And at times, they even suggested they would build nuclear submarines or other nuclear-powered vessels, which would allow them, under the cover of international law, to enrich uranium to bomb grade. In short, while international law had given us firmer ground from which to oppose Iran’s nuclear advances, it was doing little to arrest them. The time had clearly come for other steps.
Sanctions have been one of those other steps. It is difficult to see why Iran’s rulers would negotiate seriously with the West without being made to pay some genuine cost. They tend to agree that the international measures against Iran are illegitimate and rooted in double standards. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in particular, has long been skeptical of America’s intentions and honesty.
The United States has had some sanctions measures against Iran in force for decades. They were not producing results until, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s tough rhetoric and continued nuclear gains induced other countries to join in the sanctions regime. One of the broadest sanctions coalitions in history formed. These forces combined with Ahmadinejad’s gross mismanagement to produce severe turmoil in the Iranian economy, including, at one point, a monthly inflation rate above 60 percent. Things were so bad that the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood took a “hyperinflation vacation” to Iran’s Kish Island resorts, his hard currency granting him access to luxuries usually out of reach. And he wasn’t alone; as he wrote, his flight from the United Arab Emirates was packed with
Filipinas on leave from jobs in Dubai. Kish, they told me, had emerged as a preferred holiday destination for those too poor to go all the way home to the Philippines. After just a short flight, they could live like queens for a week, having toiled as scullery maids for a year or more without vacation.
The economic troubles were undeniably linked to the nuclear situation—the rial would swing wildly when negotiations were in session. The arrival of the new government of Hassan Rouhani restored competence to Iran’s economic administration, but conditions remain urgent. Rouhani’s stated goal is to reduce inflation to a still-blistering 25 percent by early 2015; one of his close advisers said that he “doubt[s] that in the next four years the . . . inflation rate will fall to less than 10 percent.”
Problems like these have prompted Iran to bargain more seriously with the West. Yet the key to the sanctions’ effectiveness had been the broad coalition backing them. Forming that coalition had taken a big push by the United States. It is hard for many countries, especially those with struggling economies, to resist the pull of one of the Middle East’s largest markets. If Washington doesn’t appear to be negotiating seriously, the sanctions regime could crumble.
MANY CAPITALS WOULD HAVE SEEN A REFUSAL of the initial deal signed last November—the Joint Plan of Action—as just such a failure to negotiate seriously. For all its flaws, the Joint Plan represents a path to a livable final arrangement.
In the short term, the most important concession won from Iran is the reduction of its stocks of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent purity. This stockpile posed the greatest risk of a quick nuclear breakout. Uranium needs to be enriched to more than 90 percent purity to make a usable nuclear bomb, but it takes far more work to enrich a unit of natural uranium to 20 percent than to take it from 20 percent to weapons grade. This is the principle behind Netanyahu’s famous bomb diagram, shown to the world in his September 2012 address to the United Nations General Assembly. It’s also the reason Iran was converting some of its 20 percent stockpile into fuel plates—it knew that a big stockpile would be a rallying point against Tehran. As Ploughshares Fund head Joseph Cirincione put it to the Washington Post, reducing the stockpile under the Joint Plan has “drain[ed] the uranium from Mr. Netanyahu’s bomb.” By taking the most urgent concern off the table, the interim agreement buys time for negotiation and reduces the risk of miscalculation on either side.
Similarly, expansions under way at Iran’s enrichment facilities and at the unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak (potentially a key element in a plutonium-based approach to a bomb) are now effectively paused, halting an alarming trend. And inspections of Iran’s facilities are now more rigorous and extensive, which will provide a clearer picture of the threat and a greater chance of detection in the event of an attempted breakout. The concessions made on sanctions, while significant, appear to be worth the price of these gains, and certainly so if they lead to a final deal.
The final deal outlined in the Joint Plan of Action represents a further improvement. The parties have agreed that a final deal will include Iran’s ratification of an Additional Protocol agreement with the IAEA, which would give inspectors a clearer picture of Iran’s activities. Getting Iran on board with the Additional Protocol has long been a key American goal. Iran would also “fully resolve concerns related to the reactor at Arak,” and agree not to reprocess spent nuclear fuel or build facilities that can do so. This would block the plutonium path to a bomb.
What’s the cost for a final deal? It would further legitimize the elements of the nuclear program that Iran constructed illegitimately, as discussed above, and Iran would get to keep some capabilities that, all other things being equal, we’d not want them to have. We’d also “comprehensively lift [all] nuclear-related sanctions,” dismantling the impressive structure we’ve built and giving Iran a clearer path to economic strength. Yet the whole point of those sanctions was to push Iran to make a deal on the nuclear program, so it would be strange to keep them in place after making the deal. And we would be able to keep in place the range of sanctions we’ve applied to Iran over concerns about terrorism and human rights—these are, after all, not “nuclear-related sanctions.” Agreeing to that in the Joint Plan was a concession by the Iranians, who had previously insisted that all sanctions would have to be lifted in the nuclear deal. Lifting the human-rights and terror sanctions in order to resolve concerns about the nuclear program would have been an extremely tough sell at home—rightly so—and would have sent a dangerous message to other states that America has targeted over human-rights concerns: namely, that by making yourself dangerous you can force concessions in other areas.
The biggest open question regarding the final deal is what enrichment capability Iran will retain. The Joint Plan specifies that there will be “a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical-needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.” Obviously this is rather vague, especially on the key point of whether Iran will be allowed to develop and deploy progressively more advanced centrifuges that would be a greater proliferation risk than the primitive models the country currently uses. But we should recognize that Iranian enrichment is a manageable threat. Smaller numbers of less advanced centrifuges simply take longer to make a bomb. Pairing limits with a strong inspection regime, like the one in the Additional Protocol, makes the threat even more manageable. The main work after a final deal would be ensuring that a strong coalition of nations remains committed to holding Iran to the terms. The worst-case scenario would be if Iran abrogated the deal and kicked out the inspectors, but only got a tepid response from the international community. For this to happen, there would have to be significant, likely preventable shifts in the dynamics of relations between the United States and other great powers, such that some of those powers would rather accept the danger of a nuclear Iran than cooperate with the United States to forestall it. (The Ukraine crisis risks moving things in that direction.) If we reach that point in our relations with other great powers, the problem of a nuclear Iran will be far less severe in comparison.
YET THE HAWKS IN WASHINGTON REMAIN BEDAZZLED by the prospect of confrontation. Their posturing in the wake of the Iraq War brings to mind Talleyrand’s comment about the Bourbons: “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” And so, days before the interim deal was signed, a bipartisan group of fourteen senators issued a statement that they intended to pass new sanctions “as soon as possible,” saying that they were “committed to preventing Iran from acquiring [nuclear-weapons] capability.” The group, which included well-known hawks like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Charles Schumer, enigmas like Tennessee’s Bob Corker, and Iraq War opponent Robert Menendez, promptly moved to make good on their word, proposing the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act a month later. If enacted, the measure would have tightened and expanded sanctions on Iran if it violated a range of strictures or failed to sign a final deal that met certain criteria.
The bill’s proponents sold it as a reasonable step to ensure Iran was negotiating in good faith. “Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,” said Menendez in a statement. When the Obama administration pushed back, saying that the measure could scuttle the deal, National Review quipped that “if enforcing the terms of a weak existing bargain would imperil negotiations, that is as good a sign as any that, for now, negotiations are not worth holding at all.” And Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, another key supporter of the bill, stated that it “would not impose any new sanctions during negotiations so long as Iran complies with the terms of the interim step agreement and concludes a final agreement to dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure.” Yet the bill did not merely serve to put teeth in the Joint Plan of Action. It was instead an alternative to it, drawing up parameters for a final agreement that did not match up with those that had been agreed upon in the Joint Plan. Had the bill been passed and had Iran then made a deal, even a generous one, under the Joint Plan, it would have still been hit with more extensive sanctions than ever before. The proposed legislation was thus a kind of de facto referendum on the Joint Plan—one that attracted fifty-nine cosponsors before an intense campaign against the sanctions by the White House and its allies in the press stalled it. Even AIPAC was backing away from the bill by the end.
Just where did the bill go wrong? It included a number of miscellaneous elements that added nothing to the legal impact of the bill, but which would have greatly influenced Iran’s interpretation of it, such as a declaration of the sense of Congress that “if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program,” the United States should support it with military force. It’s hard to say what this even means in practical terms—an Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program would be preventive and therefore not “legitimate self-defense” under the traditional laws of war; an Israeli military action in response to imminent or actual Iranian nuclear attack would be legitimate, but would almost certainly be supported by the United States, nonbinding resolution or not. A third reading, perhaps what some of the bill’s authors intended, is that it’s an attempt to stipulate that an Israeli preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear program would be “legitimate self-defense” (the word “legitimate” now being redefined to mean “supported by a statement from some legislative body somewhere”), and further that America should support it. Whether it’s prudent for Congress to declare our support before the fact for wars initiated at the leisure of a foreign government is a question we’ll leave for another day, but suffice it to say the Iranians would not take such declarations as signs of our good faith.
As Edward Levine of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has pointed out, the proposed legislation would also link relief of the nuclear sanctions to two nonnuclear matters: the state of Iran’s ballistic-missile program and its support for terrorist activities. These are both critical areas of concern for U.S. national security, and that concern should be reflected in U.S. law. Yet that does not mean that they should be tied to the nuclear program (especially when resolving the nuclear issue would make Iran’s ballistic missiles and terrorist proxies a bit less threatening). It also does not mean that the best way for Washington to address its concerns about missiles and terrorism would be to breach the commitments it made in the Joint Plan of Action. Worse still, Levine notes that these linking clauses in the bill don’t specify a time frame, which could make them impossible to fulfill—to grant sanctions relief, the president might have to certify that Iran has never supported an act of terror against the United States (it’s done that before) or tested longer-ranged missiles (ditto).
But the worst feature of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act is that it would move the goalposts set in the Joint Plan of Action. In the Joint Plan, the parties agreed that a final deal would “involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters,” and would “fully resolve concerns related to the reactor at Arak.” Yet under the bill, the final deal would have to “dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities, the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak[emphasis added], and any nuclear weapon components and technology.” The bill and the Joint Plan are in direct contradiction on enrichment, and they’re in implicit contradiction on Arak. (And, as Levine observes, “How one dismantles technology is left to the imagination.”) The Iranians would complain if the legislation passed—and this time, they’d be in the right.
IN SUM, THE IRAN DEAL is not “surrender” or “Munich” or something even worse. It’s actually a positive, if limited, step. Indeed, it promises benefits that extend beyond what’s spelled out in the Joint Plan of Action. After more than three decades of enmity and mutual isolation broken only by secret, furtive contacts, the United States and Iran are now speaking regularly and openly. That’s important. Not communicating, even when relations are bad, is dangerous. It increases the chances of miscalculation and misunderstanding, and prevents potential areas of cooperation—which do exist—from balancing troubles in the relationship.
If the Joint Plan leads to a successful final deal that resolves the nuclear dispute, the unwritten benefits will be greater. Iran and the United States do not trust each other. Each has ample reason for that. That mistrust amplifies each side’s worries about the other—and makes behavior that will be seen as untrustworthy more likely. This unhealthy cycle has been on clear display with the nuclear issue: Iran builds secret nuclear facilities that make us think they’re up to no good; we mull attacking those facilities to head off evil intentions, which makes them more secretive, which makes us more worried, and so on. Cooperating to resolve a major strategic dispute gives each side an opportunity to test the other’s trustworthiness. The success of the Joint Plan could thus yield benefits in unexpected areas.
Of course, the Obama administration must remain clear-eyed in its view of Iran. At this point, calls in some quarters for a “grand bargain” or even an alliance savor of geopolitical naïveté. Iran’s government continues to be a major sponsor of terrorism. It is a rival to many of our allies, and though some of these alliances are not as close as they once were, they won’t be going away anytime soon. Iran talks like a revisionist power, and sometimes acts like one, too.
But there is plenty of room for a deal with Iran that benefits both sides. Washington has no interest in provoking a military confrontation that would foster even more anti-Americanism and send the price of crude spiraling. For its part, Tehran, wracked by economic woes, appears to have a keen sense of its national interests. There are plenty of nasty countries around the world that the United States, to borrow a phrase from former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, does business with. Iran can and should be one of them. When it comes to Iran, the Obama administration is on the right path.
John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest and the coauthor ofWar with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).