The Grand Bargain: What Iran Conceded in the Nuclear Talks

April 17, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy Region: Middle East Tags: Iran

The Grand Bargain: What Iran Conceded in the Nuclear Talks

Iran gave up its fair share in the nuclear negotiations.

By agreeing to the permanent modification of the Arak reactor, Iran is essentially foregoing in perpetuity a plutonium-based nuclear weapons option using this reactor. The redesigned Arak will be incapable of producing the 1-2 weapons’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium per year possible under its present configuration and, as such, its utility in a nuclear weapons’ breakout has been permanently removed.

Taken in combination with Iran’s indefinite renunciation of spent fuel reprocessing capabilities and decision to ship out all spent fuel from this reactor, the plutonium path will be closed to Iran. (And lest critics suggest that Bushehr could adequately serve Iran’s plutonium needs, the risk of this was considered sufficiently low that the Bush Administration reversed its earlier policy on Bushehr, welcoming its construction in 2007. Moreover, the no reprocessing commitments made by Iran would also apply here.)

In other instances, the P5+1 conceded to Iranian concerns, for example with respect to whether the Fordow plant should be physically closed. The U.S. and broader P5+1 position in early 2014 was evidently that the facility should be shuttered and, today, it has been acknowledged that the facility itself will remain open, even if substantially transformed.

Yet, even in this area, the United States did not foreclose the possibility of Fordow remaining open if converted to another purpose: the concern expressed by President Obama at the time, as well as by his officials, is that it not be an enrichment facility. Though some may argue that the presence of centrifuges on the site contradicts this demand, the whole purpose of the facility will be changed as a result of the modifications under discussion and the centrifuges remaining there will be incapable of supporting uranium enrichment. As such, the facility’s real ability to support a weapons-oriented breakout has been impaired significantly.

Given this, what is the rationale for demanding the facility itself be shut down? The fact that it is buried under a mountain only points to why uranium enrichment should not be permitted there and why inspector access is critical. Iran is full of mountains. Should they decide to use another one to engage in uranium enrichment, the key will be access and transparency, not whether the walls of Fordow are caved in.

This highlights a fundamental distinction between critics of the nuclear deal and its advocates. For those opposed to a deal, there are certainly some legitimate concerns about the nature of what may be agreed upon and these merit exploration so that the final arrangement can, to the extent possible, address them.

But, there appears to be as serious a frustration with the fact that the United States appears to have lost in some fashion. Criticism of the Obama administration “backing down” has been a part of the Iran negotiations from the start, but with the conclusion of the political framework, this has taken on an even more charged tone.

No less luminaries that former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz noted in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that “while Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal,” implicitly arguing that the side that offers solutions to problems is somehow intrinsically the weaker side.

In my view, this reflects a fundamental disregard of the realities of the situation: only the P5+1 can offer credible suggestions of what it would take for Iran to build international confidence in its nuclear program because they are the demanders. Iran’s need to get out from under sanctions is significant, but hardly puts Iran in a position to define what kind of nuclear steps are necessary to resolve the situation to the P5+1‘s satisfaction. To Iran’s mind, the issue itself was all a fabrication in any event. If the P5+1 wanted to have solutions to its loss of confidence in Iran’s nuclear program, it would have to offer them.

But, the asymmetry of demands does not mean that there were asymmetries in concessions. Put simply, in order to get a nuclear deal acceptable to the P5+1, Iran was forced to pull back on its nuclear program for a significant period of time. It is sacrificing a national treasure—and one for which considerable national hardship has been endured—to get a deal. And, realistically, it has sacrificed any reasonable nuclear weapons breakout option for at least 10-15 years and perhaps longer.

For the P5+1, it relinquished a tool that it only picked up in order to address the nuclear problem Iran created. Far from lamenting the opportunity lost, critics of the nuclear deal ought to be marveling at the elegance of a coercive diplomatic victory by the United States and its partners, coming only at the expense of a tool that never would have existed save the nuclear issue.

What does the loss of current sanctions really mean?

This raises the issue of the value of the sanctions to be suspended and then lifted as part of the final arrangement under negotiation. Some have argued that the loss of the sanctions that are being considered as part of the agreement will cripple the U.S. effort to deal with Iranian regional maneuvers, violations of human rights and support for terrorism. But, as the Administration has stated time and again, there is no intention on the part of the United States to relax its unilateral sanctions focused on terrorism or human rights, or which control the spread of arms to Iran that are covered in myriad national laws.

It is true that, in time, UN sanctions on Iran that cover this ground will be terminated, but it is also true that these sanctions only came about because the members of the UN Security Council were focused on preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Though like any other person concerned with Iran’s activities in the region, I would prefer that UNSC sanctions on Iranian arms and missiles remain in place until these problems have been definitively addressed, this was not the basis of the original UNSC action and our ability to secure additional such provisions in the future from the Security Council is dependent, in part, on demonstrating that we will remove such sanctions when their underlying basis has been resolved (as, indeed, the closing paragraphs of UNSCR 1737 and its successors make clear).

Perhaps more to the point, the analysis that sanctions can only be lifted on Iran when a plethora of other regional concerns have been ameliorated suggests that the United States can automatically have its own way when it comes to the implementation of and adherence to sanctions. But, as has been made clear time and again, sanctions that do not involve U.S. actors inherently require international cooperation, even if coerced. It is certainly possible that some international partners would stay with the United States if it abandoned a nuclear deal with Iran in deference to regional issues, but it is implausible to suggest that Russia would stay the course, nor should we expect China, India and other countries to do the same with respect to their trade balances. If the best that is achieved through the insistence that other issues be dealt with before nuclear-related sanctions can be lifted is that the sanctions regime frays, then this would not be the best deal for the United States or, indeed, the region.

This is important because it is doubtful that retaining the sanctions would have the desired impact on Iran’s freedom of movement in the region. We should not forget that the sanctions to which so many are now wed, were only imposed in 2011, long after Iran began exporting its revolution to other parts of the region. And, despite the overwhelming sanctions pressure applied against the country, this has not stopped Iran from supporting Assad, arming the Houthis, or for years supporting  militias who attacked and killed U.S. service-people in Iraq.

Suggesting that relaxing the sanctions now will unleash Iran is to ignore this basic reality; it is moreover somewhat galling considering that one of the most impactful tools of U.S. sanctions, the effort to push companies out of Iran’s oil and gas sector, was only seriously implemented in 2010 by the Obama administration after years of neglect by the president’s predecessors. The problems that are created within the region by Iran—under sanctions or not—require different solutions of which sanctions may not be the most impactful. Steps such as U.S. support for Saudi actions against the Houthis in Yemen, continued support for opposition forces in Syria, and the decision to begin selling arms to Egypt again are, in all likelihood, more important to combating Iran’s regional presence than sanctions would be.

Some critics also claim the U.S. sanctions relief capitulation goes far beyond the nuclear benefits received because, as Kissinger and Shultz argue, “the agreement’s primary enforcement mechanism, the threat of renewed sanctions, emphasizes a broad-based asymmetry, which provides Iran permanent relief from sanctions in exchange for temporary restraints on Iranian conduct.” However, as I noted in a previous article, it is not the case that Iran will get away with permanent sanctions relief in exchange for temporary nuclear measures. Though true that this same need for international cooperation will hamper rapid enforcement of the deal, this does not mean that U.S. presidents would lose their ability to resolve an Iran breakout attempt with force, nor does it mean that—after the deal concludes— more U.S. sanctions could not be pursued to deal with the challenges in front of the United States at the time. If nothing else, what’s being exchanged is temporary sanctions relief with an option on permanent relief if the Iranians do nothing to prompt concerns in the out-years that their nuclear program has regressed to a weapons option.