The case against the nuclear deal

I spent lunch listening to a panel of bright people at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs discuss the Iran nuclear deal, about which they have posed some good questions. Questions are the right approach to any agreement with ramifications as wide and as important as those of the proposed “framework” agreement.

SAIS colleague Eric Edelman underlined that there is no agreement yet. That is clear from the divergent “fact sheets” emerging (and not) from the P5+1 deliberations with Tehran. Nothing is agreed until it is written down (and I would say signed). Particularly important points that are still unsettled include what will be done to “neutralize” the low enriched uranium (LEU) above 300 kilos that will remain in Iran (rather than being shipped abroad as Eric said Iran had previously agreed), the precise arrangements for IAEA verification, and clarification of Iran’s past military nuclear activities. Extending the Joint Plan of Action  (JPOA)–the temporary agreement under which Iran’s nuclear program is stalled at the moment–would be better than the “framework” agreement.

Congressional approval is vital. Otherwise, Iran will not find the agreement credible, because any subsequent American administration may want to change it. It would be anomalous if the Iranian Majles and the UN Security Council got to vote on the agreement but not the Senate.

Ray Takeyh focused on the Supreme Leader’s speech last week, which was harder line on immediate sanctions relief and other issues than Iran’s hardliners have been, even if it appeared to leave the door open a crack for a more general rapprochement with the US. This raises a difficult question: on whose behalf are the Iranian negotiators negotiating? If Foreign Minister Zarif represents only President Rouhani and not the Supreme Leader, then what validity will an agreement have? There is reason to doubt the cohesion of the Iranian regime. The Supreme Leader’s primary political objective is preservation of the regime’s ideology, which is an ideology of resistance. His successor can be expected to have the same view.

It was left to John Hannah to state the hardline US case against the agreement. At best, it would postpone by 10-15 years an Iran just a screwdriver’s turn away from nuclear weapons, leaving it free at the end of that period to accelerate its enrichment rapidly and turn the screwdriver whenever it wanted. There is no reason to believe Iran will have moderated its stances on the US and regional issues during that time. Sanctions relief will necessarily come much sooner than most Americans will want. The agreement will precipitate a nuclear arms race in a region where confidence in US support has been damaged beyond repair in this Administration.

The alternative to the “framework” agreement is a better agreement, Hannah averred. John Kerry just doesn’t know how to negotiate, using US military power and economic leverage to the maximum. What is needed is a concerted US effort to counter Iran throughout the region, starting in Syria.

But it is also arguable, he said, that a military attack that sets the Iranian nuclear program back by two or three years would be better than anything we can get from the “framework.”

Panel concluded, the retired lawyer sitting next to me asked whether China wouldn’t just leave the sanctions regime and start unrestrained imports from Iran if an agreement is not reached. Well, yes, I agreed, it could and it would (though it would have to buy the oil in a currency other than dollars). That is precisely the point: there is no way the sanctions regime can be kept functioning unless the US demonstrates maximum effort to get an agreement. You may think John Kerry a dufus, but he has taken America’s best shot. And if you want America to bomb Iran’s nuclear program, doing so in response to Iranian violations of an agreement is a far better way than just doing it.

That does not, however, mean that any agreement will do. The questions Eric asks about LEU, verification and military nuclear activities are good ones that need answers. I don’t know how John Hannah knows that the Iranian regime will be just as hardline in 10 or 15 years as it is today, but I am pretty sure it will be hardline and accelerate its nuclear program after bombing. Nor do I know how he knows about the timing of sanctions relief, though I think he has a point on Syria: a stronger stand there against the Assad regime would give the Iranians something to think about. Ray Takeyh’s suggestion that the Iranian regime lacks cohesion is to me a positive sign, not a negative one, though in a quick chat afterwards he suggested it will be temporary, with the Supreme Leader’s hardline winning the day.



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