What’s wrong, and not, with the nuclear deal

I don’t know any honest analysts who don’t credit the “framework” agreement outlined in a White House fact sheet with going further than in restraining Iran’s nuclear program than most expected. It is truly unprecedented in several respects: it would reduce the amount of enriched uranium in Iran, limit the production (and prohibit the reprocessing of) plutonium, and put out of commission most of Iran’s enriching centrifuges for 15 years. It would also provide for intrusive inspections beyond those any other state is obligated to.

But there are still aspects to be questioned. It is at best unclear who has signed up to the items in the fact sheet. The Iranians deny they have, and the French have their differences as well. In light of the controversy following its publication, it is best to regard the White House version as an American wish list, based on the current state of the negotiations. I imagine the American negotiators had some basis for believing the Iranians would sign up to these things, because otherwise the White House has made John Kerry’s job extraordinarily difficult. But it is also fair to say that the fact sheet was intended to fend off calls in Congress for tighter sanctions and Congressional approval of any final deal. We’ll just have to wait and see whether the American negotiators can deliver what they have promised.

The single most glaring weakness in the fact sheet is the failure to make any visible progress on “possible military dimensions” (PMDs). The International Atomic Energy Agency has been asking for explanations of these apparently nuclear-weapons-related activities for years, without making significant progress. The Iranians are stonewalling, presumably because the explanations will suggest that Iran really did have a nuclear weapons program at one time. Proving that it no longer does is difficult. The IAEA questions are the nuclear equivalent of “have you stopped beating your wife? Can you prove it?”

It is difficult and embarrassing to reply, but the answers are important, as no nuclear weapons state has achieved that status in an overt, IAEA-safeguarded program, or by diversion of material from such a program. Clandestine is always the preference. Why would Iran be different? Secrecy is far more difficult if you have admitted cheating once before.

A third shortcoming of the framework agreement outlined in the fact sheet is time frame. The unprecedented constraints would expire, even if verification provisions do not. But this critique doesn’t hold up. Surely it is better to face an Iran that is unconstrained in a decade or more rather than one that is unconstrained right now and could produce the material for a single nuclear weapon within two or three months.

But critics of the framework don’t want to compare the agreement with no agreement. They want to compare it with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s imaginary “better agreement,” which would eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure entirely. I admit it is possible John Kerry and his team could have negotiated a better agreement, but there is no reason to believe that anything like Netanyahu’s dream could come true. Iran has only amped up its nuclear program during the many years in which we insisted on its giving up its nuclear program and imposed sanctions. If the framework agreement fails, I expect them to continue in that direction.

Tightened sanctions are Netanyahu’s answer. What he and his supporters fail to explain is how sanctions can be tightened. Will Russia, China and the Europeans go along? Sanctions brought Tehran to the table because they were multilateral. Any unilateral sanctions move by the US at this point would destroy the negotiations and push the other members of the P5+1 in the direction of ending the existing sanctions, or at least failing to enforce them as fully as has been the case in the recent past.

Domestic critics want President Obama to threaten use of force. But overt threats of force don’t always help at the negotiating table, because they elicit responses in kind. Iran is already doing harm to US interests in the Gulf, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. Even the threat to do more would cause oil prices to rise (to Tehran’s own benefit and to the detriment of the US economy).

Even if the Iranians don’t believe Obama would ever use force, they can be pretty sure his successor (of either political flavor) will be more likely to do so. The US will be far better off if force is triggered some day by Iranian violations of something like the framework agreement, not by a unilateral decision undertaken in desperation as sanctions fray.

 

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