There are two huge pieces of news today that interest me, and while the one I really want to write about is the New Horizons spacecraft reaching Pluto and sending back amazing pictures and data on Pluto and Charon (which everyone refers to as one of Pluto’s moons but isn’t technically an accurate description since Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto and the system’s center of gravity lies in between them, but don’t get me started), for some reason people seem to want to know what I think about the Iran deal rather than what I think about the Plutonian atmosphere. So after spending some time reading through all 159 pages (except for the lists of companies and individuals on which sanctions will be lifted, which I skimmed), here is my initial take on where I think this deal works and the myriad ways in which I fear it won’t.
Starting with the good, there are some really good elements in this deal when it comes to keeping the wraps on Iran’s nuclear activity that we currently know about. The sections dealing with preventing a break out are pretty strong in terms of absolutely limiting Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium beyond a 3.67% level for fifteen years and turning Fordow into what is essentially a centrifuge museum. The only centrifuges that will actually be spinning uranium for the first ten years are 5,060 first generation centrifuges, and despite what sounds like a high number, nobody is actually worried about these. Any uranium in excess of 300 kilograms gets down blended and all spent fuel from reactors gets shipped out of the country The IAEA monitoring system in place for these centrifuges and the more advanced ones that Iran has developed also seems very strong to me, with full IAEA access, control, or electronic monitoring in various ways. Iran also has to address IAEA questions about its past activities, which should provide some additional clarity for preventing illicit Iranian activity going forward. Based on the provisions of this deal, I think it very unlikely that Iran will produce a nuclear weapon at any of its known facilities or with any of its current centrifuges in the next decade.
But even giving credit to the P5+1 negotiators for doing a good job on knocking out the break out option in the short term, this deal is indicative of the absurdly short attention span we Americans seem to have, where we think that ten years is a long time when in the context of international relations it is the blink of an eye. While it is true that Iran cannot enrich uranium in a worrisome manner over the first ten years of the deal, the agreement basically lets Iran do all the prep work during this ten year period to accomplish the higher uranium enrichment later on in advanced centrifuges without actually doing so during this initial decade.
Once the ten year limit expires, Iran is in a position to break out really quickly if it so chooses, since while it commits to 3.67% enrichment for fifteen years, after ten years it can enrich uranium in more advanced centrifuges and install the advanced IR-8 centrifuge infrastructure in Natanz and manufacture new complete advanced centrifuges. So while it will still only be enriching uranium at low levels for fifteen years, it will have five years of testing and manufacturing more advanced machinery before the deal’s restrictions on enrichment levels expire. Despite the fact that the NPT and the Additional Protocol will still apply in perpetuity, Iran has quite clearly violated the NPT in the past and I see no reason to assume that it won’t do so again, so I do not assume that the break out provisions are going to be operative past fifteen years.
When it comes to sneak out, I am less satisfied. The agreement provides for only 150 IAEA inspectors to monitor the entire country, which frankly is a joke in a country the size of Iran. The prevention of a sneak out path to a bomb is predicated on Iran having to declare all of its existing facilities before the deal is implemented and having to inform inspectors ahead of time if it decides to build any new facilities, since otherwise detecting secret centrifuge facilities – as opposed to plutonium facilities – is not easy (see Fordow for a relevant and recent example). Furthermore, if inspectors request access to a suspected undeclared location, Iran has two weeks from the time that access is requested to think about it, and if it decides to keep inspectors out, a majority of the Joint Commission (P5+1, EU representative, and Iran) has to vote to force Iran to resolve the situation, at which point Iran has another ten days to negotiate and implement whatever solution the Joint Commission ultimately imposes. This is certainly not the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that were going to make deal skeptics comfortable and that would be required for true, absolute verification of Iranian compliance.
Aaron Stein, who is my guru on the technical issues, is far more sanguine on the arms control provisions of the deal, and I am told by those who know these issues much better than I that three and a half weeks is not nearly enough time to dismantle a covert enrichment facility and scrub all evidence of the centrifuges, tubing, etc. so perhaps the two weeks plus ten days is not as disastrous as it seems to my admittedly amateur eyes. But ultimately, your comfort level here has to rest on trust. If you assume that Iran is not going to hold anything back or try to cheat the system, then you’re probably ok with the measures that this deal puts in place. But as President Obama himself said earlier today, the deal is predicated verification rather than trust, and assuming that Iran has nothing that they won’t tell us about appears to me to be a big hole in the deal when you don’t really have a good way of detecting secret facilities. Given that much sanctions relief and embargo relief can expire earlier than the designated eight year period if the IAEA certifies that all nuclear material in Iran remains in peaceful activities, and that the additional requirements on top of this deal imposed by the NPT and the Additional Protocol rely on eternal Iranian compliance, I wouldn’t bet very much money that Iran is going to remain in its nuclear box in perpetuity.
The other big element that I have an issue with is the question of Iran’s conventional weapons and lifting the current arms embargo. It was widely reported in the last couple of days that the deal was stuck on this point, and Obama’s statement today portrayed this as a win since the weapons embargo will last another five year and the ballistic missile ban another eight years. Why this wasn’t set as an absolute red line related to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior is mystifying to me, since it is Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism worldwide, rather than its nuclear program, that create an impetus for a general arms embargo. I understand why the compromises on Arak and Fordow are smart, since they hand Iran a pyrrhic victory by allowing it to save face and claim that it keeps all of its facilities while at the same time rendering those two facilities more or less harmless given the monitoring regime that has been set up for known nuclear sites. The conventional arms and ballistic missiles would have been a red line for me, and that we are essentially denying Iran nuclear weapons – which it would have been highly unlikely to actually use anyway and which are historically defensive weapons – and in return allowing it to arm to the teeth with stuff that it will use to create trouble around the Middle East is worrisome to say the least.
Which brings me to my next point, which is that it is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra to the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous.
The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory.
That does not mean that everything on the regional front will be doom and gloom. Think about Iran before sanctions were imposed in 2006. Was Iran considered to be an existential threat to U.S. security? To work security? In a position to be a regional hegemon that was going to imminently dominate the Middle East? Certainly Iran was a real foreign policy problem, but nobody worried that the era of Iranian domination was nigh. This deal basically restores the status quo ante in that regard – with the one very large exception that Iran’s reliable Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad is in a much worse position than he was – and so the question is whether Iran has been so successful under sanctions that the lifting of sanctions is now going to automatically mean a regional apocalypse. My bet is that the answer to this question is that it has not. Israel has obviously been the country most concerned about Iran, and Bibi Netanyahu has not in any way tried to hide his anger over the deal since its conclusion was announced, but in some ways I think this deal actually benefits Israel more than it does the U.S.
As I have emphasized, the pure nuclear component is the strongest element here, and so I truly believe that Israel can breathe more easily about a nuclear Iran for at least a decade, which is more than it would be able to do were there no deal at all. If Iran is spending its energies and new conventional capabilities and wealth on propping up Bashar al-Assad, fighting ISIS, reinforcing the Houthis in Yemen, providing security for the government in Iraq, and all of the other things it is doing around the region, then Israel is better off than it would otherwise be. Iranian backing for Hizballah is still an enormous problem that should not be underemphasized, and once the Syrian civil war is over it will primarily be a problem for Israel, but faced with a choice between a nuclear Iran vs. an Iran that can better arm and train Hizballah, most Israeli leaders would choose the latter option, even if it is a terrible one. A nuclear Iran was always a bigger problem for Israel than for the U.S., whereas an Iran that has more conventional capabilities to cause trouble for American allies and harass shipping in the Gulf is a bigger problem for the U.S. than Israel. Obviously these are not mutually exclusive, but to the extent that this deal makes the nuclear aspect less problematic and the regional adventurism more problematic, Israel benefits more. As one might guess, I do not think Israel’s initial reaction to the deal was particularly smart, but I’ll save that for another post later in the week.
The bottom line for me is that there are elements of this deal to like and elements of this deal to detest. Ceteris paribus on the sole question of nuclear weapons in the short term, this is certainly better than no deal, but the problem is that the deal cannot be judged solely on the nuclear question given everything else involved. It is tough for me to see how this agreement permanently prevents proliferation in the region in the long term and I certainly do not think it will transform the Middle East in a markedly good way. Ultimately, the whole thing really hinges on Obama’s bet on the future direction of Iran as opposed to Iranian compliance with the deal’s provisions, and as I have elaborated upon before at some length, I am on the opposite side of the president’s bet.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.