No sooner had the P5+1 powers and Iran announced on April 2 that they had agreed upon the framework of a nuclear deal than its supporters began to spin the results. To hear the boosters tell it, the preliminary agreement represents a victory for proponents of peace and a defeat for warmongers everywhere. That sort of simplistic rhetoric may play well on a political level, but there are real strategic reasons to be skeptical of the impending deal.
A crisis deferred, not averted. Before the start of nuclear talks in Geneva in November 2013, it was widely understood that the sine qua non for negotiations was at least a temporary halt to the Iranian regime’s uranium enrichment activities. A year-and-a-half later, that demand has been rolled back significantly; under the framework deal, Iran will reduce the number of its operational centrifuges by roughly two-thirds and keep them there for at least a decade. It also has pledged to keep enrichment at “civilian” levels (under 5%) for the same period. It’s a significant concession, but one that will still allow Iran to continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Later it can again ramp up its enrichment to full speed, and refine its enlarged stockpile to higher and higher levels.
Such a bargain makes sense only if, during the decade-long pause, relations between Washington and Tehran undergo a wholesale transformation that makes Iran’s nuclear progress a benign development. That’s the hope of the Obama administration, which clearly believes that the current deal has the ability to pave the way for a broader reconciliation between the two countries.
Their Iranian counterparts, however, do not. As Iran’s top security official, Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani, told the Financial Times back in December, the current negotiations between Iran and the West “are only for the nuclear issue,” and will not lead to a larger rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and the United States. Things may change in coming years, but this agreement is simply kicking the can down the road.
An unraveling sanctions regime. Washington’s interpretation of the new deal is predicated on the notion that, if Iran doesn’t comply with the terms of the agreement, international sanctions will simply “snap back” into place. Yet that idea is likely to be little more than a political fiction. That’s because, while most U.S. sanctions are “hybrid” in nature (encompassing not only Iran’s nuclear-related activities but also its human rights practices and support for terrorism as well) and therefore more resilient, European sanctions are overwhelmingly tied to Iran’s nuclear development.
In the United States the deal will receive considerable oversight in the weeks ahead from a skeptical Congress. No such review will take place in the EU. Rather, European approval of the deal will be both pro forma and rapid, carried out via foreign minister vote at the European Council. As a result, we could soon see a Europe fully re-engaged with Iran — and an Iran out of the sanctions “box,” whether or not it is playing ball with the West.
The devil is in the details. As the initial euphoria surrounding the deal begins to fade, it is becoming apparent that Washington and Tehran might not be on the same page regarding the particulars. Among other things, the United States expects a phased lifting of sanctions, dependent on proper verification and compliance on the part of the Iranian regime. Tehran, on the other hand, has made clear it expects a wholesale removal of all sanctions levied against it as soon as the deal goes into force. Ambiguities also exist over the scope and level of work that Iran will be permitted to carry out at Fordo, a controversial nuclear site. Iran and the United States are at odds over half-a-dozen substantive points of the deal — each of which could end up sinking the agreement.
Trust, but (just try and) verify. During the Cold War, President Reagan approached his dealings with the Soviet Union through the maxim of “Trust, but verify.” That simple phrase encapsulated a complex concept: no matter the diplomatic niceties, no agreement between the U.S. and USSR would be worth the paper that it was printed on if there was not a rigorous inspection regime in place to prevent the parties from cheating on their obligations. That’s good advice to keep in mind in our dealings with Iran, a country where “death to America” remains a popular and widely used regime slogan.
Properly monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, however, is bound to prove exceedingly difficult — if not downright impossible. As former acting UNSCOM chief Charles Duelfer points out, in its day, the regime of Saddam Hussein managed to cheat and obfuscate despite an extraordinarily extensive “all access” inspections regime imposed on a defeated Iraq. There’s no reason to think that Iran will acquiesce to as extensive a monitoring and verification regime as Saddam was forced to. But it’s a safe bet that Tehran has learned from Baghdad’s experience in foiling international oversight — and that these tactics will be used to full effect to prevent full verification of its nuclear activities.
There goes the neighborhood. Within the Washington Beltway, U.S.-Iranian relations more often than not tend to get treated as a bilateral affair. Yet they are not. The unfolding nuclear deal is of profound importance to Iran’s immediate neighborhood, insofar as it signals a major shift in the regional balance of power. Regional powers are already pushing back. Saudi Arabia, for example, recently signed a nuclear cooperation accord with South Korea, and is now spearheading a military offensive against Iranian-supported rebels in Yemen. Israel, meanwhile, is moving back toward an activist — and potentially unilateral — response to Iran’s nuclear program. Its recently-reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now putting the finishing touches on his more conservative ruling coalition, took to the national airwaves the day after the P5+1 deal was announced to reiterate that “Israel will not accept an agreement which allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop a nuclear weapon.” All this suggests that the Iran nuclear deal won’t be an alternative to war, as its proponents suggest, but a catalyst for still greater instability in the already-volatile Middle East.
Clearly, the Obama administration has bet big on the Iranian nuclear deal. However, there’s little reason to believe the hype surrounding the agreement and plenty of reasons not to.
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