Reasons for Optimism in Iran
Here, as promised, are my reasons to feel positive about the (still unimplemented) interim nuclear deal between the Great Powers and Iran:
Just kidding. Sort of. While I believe that Iran has so far generally outsmarted, and outplayed, the West (and I include Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel as one of those countries that has been outplayed), and while I think that Iran is perilously close to crossing the nuclear threshold, I also think that the interim agreement could make the world a provisionally safer place. To do so, it will have to serve as a path to a final agreement that includes dismantling key elements of the nuclear program, a rollback that would put the country years -- rather than weeks or months -- away from producing the bomb, should its leaders decide that they definitively want one.
Why be optimistic at all, particularly when proof is lacking that Iran’s leaders would ever agree to a serious nuclear facility rollback? Let’s start with the obvious: What we had before was not working. The recent (flawed) agreement represents an improvement over the (very flawed) status quo in a number of ways. Most consequentially, it allows for frequent, intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and freezes in place most uranium-enrichment activity.
The agreement does nothing much to set back Iran’s program, but an already-onerous sanctions regime didn't do much in that regard, either. As Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently noted -- with an unseemly but not misplaced air of triumph -- his country has been able to radically scale up its centrifuge production capabilities even while suffering under sanctions. Sanctions have not placed the survival of the Iranian regime in doubt, and it is extremely unlikely that tougher sanctions (should U.S. allies even acquiesce to their imposition) would bring the Iranians to the point of nuclear capitulation. Iran is ruled by a tough and immoral regime, one that has been willing to defend its existence by slaughtering large numbers of dissenting citizens.
It's hard for people like me to admit that sanctions by themselves will not do the job. I believed at one point that sanctions alone -- without diplomatic compromise on the one hand or military strikes on the other -- would push Iran off the path of full nuclearization. Sanctions helped bring about negotiations, but they will not bring about capitulation. Iran is simply too close to the nuclear threshold now to believe that unconditional surrender on the nuclear question is necessary for regime survival. (As for the military option, at this point starting what could turn into a full-blown regional war to prevent a theoretical war seems a less than sterling idea.)
Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence (and one of the most acute observers of Iran’s nuclear program), agrees with Zarif that Iran is close to the threshold. “Iran is on the verge of producing a bomb,” he said. He also said -- and this is important -- that it is not this interim deal that brought Iran to the verge of producing a bomb. “The fact that Iran is a nuclear threshold state does not derive from this agreement, but because the Iranians have developed capabilities for years” without being stopped.
Yadlin, who is not an optimist by nature, believes that the interim agreement has some potentially redeeming qualities, so long as the West maintains sanctions -- and the ability and will to reimpose those sanctions that will be suspended as part of this agreement should the Iranians prove recalcitrant in upcoming negotiations. Yadlin told me he can envision an agreement that would roll back Iran’s ability to produce a bomb from months to years. This final agreement would not represent “100 percent security for Israel, but it is better than two alternatives: the ‘bomb’ or the ‘bombing’ alternatives” -- in other words, acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Iran or the preemptive bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities.
To roll back Iran’s ability to go fully nuclear, Yadlin said, two forms of leverage must be maintained: strong sanctions and a credible military threat (“not a war, but a surgical air raid,” Yadlin said hopefully).
How you feel about the potential effectiveness of the interim agreement has a lot to do with how you feel about the Barack Obama administration’s commitment to an if-all-else-fails military strike and to keeping the sanctions in place. One concern I’ve heard is that Obama has lately stopped threatening, even elliptically, military force should Iran move toward nuclear breakout in defiance of the international community. Earlier this week, I asked his deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, about this worry. “All options continue to be on the table. We’re not shying away from expressing a preference for resolving this peacefully, but this shouldn’t take away from the fact that all options remain on the table,” he said.
I also asked Rhodes about the fear, not only among hawks, that the suspending of certain sanctions will ultimately lead to the collapse of all sanctions. “Sanctions relief is designed in a way that ensures that the sanctions regime stays in place,” he said. “The relief being provided is controlled by the United States. The release is metered so it’s not one installment, but is portioned out over time. Our hand is on the spigot. The sanctions in question -- those on auto parts and petrochemicals -- are suspended, not lifted, and could immediately be put back on if there are violations by Iran.”
But what, I asked, will happen if a major company -- oil or otherwise -- comes to believe that the sanctions regime is loosening and tries to re-enter the Iranian market in a major way? “Frankly, we would have an interest in demonstrating that the sanctions regime will be enforced,” Rhodes said. In other words, the administration would be eager to see someone try to break the sanctions regime in order use this violation as an opportunity to make a point about the durability of U.S. policy.
Rhodes went on to say, though, that “We don’t see a scenario in which in which there is a broad desire to test whether the sanctions can be broken. There would be serious consequences for an entity that breaks sanctions. We don’t believe that a six-month suspension of a small number of sanctions suddenly makes an investment in Iran a safe bet. The sanctions have a broad, chilling effect on the desire to do business with Iran.”
The biggest worry of all about the interim agreement is that it legitimizes Iran’s so-called right to enrich -- to produce fissile material domestically. It didn’t seem smart to concede this point at the outset of negotiations. The acknowledgment of this “right” was something the Iranians desperately sought. On the other hand, the reality of the nuclear program is such that this “right” was going to be conceded sooner or later. As Rhodes pointed out to me, nuclear knowledge cannot be negotiated away. “The Iranians know how to do the fuel cycle. They’re not going to unlearn that.”
He went on: “The question is not whether they have the capability; the question is, Would you accept a program with significant constraints and limitations and greater transparency, or do you think the status quo is a good thing? We didn’t have robust inspections or transparency before. Now we will. We feel the answer to the status quo question is, No, it was not a good thing.”
Rhodes is right; the status quo wasn’t working. The danger here is in the creation of a new status quo, one that enshrines Iran’s nuclear “rights” without making sufficient demands for nuclear concessions. As I wrote earlier this week, there are plenty of reasons to doubt whether this agreement is a good thing. But it is also too early to know just how bad, or how good, it actually will be: Everything depends on the Obama administration’s willingness to hold the line and to walk away from negotiations if the Iranians don’t budge on the issues that truly matter.