Iran's Red Line Must Be U.S.'s, Too

Deal breaker?

Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has, predictably, challenged some crucial U.S. interpretations of the recent framework agreement aimed at reining in his country's nuclear program. He says these differences are deal-breakers -- and so they should be. 

Khamenei says there will be no final agreement unless sanctions are lifted on the day any deal comes into effect, and unless military sites are not subject to international inspections. This contradicts the fact sheet the U.S. released after the agreement, as well as a careful reading of the joint statement Iran signed up to. 

QuickTake Iran's Nuclear Program

The two provisions are, indeed, essential pillars of any acceptable deal. To remove all nuclear-related sanctions, including those imposed by the United Nations Security Council, on day one would give Iran every benefit before it carried out a single one of its obligations. And for all the talk of sanctions that "snap back" should Iran not comply, getting the international community to reinstate them could prove extremely difficult. Nothing in Iran's record of evading inspections and building covert facilities suggests it has earned the kind of trust such an arrangement would demand. 

The question of access to military sites is at least as important. For years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been trying to get Iran to explain signs of a past nuclear-weaponization program, only to face evasion. Since inspectors first asked in 2012 to see the Parchin military facility, where they think nuclear weapons research was conducted, the IAEA has had to watch by satellite as areas of the facility were rebuilt or bulldozed in an apparent attempt to destroy the evidence. So to agree that Iran can declare any suspected nuclear-weapons facility off-limits because it is military (a near tautology) would be absurd. It would legitimize the regime's freedom to develop banned technologies undetected.

In one sense, Khamenei's talk is part of the bargaining process, and nobody should be shocked. Last week's framework agreement was never supposed to be final, and the toughest questions are always the last to be resolved; the document that counts is the one that's to be signed at the end of June. If the talks break down before then, Khamenei's intervention may help to assure that, at least, the sanctions hold. 

The trick for the U.S. since this sequence of talks began in 2013 has been to keep the players on its side of the negotiating table -- China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K. -- united in maintaining the pressure that got Iran to talk again after the European Union got serious about sanctions in 2012. 

So far, this juggling act has worked, and at least one party to the talks, France, is more distrustful of the regime in Tehran than is the U.S. administration. So if Khamenei is the one to scupper a deal by sticking to demands that attack its foundations, the U.S. will have allies in standing firm and ensuring that verification access and other critical details of the agreement are solid. 

Another missed deadline would be a small price for getting a better deal. And should the talks collapse altogether, Khamenei's intransigence will improve the chance of keeping international sanctions in place, or even tightening them. The consequences are for him to think through.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.