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How Not to Measure the Iran Deal

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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As negotiators have gotten closer to a nuclear deal with Iran, the criticism -- like the shouting matches among the diplomats in Vienna this week -- has grown more strident. Yet it remains unconvincing.

John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, Thursday railed against a proposed deal that he said would hand Iran, "a global menace," billions of dollars in sanctions relief "while allowing it to retain the capacity to build a bomb almost immediately." Well, from what we know already, it won't do that.

A more thoughtful example came from an Al Jazeera op-ed article by Luke Coffey, a former U.S. Army officer and special adviser to the British defense ministry. To summarize, he said: Too many concessions have been made to Iran; Iran will be rewarded with sanctions relief and yet will remain a bad actor in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East; it will sign a deal, but that deal's limitations will last only for 10-15 years; it will keep a nuclear fuel program that it can later expand to become a nuclear-threshold state; it will submit to inspections, but it has a track record of building stuff covertly; and, above all, the failure to guarantee a permanently non-nuclear Iran will prompt Saudi Arabia and others to build their own bombs.

The risks described here are real. Former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have made similar criticisms. However, none of these arguments -- including, disappointingly, Kissinger's -- offers a plan for what should be done instead. It's a little like the recent Greek referendum, where the winning "No" campaign discussed only what was not to like about the odious bailout terms, and ignored what would happen should Greece reject them. 

Some of the criticisms also don't stand up to scrutiny. Take the worry that sanctions relief will reward Iran without changing its aggressive behavior in the Middle East. This is true. Yet Europe, and at the United Nations Russia and China, agreed to impose international sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, not its regional policies. Either Iran's nuclear program is a threat so great that it warranted the sanctions, and therefore reducing that threat warrants offering to lift them, or it isn't that important after all. Because if one thing is certain, it is that adding a condition to the nuclear talks that Iran must pull out of Syria and stop backing Hezbollah or its allies in Yemen would make any deal impossible.  

Lifting the United Nations arms embargoes on Iran, which emerged as a stumbling block in the talks yesterday, is an exception. These sanctions were imposed in direct response to Iran's failure to come clean with UN inspectors about evidence of its past nuclear weaponization programs, which it still won't have done when the deal is signed. They need to stay in place until Iran has complied. 

The known alternative to the Iran talks -- trying to pressure it into scrapping the nuclear program altogether -- failed miserably over a decade of trying. Going back to that strategy wouldn't produce an agreement, only a less manageable problem as Iran returns to cranking out fuel as fast as it can. Eventually, inevitably, that would lead to the use of force, even though this could probably do no more than delay Iran's program for two or three years, because all other options would be exhausted.

Collapsing the negotiations because they fail to guarantee a non-nuclear Iran -- something we have no other means to achieve -- would be a mistake. A rupture would be followed by minimal, or possibly zero transparency to international inspectors in Iran, making it a lot easier for the country to divert fuel, hide facilities and build a weapon by stealth. And you can't even try to bomb what you can't find.

The deal that emerges from Vienna, if one does emerge, may not be good enough to secure the basic bargain that has already been struck: sanctions relief for the reduction and limitation of Iran's fuel program. If that's the case, nothing should be signed. But until someone comes up with a better plan for preventing Iran from breaking out as a nuclear power, this one should be judged on its own terms.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net