The Iranian Conundrum

Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the recently concluded agreement with Iran on behalf of the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China plus Germany) (also participating was the High Representative of the European Union) concerning curtailment of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Most of the talk is whether or not it is a “good deal” or a “bad deal.”  I do not think that such a simplistic approach does anyone any good and certainly does not lead to an understanding of the complexities of this pact — and it is indeed complex.  (You may read the entire original text here.) Most of the agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), consists of annexes of a highly technical nature.  I am not a nuclear physicist so I cannot authoritatively comment on its intricacies, but many, many, many (emphasis on purpose) nuclear physicists and other arms control experts call it the most comprehensive arms control agreement ever.  There is very little — no agreement is perfect — technical wiggle room.

According to the signatories, the deal increases Iran’s “break out” time (how long until they could produce a nuclear bomb) from about three months to at least one year.  It also significantly reduces their stockpiles of enriched uranium (needed to make a bomb), cuts Iran’s centrifuges by two-thirds (needed to make more enriched uranium), precludes the production of plutonium (for really big bombs) and opens up existing facilities for international inspection.

The agreement also puts the restrictions and inspections in place for ten to twenty-five years and allows for re-imposing sanctions at any time for any violation.  Note that the inspections in some forms are in place for twenty-five years and in other cases, since Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, forever.  Please note that Israel has nuclear weapons and is not a signatory nation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, along with India, Pakistan and North Korea.

To me, as I understand them, the technical details of the JPCOA are sound.  I have heard very little criticism of the actual technical aspects of the agreement.  They were after all, primarily negotiated by the world’s foremost experts, including our own Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a world recognized expert and MIT professor.

The real question to ask is this — is the JPCOA good policy?  That is a more difficult question to answer. I happen to think that it is, but it needs to be taken in context.  Before explaining that context, I must express my disappointment that many of our leaders in Congress had a knee jerk reaction to the agreement before they even knew the details of what was in it.  Coincident with the announcement of an agreement, criticism rained down on the president.  Typical of that reaction was Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) who said within minutes of the conclusion of the negotiations, “Given everything I’ve seen so far, this is a bad deal. It paves the way for a nuclear Iran.”  By his own admission he had not reviewed the details of the agreement.  His reaction was mild compared to some others, and all paled in comparison to those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Israel) who said, “From the initial reports we can already conclude that this agreement is a historic mistake.” He made that statement before the text was released and later he admitted that he had not yet read it.

Some in Congress oppose the JPCOA only because Israel opposes it.  As I’ve written before, Israel is a close ally and friend of the United States.  We need to protect and support Israel.  However, the United States should put its interests first, and not undermine them only because Israel is opposed.  I guarantee that Israel would, and has, put its interests above those of the United States and taken actions that were in their best interests, but opposed to those of the United States.  Do not oppose the JPCOA  “just because” Prime Minister Netanyahu says it is a bad deal.

It is entirely conceivable that policy makers in the United States and elsewhere legitimately do not think that the JPCOA is good policy.  But I sure wish they would at least read it and understand it before going public with blanket statements that it is historically bad.  Many of the critics of the negotiations said that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.”  What they really meant to say was that “any deal is worse than no deal.”  I disagree.

The hard part is to put the JPCOA in the total context of Middle East policy.  The focus for the P5+1 was eliminating the ability of Iran to produce a nuclear weapon this year.  At worst, they delayed it for ten to twenty years.  At best, they delayed it forever. Iran’s focus was lifting the sanctions.  They got that assuming that they comply with the JPCOA.  They were not negotiating the end to terrorism, national ambitions, the recognition of Israel by Iran or the host of other criticisms aimed at the negotiations because those things were not achieved.  They were not on the table and arguably we would not have any agreement if they were.

Likewise no P5+1 participant is “trusting” the Iranians.  There are very strict inspection regimes with very dire consequences for Iran should they be found in violation.  We need to be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved at the negotiating table.  And the U.S. Congress needs to recognize that these were not bi-lateral negotiations.  If the rest of the world wants to lift sanctions against Iran (and both Russia and China cannot wait to enter the Iranian market), we will have little leverage to stop it.

That said, many of you have heard me say for many years that Iran is one of the baddest actors in the world.  Prior to ISIS, the vast majority of terrorist acts in the Middle East and elsewhere can be directly or indirectly traced to Iran.  Currently, they are working hard to establish themselves as a regional power in the Middle East with thoughts of domination in that part of the world.  We need to stop them and we need to keep up the pressure on other nations to stop them.  We must.  That, however, is a different issue than stopping their nuclear weapons program.

The JPCAO only makes sense in the context of a comprehensive step-by-step plan in the Middle East to box in Iran and turn it back towards being a productive member of the world society.  The JPCOA is, in my mind, only the first of many steps.  There was no magic wand that could solve all of the problems with and about Iran in one fell swoop.  Just not going to happen.  However, as a first step, it is important.  As we have seen with China, Russia and other previous foes of the west, slow and steady is the answer.  Constant pressure needs to be applied and we must be relentless in our pursuit of national policy.  However, just as we have seen with China and Russia, we will make progress on some fronts and we will have conflict on others.  The United States needs to take the long view and put in place policies that bolster our friends and allies, oppose Iranian adventurism and exploitation, and enhance our national security.  The JPCOA helps to do that by taking the threat of nuclear weapons out of the calculus.

When one takes a step back, it is entirely possible that the world may not know the ramifications of the JPCOA for many years.  That is a tough gamble to take.  However, from all that I have read, it is a gamble worth taking because it is not irreversible and it has large dividends when it succeeds.

Iran is and will remain a conundrum.  We will only make head way in the area by engaging them.

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