The Iranian Nuclear Deal – Part II
The Significance of the Agreement
Was this the “the most significant and tangible progress that we’ve made with Iran” since Obama took office? Without question since there had been no previous progress. Or was the agreement an “historic mistake”, a loss of momentum towards capitulation by Iran or the readiness to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities by the allies?
Canada took a position somewhere between Netanyahu and Obama by emphasizing scepticism and withholding its support of the agreement until such time as Iran grants “unfettered access” to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities and, further, the verification that the terms of the deal have been fulfilled. Unfortunately, although the Harper government says it is moving economic self-interest to the front in its foreign policy, in the case of Iran, it has closed its embassy and delayed the gold rush of opportunities as western companies seek to establish a foothold in the opening with Iran. At the same time, Canada abandoned its political lockstep link to Israeli policy, hence losing any advantage by the delay.
Why then did Avi Benlolo of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center support the Canadian position since Canada supported the interim agreement if there is full transparency and verification. Benolo was far more critical of the agreement and accused the P5 + 1 of being suckered by Iran’s new smiling diplomacy while Iran retained its deep antipathy to the west and remained determined to develop nuclear weapons while it bought the necessary time to progress towards that goal. The Iranian retreat for Benolo had to be the surrender not just of the nuclear program but of the support for terrorism. Canada had stipulated no such conditions.
Certainly the agreement does nothing substantive to curb Iran’s rogue status in the international community. However, the interim agreement opens wide such a possibility. The real substantive dispute is whether the interim agreement denies Iran the right to enrich uranium or whether it reified Iran’s right to enrich uranium as President Rouhani declared? Uranium enrichment can produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, or highly enriched uranium for fissile material for nuclear weapons. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, claimed that Iran was not given any inherent and unfettered right to enrich uranium but concedes that Iran will likely be given a limited, completely verifiable right to have a very constrained program of enrichment for peaceful (medical) purposes.
This was not a zone of creative ambiguity because Iran retains the right to enrich uranium to 5% purity for peaceful purposes, but is explicitly denied the right to enrich uranium to 20% purity to enable Iran, with banks of centrifuges, then to increase that uranium readily to 90% purity for weapon’s grade purposes. The agreement does NOT enshrine an apparent promise that at the end of the process, Iran would be entitled to enrich uranium as it wants, when it wants and as much as it wants. Such a charge makes nonsense of the plain text of the agreement.
In a more modest but very severe criticism, did the agreement shred six United Nations Security Council resolutions that required the Islamic Republic of Islam to abandon its enrichment program and reprocessing facilities? Not as I read the intent of the agreement to follow the interim one. Further, the UN resolutions demanded only that Iran “suspend” its nuclear enrichment program, embark on a course of confidence building measures, suspend the construction of heavy water plant at Arak for producing plutonium and ratify the IAEA additional protocol – a step which the interim agreement does not seem to require Iran to do, possibly because Iran already ratified the Protocol. The only problem is that the Iranian Congress refused to endorse it.
The first three points seem to be contained in the interim agreement. The UNSC nonbinding resolutions required a suspension of Iran’s enrichment, a reconsideration of its decision to build a heavy-water nuclear reactor, and Tehran’s implementation of “transparency measures” providing inspectors with access to non-nuclear facilities, procurement documents, and the opportunity to interview certain Iranian officials. This is precisely what the interim agreement achieved. Perhaps, these successes may be inadequate, may cover up for a long term malevolent intent, but they seem to clearly fulfil both the letter and spirit of the UNSC resolutions. Previously, Iran had accelerated work on its uranium enrichment program (it had stopped in November 2004) and stopped voluntarily adhering to the Additional Protocol. The interim agreement seems to fulfil the aims of the UNSC resolutions in accordance with the goals of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2006.
Countering the Critics
This interim agreement is seen as a golden opportunity to improve relations with the West, strengthen the regime and improves its support by Iranians. That is the real threat, not the fear that the negotiations will fail. The success of the agreement for Israel and Saudi Arabia means failure.
When Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, says on CNN that, “Of course, we want to see diplomacy succeed. Of course, we’d like to see a peaceful solution. Israel, more than any other country, has an interest in a successful diplomatic outcome ultimately. We’re the first people on the firing line,” he is being somewhat disingenuous. Yes, Israel does want a proper deal, but not only to stop but dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. More importantly, and understandably, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, want a weaker Iran. Parts of the domestic population who have been persecuted for years – the Baha’is for example – concur.
The reality is that without Israel’s screams as well as threats, it is questionable whether the rest of the world would have been nearly as sensitive to the developments in Iran. Did Netanyahu build on this diplomatic success in making the world keenly alert to the Iran nuclear threat not only to Israel but to all of the Middle East and the rest of the world? The world answered Israel’s call to impose severe sanctions. Chalk two up for Israel’s diplomatic success. However, its current belligerency, its current full frontal assault by all its ministers using inflammatory rhetoric against the agreement rather than reasoned debate may not be seen just as Israel serving as bad cop, but as Israel preparing to perform a spoiler role.
This criticism of Israel does not mean that I am no longer sceptical about Iran’s intentions. They have been clear. Iran wants to retain the ability to maintain a short gap between a break out point and their existing facilities and their negotiating stance will attempt to keep that time line as short as possible while the P5 + 1 strive to lengthen it enormously – perhaps they would be satisfied with six months or a year. The issue is not over the actual production of nuclear weapons, but the capacity to move to a break out point in short order.
Since the Iranians have now achieved that status, it is an optimum time for Iran to negotiate an ending, if possible, to their economic straightjacket. Israel and Saudi criticism is that relief from sanctions, though amounting to only six billion spread over six months, not the hundreds of billions at the end of the rainbow of a full agreement, nevertheless offers Iran wiggle room to hold out for a tough deal and minimum time to restart their program when needed and be able to produce a weapon in very short order. That is why the Saudis and Israel dub the agreement as a capitulation to a charm offensive and fraud by Iran (Minister of Defence for Israel, Moshe Ya’alon) and characterize the interim agreement as a cosmetic rather than a substantial agreement.
After all, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, continues to call Israelis rabid dogs, expresses the desire to see not only Israel disappear, but for Iran to be the agent for that event as he reiterates his desire to wipe Israel, which he repeatedly describes as a cancer, off the map. Israel and the Saudis want a total dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis and Saudis understandably fear that P5 + 1 would be satisfied with sufficient dismantling to lengthen the time between a resumption of its program and the ability to make a nuclear weapon only a year. For Israel and Saudi Arabia, this is insufficient. They want enough dismantling of the production capability to make it unviable. The intelligence services of the US advises the President that such a goal itself is not viable.
So the devil will be in the details of a final agreement – the number of centrifuges permitted – perhaps only 5,000, making enrichment past 5% both prohibited but a trigger for an immediate resumption of sanctions, the dismantling or conversion of the Arak facility to a light-water reactor rather than one capable of producing plutonium.
Israel has lost in a second sense. Few believe Israel would now cross not only the Americans but every one of the world’s great economic and military powers and bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But Israeli leaders continue to bellow and blow exhibiting petulance instead of considered criticisms, sound bites linked to insults, accusations and aspersions rather than a policy alternative. A more careful course of diplomatic discourse would have been welcome. At the same time, Israel used the back door to offer comments to improve the interim deal. Do those complaints advance or harm the country’s national interests? Is perpetual petulance and in-your-face bellyaching really a constructive form of diplomacy? Israel is performing its role as the bad cop like an amateur stage performer.
So the focus will be on Israeli and Saudi pressure to make the toughest deal possible, and, especially for Saudi Arabia, even risking no deal at all, and the P5 + 1 to make as acceptable a deal as possible without Iran walking away from the table, an outcome which the Israelis and Saudis would prefer. For the Saudi’s greatest fear is a realignment of the US and Iran. By contrast, no pun intended, there is a gulf between the Saudis and the UAE and Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates concluded that the interim agreement reinforced “the stability of the region” while Bahrain welcomed the removal of fear. Further, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif insisted that Iran was prepared for quick follow-up negotiations to keep the deal on track.
The interim agreement will NOT be the final agreement. However, if the final agreement does not go a significant distance beyond the interim one in dismantling Iran’s capacity, then it will have been better not to have had an interim deal at all. So the future will be the test of the past. And the negotiations are going to be very tough making the interim agreement look like a cakewalk. Further, the fears of the Gulf states will somehow have to be assuaged. After all, look at how well Iran has leveraged its nuclear program without acquiring the ability to make a single bomb. It can take on the most powerful nations of the world in eye-to-eye negotiations. The current regime is now regarded as irreversible and it is recognized for its rationality and prudence though it remains the spoiler in the region.
What a transformation!