The Iran Deal – An Overview
I was on my island up north in the week that the Iran deal was concluded. I was not connected to the internet. My reading and analysis was focused on continuing my blogs on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) evaluation of the Gaza War. So when I returned, I not only had to read the 159 pages of the Iran deal, but the writings of over 100 commentators on that deal. Initially, in reading the terms of the agreement and the commentators over 36 hours, I began to think I was an alien in a foreign world. For I was reading a cascade of criticisms of the deal, initially without any commentator offering a positive response. However, before the end of my reading, I breathed somewhat easier. For I was not alone. There were others who agreed that overall and on balance the deal was a good one. Those commentators consisted of only about 20% of those I read, but on this issue I felt strengthened that I was not totally out of synch with what appeared to be a dominant note from the commentators.
Unlike the UNHRC evaluation, the Iran deal is not a retrospective analysis, but a performative one in its own right. The agreement changes the world in which we live and changes it significantly. So I temporarily suspended my analysis of the UNHRC Report on the Gaza War – I will return to it – and offered my analysis of the Iran deal, focusing first on the agreements that led up to it, then the commentators and only in the end provide my own detailed analysis of the agreement itself. In doing so, I will mainly deal with commentators who think the deal is a bad one and, most of my discussion will focus on the comments under four categories:
- Goals and significance of the deal;
- Intentions and motives (different than the goals);
- Erroneous assumptions.
Thus, I will also be dealing with the commentators in reverse to a natural order that would begin with the deal itself and then deal with its misinterpretations and effects. In this backwards approach, let me first clarify why my approach relies on a cool, detached analytic tone rather than on a lamentation, aichah, the first word of Lamentations as Rabbi Splansky cited in her response to the Iran deal.
My oldest son, Jeremy, is named after the prophet of peace, Jeremiah, who is credited with this lamentation and who warned of the imminent threats to Israel. It is what we read on Tisha B’Av, an annual fast day in the Jewish religious calendar commemorating a number of disasters inflicted against the Jews over the course of history and when the rabbi gave her sermon on the Iran Deal. As Rabbi Splansky wrote, the word aichah is not the response of an inquisitive mind, but of an aching soul. It arises from the deep well of our being, from a history of horrific experience. The lamentation does not invite discussion, but a communion of crying and screaming “Alas!” and “Woe are we!”
Rabbi Splansky asks us to understand the deal and view ourselves as Jews within the large arch of Jewish history. However, looking at the Iran deal from the perspective of the three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem does not invite questioning, including the questioning of whether mourning is the appropriate response. It may help us understand the deep roots of that response and why the leaders of the opposition in Israel line up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in deploring the deal, but restricting their criticism to how he allowed this to happen on his watch, as if the Prime Minister of a small country like Israel could manipulate and control the outcome, not just of American thinking and policy, but of all of the five powerful states who are the permanent members of the Security Council as well as Germany in whose name this deal has been made. To claim that Netanyahu was guilty of failing to stop the juggernaut of China, Russia, France, Britain as well as America, not to speak of Germany, is just chutzpah and partisan politics. It deserves to be largely ignored.
Unlike Rabbi Splansky who says that, “Everyone is watching, worrying, wondering, but God only knows,” I take the position that even God does not know. For God has always been very poor at prophecy dealing with the future and was often on the wrong side of history. Further, unlike the watchers and kvetchers and those stunned in awe, either in fear and bewilderment or in wondrous appreciation, I believe in the power of an inquisitive mind that can enlighten us on this deal, on its significance, on its intentions, on its possible and even likely consequences, and, most of all, on the actual contents of the deal instead of the projections onto that agreement sometimes, to be charitable, propelled more by fear and worry than by detached analysis.
Let me begin by putting my approach up front after my reading the commentators – well over one hundred – and my very initial reading of the deal. (I will return to that reading near the end of this series.) Not surprising, since I have written about this a number of times in the past, overall my reaction closely resembles that of President Obama who, in an interview with Tom Friedman of The New York Times, offered his own evaluation of the deal. I have arrived at similar, but not identical conclusions. They are as follows:
In contrast to the view that the deal should have eliminated Iran’s nuclear infrastructure altogether given the powerful effects of the sanctions and the enormous powers arrayed against Iran, and the evaluation that the leverage has been squandered, I hold that this was never the premise nor the intention of the negotiations, nor one that could have been achieved or needed to have been achieved. If in the late thirties, a deal depriving Hitler of any capacity to make nuclear arms with a full scale inspection regime (admittedly a far-fetched imaginative stretch), such a deal would have been preferable to a Nazi Germany that could arm itself with nuclear weapons within three months while doing nothing about Hitler’s anti-Semitic genocidal plans and his record of persecutions or his ambitions for hegemonic conquest of Europe. The issue is not about whether Iran is an evil regime or about depriving Iran of even an ability to enhance its peaceful development of nuclear energy, if only to save face. The deal is only about control of nuclear weapons over which there was a global consensus. There was no consensus about depriving Iran of its nuclear infrastructure, only of its capacity to make nuclear weapons against the terms of the International Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Second, such an agreement does not rely on trust. Given Iran’s horrific treatment of dissidents and minorities, particularly of Bahá’is, its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, its overt support of terrorists such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and its repeated pronouncements of an intention to wipe Israel from the face of the earth, let alone Iran’s past record of working on the development of a nuclear weapons capacity behind the backs of international inspectors, any agreement has to be based on a deep distrust of Iran and putting in place an unprecedented inspection regime that could come as close as possible to reducing any chance that Iran could deceive the international community and revert to advancing its nuclear weapons program.
What is required and is in question is whether a powerful, but not perfect – an impossible dream – verifiable regime to cut off Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, remove the majority of its cascades, including all of those of the most advanced technology, remove almost all of its highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear bombs, initiate a very intrusive and extensive inspections regime (we will have to see whether it is as intrusive and extensive as Obama argues that it is), and shut down Iran’s capacity to produce plutonium, is sufficient. However, if inspectors have to give 24 days – not 24 hours – notice for inspections, as too many interpreters have insisted, then that would certainly raise questions about the adequacy of the inspections regime. But, to adumbrate and deviate from the order of my presentation, the agreement definitely does not say that 24 days notice must be given for an inspection.
For all the facilities on the list (known sites for nuclear work), the 150 inspectors stationed in Iran will have immediate access at any time of the day or night and with no notice. Further, the inspection of Iran’s nuclear regime has no termination date; it continues “forever”. Only the inspection of non-nuclear facilities terminates, and then only after 25 years. The 24 days notice applies to suspected, illicit or unreported sites. 24 days is a maximum not a requisite. The section on inspections provides for the following:
Inspectors must be allowed to enter any suspect facility in Iran within at most (my italics) 24 days. If they aren’t, this will be considered a violation that could lead to renewed sanctions.
The procedure for those 24 days is as follows: If IAEA inspectors suspect that illicit or undeclared nuclear activity is taking place at an unmonitored facility, like a military base, it must first request explanations from Iran. If the explanations don’t satisfy the inspectors, they can ask to visit the facility.
The Iranians can then suggest ways of resolving the issue that don’t involve a visit. But if the inspectors remain unsatisfied 14 days after first broaching their suspicions to Iran, the matter will be transferred to the eight-member committee overseeing the deal’s implementation.
The committee will have seven days to try to find a solution that satisfies everyone. But if no such solution is found, the committee will then vote on whether Iran must allow the visit.
That decision requires only a simple majority – five of the eight members. Since Iran enjoys reliable backing from only two other panel members, Russia and China, it will have trouble preventing a decision ordering it to allow the visit. If such a decision is made, Iran must permit the visit within three days, hence the 24 day maximum period.
Certainly, aside from the routine monitoring required under the agreement, if inspections cannot realistically be done to cover research and development and to cover possibly new secret facilities under development, then the agreement might be just a sham and a cover for further cheating. Thus, evaluating the quality of the inspection regime will be crucial. However, when a commentator insists that 24 days notice must be given for any inspection, one immediately recognizes that the individual has not read the agreement and that the comments are worth far less than the value of the paper on which those comments have been printed or, if in electronic version, far less than even the infinitesimal cost of electronic publishing. Or else the author is an outright liar.
To revert to my initial main point, regime change, or even deprivation of Iran’s capacity to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, was never the goal of the negotiations. If those had been the ambitions, there never would have been any negotiations in the first place. So one has to ask whether we are better off with an Iran on the verge of developing a nuclear military capacity or an Iran prevented from so doing, but at a cost, the opening of the dams that had confined Iran’s earnings from its oil into reserves which Iran could not access, but now would be able to do so, thereby enabling Iran to expand its purchase of conventional weapons and expand its support of terrorism. This was the critical choice between the Scylla of an Iran on the verge of producing nuclear weapons or the Charybdis of an Iran with its treasury replenished and enabled to enhance its terrorist and hegemonic foreign policy. Over this choice, there can be reasonable differences and very varied conclusions. But criticizing the deal for its failure to produce deliverables which it never was intended to produce nor could produce is simply misplaced and disingenuous.
Would the deal, however, advance the process of regime change or even open the possibility of regime change? I think this is not a likely possibility. Others argue that it is. I find the latter to be wishful thinking and an unsound foundation for making a deal. Others who are equally pessimistic about this possibility think that should be a reason for not making a deal. I disagree with them as well. If the deal depended on its value only if it leads to or even makes more likely regime change, then that is absolutely no ground for supporting this deal, though I welcome the fact that this deal will increase the slim possibility of facilitating regime change for a number of reasons, including reinforcing the factions that are not identical with the genocidal extremists in the regime.
As will be seen when I turn my attention to the commentators, reading all those accounts reinforces my conviction that they have deliberately shifted the debate from preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power to the criticism that the deal does nothing, or, perhaps, by the odd moderate critic, does very little to stop this evil regime and undermine its authoritarianism within and its destructive ambitions in its foreign policy. Those criticisms are by and large correct. But they are totally beside the point. And that is their point, to distract citizens of the world from the achievements of the deal and view the agreement from the perspective of what was not and could not be achieved.
The issue is whether a deal with a non-nuclear-armed Iran is better than no deal that allows Iran to bring its nuclear armaments program to fruition – ignoring Iranian claims that they never had a goal of developing nuclear weapons. This is the core question. Some might argue that an Iran that completes its nuclear program but remains under severe sanctions that cripple its economy is a better choice because it limits the non-nuclear trouble-making in which Iran is deeply involved in the regime. Better an economically crippled nuclear–armed Iranian regime than one which is infused with cash, and, though deprived of its nuclear capacity, can now extensively expand its programs and foreign policy of undermining Saudi Arabia, keeping its satraps in place in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza, and, thereby, significantly enhance the threats to Israel. That is an argument worthy of engagement. But, as will be seen, this is not the approach of the vast majority of the critics of the accord.
On another point, the inspection regime does not end in ten years. The inspection regime continues. The fact that I have to state this boldly, and will subsequently support this extensively, is a testament to a great deal of the misreporting and misinterpretation of the deal. Similarly, the agreement does not remove all sanctions. It only removes those put in place to enforce the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Other sanctions exist. Those sanctions could themselves be expanded. A whole set of other tools could be activated to target the Iranian abuse of human rights and its support of terrorism. The deal allows the West (and East) to further such an agenda, even though it is highly unlikely that Russia or China would join in such an effort. This may make a strong argument for using the confinement of the nuclear development program as leverage to fight against Iran’s hegemonic interests and its abuse of the rights of its own citizens rather than a goal in its own right, but it is actually shocking how few of the critics, as shall be seen, are this honest and straightforward in their criticisms.
President Obama has made the very valid point that this agreement is totally one-sided. Iran gives up its capacity to make nuclear weapons. Iran gives up almost all of its enriched uranium. Does the agreement curtail the nuclear weapons programs of China, of Russia, of France, of the U.K. or of the United States? Not at all. Nor does it restrict any of the parties from using other diplomatic, legal, economic and moral tools at its disposal for confronting the regime in other areas. What is given up is holding hostage Iran’s treasure and wealth, money which does not belong to any party except Iran, in return for Iran backing away from its nuclear arms program. Further, it removes the pressures on China and Russia, both of which have grown antsy under the sanctions regime, particularly China which has been denied access to Iranian oil in exchange for its exports. The deal removes the possibility that the sanctions regime could collapse from within because of the tensions among and different interests of the members of the negotiating team dealing with Iran.
More specifically, the U.S. and Israel (as well as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies) can cooperate much further in limiting Iran’s hegemonic goals. Congress was unable to veto the deal. Then an enlarged program of dealing with Israel’s and Saudi’s enemies, specifically Iran, can be advanced. Further, if Iran does not live up to its commitments, the snap-back provision allows the sanctions to be re-imposed without a new vote in the Security Council. Now some may argue that this is correct in theory, but once Russia and Iran are offside on sanctions, they can remain offside by obfuscating and delaying any practical re-imposition of the sanctions regime. That is fully possible now. Further, the West has other means of leverage than diplomatic and moral suasion to keep China and Russia on side in addition to the interests of those two countries in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. However, there is an even more serious problem about the snap-back provision. It would take place against a regime that had recovered its economic stability and wealth and would, consequently, make the snap-back provision much less effective, especially in the short run. Instead of starting from an advanced position with sanctions with Iran on its knees, the West would be back to a zero starting point. How does the Agreement handle such a foreseeable contingency?
So we have the following issues to sort out over the next series of blogs. To what degree can the inspections regime work? Are the inherent weaknesses of the snap-back provisions sufficient to offset the advantages Iran will have gained? Is the likelihood, not just risk, of Iran advancing its conventional arms program and its geo-political advances in the Middle East too much to pay for obtaining an Iran without nuclear weapons? Finally, since there are no deep signs of an ideological change within Iran and no signs at all of a regime change, with the momentum having been somewhat lifted with the easing of sanctions, was the gamble worth the cost? After all, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may have concluded that the world has changed with the Vienna Agreement, but Iran’s view of Israel as an unrepentant enemy has not altered one iota. As he said in an interview with journalists after the conclusion of the agreement, while calling for his enemies in Sunni dominated states to reconcile with Iran, there was no such call to Israel. Israel, in his view, needs, “crisis and wars to continue to hide their aggressions and their inhumane policies against the people of Lebanon, Palestine and the people of the region, so peace is an existential threat to them.” [Translation: Iran will remain an existential threat to Israel.] Given Iran’s rejection of Israel as having a place in the Middle East, Iran will clearly be better off and richer and freer to advance its implacable opposition to Israel.
I began with the words of one rabbi. Let me end with the words of another. “I understand that not all experts believe that the deal to be struck in Vienna is bad for Israel. Perhaps they know things that aren’t obvious to the public, even to those of us who follow the criticism of the current government. To end on a positive note: let’s hope that the optimists will be proven right. The alternative is too grim to contemplate.” If “Alas!” and “Woe is Me!” are not to stand in the way of reasonable and detached analysis, the other alternative of relying on hope with no basis in reality is just as bad, especially when it presumes that supporters of the deal argue that it is not bad for Israel. I have not read one who makes such an argument. Instead, most supporters argue that the deal is bad for Israel in many ways, but the alternative of no deal is even worse. Whether that argument is valid is open to question. But let us not misrepresent supporters of the deal. More importantly, DO NOT support the deal if the foundation for that support is a misplaced optimism or “hope”.
Another compelling sequel to understand the Iran deal. Hag sameach, Alex