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? Or was the agreement a “historic mistake”, a loss of momentum towards capitulation by Iran or the readiness to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities by the allies? Without question it was the most significant agreement since there had been none for decades. Its projected impact was presumed to be very large whether one approved or disapproved of the deal. The real question is whether the agreement represented progress or a historic mistake.
Canada took a position somewhere between Netanyahu and Obama by emphasizing scepticism and withholding its support of the agreement until such time as Iran granted “unfettered access” to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Further, Canada waited to see whether the verification promised in the deal was fulfilled. Although the Harper government said it had been moving economic self-interest to the front in its foreign policy, in the case of Iran, Canada closed its embassy and delayed the gold rush of opportunities as western companies sought 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 full transparency and verification resulted. 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. For Benolo, the Iranian retreat had to be surrender, not just of the entire nuclear program, but of the support for terrorism. Canada 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 U.S. 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 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 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 that followed 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. Iran did all of these.
The first three points were already part of 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 clearly to 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.
The Reception in Iran
The agreement had a fiery reception in Iran, only second to the one that greeted the agreement in the United States. On 23 June 2015, three weeks prior to the signing of the agreement, the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, passed The Government’s Obligation Act to Protect the Nuclear Rights and Achievements of the Iranian Nation (the Iran Nuclear Achievements Act – INAA) by a vote of 213 to 10. The Act provided that all sanctions be lifted on the day Iran began to comply with the obligations of the Agreement, a requirement that the JCPOA definitively did not make. However, there was nothing in the agreement that contradicted the Act’s requirements on inspections restricted to nuclear facilities but banning access to military bases and security sensitive areas because the Act also provided that such access conform to Supreme National Security policies. Therefore, the steps to obtain such approval were included in the agreement. More importantly, the Act only required that the agreement be submitted to the Majlis, not endorsed by that body.
Less than a week after the deal was signed on 14 July 2015, the Majlis set up a special commission to examine the JCPOA with a vote on its report scheduled just after the deadline for American Congressional approval. However, two days before the deal was signed, President Rouhani signed the law safeguarding Iran’s nuclear achievements and ordered the relevant ministries to implement INAA, in effect, JCPOA. The hardliners in Iran, parallel to the hardliners in the U.S., were denied a voice to a great degree to articulate their strong opposition because the Supreme National Security Council issued a directive to media outlets to avoid representing Iran as divided about the deal and, therefore, avoid permitting the hardliners – the fundamentalists, authoritarians and militants – to criticize the deal and insist that the agreement crossed the red line of the Supreme Leader. By 3 September, the Supreme Leader weighed in and reversed the intent of the legislation and determined that the Majlis should make the final decision, not the government on its own; Majlis approval now seemed to be required.
But the make-up of the Special Commission, while giving the opposition a strong voice, still seemed to assure that the agreement would be approved. The Majlis 15-member Special Commission for examining the nuclear agreement consisted of a clear majority of moderates: 6 members representing not only the United Front but the Combatant Clergy, the Pathfinders and the Resistance Front. They were opposed by the 6 members of the Stability Front, the party of extremist fundamentalists. However, the opposition on the other flank to the so-called moderates were the Reformists (2 seats) and independent (1 seat) who were expected to support the moderates on approving the deal. In any case, the Majlis was very weak relative to the Executive branch of government and the Executive Branch was fully committed to implementing the deal.
The Reception Elsewhere and in the United States
I have already referred to the overwhelming opposition to the deal In Israel. However, in Europe the agreement had vast support. Further, 70 nuclear non-proliferation experts endorsed the agreement. So did the United Nations Security Council in a unanimous vote. The agreement, however, was vociferously and overwhelmingly opposed by Republican majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate where the vote on the deal was scheduled for September. A two-thirds vote would have to be mustered to overthrow a Presidential deal since the Senate had already surrendered its power to formally endorse the agreement.
The key players were 28 Jewish Congressmen; all but one were Democrats or independents who support the Democrats. There were 19 in the House and 9 in the Senate. The huge lobbying effort of AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), the Jewish pro-Israel lobby group and the outspoken voice of Netanyahu who addressed a joint session of Congress, was not able to dissuade 19 of the 28 Jewish congressional members from endorsing the agreement. Congress thus could not muster the votes to defeat a Presidential override of any act to delay or defeat the agreement. In effect, without a formal vote, the deal was sealed on 17 September, the agreed allotted time for the opposition to see if it could muster sufficient votes to override the agreement.
Setting aside the actual legislative victory of sorts, why is there a plethora of institutions, politicians and pundits in the United States even opposed to the agreement? Am I missing something? No. The critics play on ambiguity. They say that the agreement enshrines Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as if this was a problem. The agreement does say explicitly that Iran has the right to enrich uranium to 5% for peaceful purposes. Iran does not have the right for further enrichment. Obfuscating this difference just confuses the public for political purposes. John Kerry did not say that Iran had no right to enrich uranium. He said that Iran had no right to enrich uranium to weapons grade, a very different matter. The reality is that Iran was within 6-8 weeks of a breakout point. If the negotiations had failed, the choice then was bombing the facilities or merely increasing sanctions. If the deal succeeds, Iran will be much further back, but will have acquired access to funds and a restored faith in the Iranian rial so the economy will improve spectacularly. But this is what the P5+1 want as well as Iran – for that would help solidify support for the agreement. Further, if the new transparency reveals cheating, the sanctions would be quickly re-imposed, the rial would plummet in value and Iran would be even worse off than it is now with dashed domestic hopes and a restive public.
If the deal had not been made, following the pattern George Bush did in 2003 when he rejected Iranian overtures to make a deal in the expectation that the Iranian regime would collapse, the results would have been disastrous. When Bush scuttled a prospective deal, Iran did not collapse. Iran has almost 20,000 centrifuges rather than the less than 200 it had ten years ago. Iran would be able to approach the breaking point without breaking into the production of nuclear weapons, thereby keeping the rest of the world on tenterhooks. If Israel attacked and even succeeded, Israel would likely be labelled the rogue state, not Iran. More seriously, Iran would feel free, and China and Russia would support Iran, to complete its nuclear program in order to defend itself against future attacks from Israel. The nascent hope is that the Iranian population will turn to greater trust in dealing with the rest of the world. Iran could come out of the cold.
The Danger to Israel and Saudi Arabia
This is precisely the real danger for Israel and the Gulf states. They do not want a more powerful non-nuclear Iran. After all, Iran is the main supporter of Assad in Syria, sponsors Hezbollah in Lebanon, has made the Iraqi Shiite-dominated regime in Iraq a satrap, supports subversion in Bahrain, and is a supporter of Hamas. Retaining the sanctions and fencing Iran in is more important for Israel than reversing Iran’s direction towards an ability to make nuclear weapons. The agreement is seen as a golden opportunity to improve relations with the West, strengthen the regime and improve the support of moderates by Iranians. But that is the real threat for Israel.
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 Bahá’is for example – concur. However, the United Arab Emirates had long before concluded that even the interim agreement reinforced “the stability of the region” while Bahrain welcomed the removal of fear.
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, Israel’s belligerency, its 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 performing 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. Their negotiating stance attempted to keep that time line as short as possible while the P5+1 strived to lengthen it enormously. The issue has not been over the actual production of nuclear weapons, but reducing significantly the capacity to move to a breakout point in short order.
Since the Iranians had achieved the status of a near-nuclear power, it was an optimum time for Iran to negotiate an ending, if possible, to their economic straightjacket. Israel and Saudi criticism was that relief from sanctions, though amounting to only six billion spread over six months as a result of the interim agreement, and fifty billion at the end of the rainbow of a full agreement, was too rich a reward for signing the agreement. Iran’s achievement had reached a tipping point – either the large possibility of a bombing raid on its nuclear facilities or a diplomatic agreement. That is why the Saudis and Israel dubbed the agreement as a capitulation to a charm offensive and fraud by Iran (Minister of Defence for Israel, Moshe Ya’alon) and characterized the interim agreement as a cosmetic rather than a substantial agreement. However, Saudi Arabia was eventually persuaded to come around and support the deal. Israel alone remained the outlier.
Understandably to some degree! 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. The Saudis too wanted a total dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis and Saudis had good reason to 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 was insufficient. They wanted enough dismantling of the production capability to make it unviable. The intelligence services of the U.S. advised the President that such a goal itself was not viable, but the program could be sufficiently dismantled and disabled such that, with inspections and oversight, the possibility of Iran resuming a nuclear military production program would be significantly reduced and, in any case, risked bringing a huge and perhaps even stronger sanctions attack against Iran. This persuaded Saudi Arabia to change its stance.
So the devil is in the details of a final agreement; the number of centrifuges permitted – less than 6,000 – making enrichment past 5% both prohibited, but also 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; the elimination of all uranium enrich stocks above 5%.
Israel lost its diplomatic battle in a second sense. Few believe Israel could or 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 performed any presumed role as the bad cop like an amateur stage performer.