The fu­ture of the Iran nu­clear deal

“Many in the US and Europe will want the sanc­tions to re­main un­til Iran has fully met its obligations”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

“There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” goes the old English proverb. Some­thing seem­ingly re­solved and cer­tain in fact is nei­ther. If no such ex­pres­sion ex­ists in Farsi, I pre­dict one soon will.

The rea­son, of course, is the “Pa­ram­e­ters for a Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Ac­tion Re­gard­ing the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran’s Nu­clear Pro­gramme,” the frame­work just adopted by Iran and the P5+1 (the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s five per­ma­nent mem­bers – China, Bri­tain, France, Rus­sia, and the United States – plus Ger­many). The agree­ment con­sti­tutes an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic mile­stone, and it con­tains more de­tail and is broader in scope than many an­tic­i­pated.

But, for all that, the text leaves unan­swered at least as many ques­tions as it re­solves. In re­al­ity – and as the com­ing weeks, months, and years will demon­strate – ma­jor is­sues have yet to be set­tled. It is closer to the truth to say the real de­bate about the Iran nu­clear ac­cord is just be­gin­ning.

The frame­work places sig­nif­i­cant lim­its on Iran’s nu­clear pro­gramme, in­clud­ing the num­ber and type of cen­trifuges, the sort of re­ac­tors, and the amount and qual­ity of en­riched ura­nium that the coun­try may pos­sess. Stan­dards are set for the in­spec­tions needed to pro­vide con­fi­dence that Iran is ful­fill­ing its obligations. And pro­vi­sion is made for eas­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions once Iran has ver­i­fi­ably met its com­mit­ments.

The bot­tom line is that the agree­ment will pro­vide an es­ti­mated one-year warn­ing from the mo­ment that Iran might de­cide to build one or more nu­clear weapons to the point at which it could achieve that goal. This as­sess­ment as­sumes that the mon­i­tor­ing called for in the ac­cord will de­tect any Ira­nian non-com­pli­ance early enough to en­able a co­or­di­nated in­ter­na­tional re­sponse, par­tic­u­larly the rein­tro­duc­tion of sanc­tions, be­fore Iran could ac­quire nu­clear weapons.

There are no less than five rea­sons not to as­sume the deal will en­ter into force or have the de­sired im­pact. The first in­volves the next 90 days. What was an­nounced was an in­terim frame­work; a for­mal, com­pre­hen­sive ac­cord is sup­posed to be com­pleted by the end of June. In the mean­time, there could eas­ily be changes of heart and mind as those who ne­go­ti­ated the in­terim deal re­turn home and face crit­i­cism from their gov­ern­ments and publics over its terms. Al­ready, sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences are emerg­ing in how the US and Ira­nian sides are rep­re­sent­ing what was ne­go­ti­ated.

A sec­ond con­cern stems from the spe­cific is­sues that re­main to be re­solved. The most dif­fi­cult might be the tim­ing of when var­i­ous eco­nomic sanc­tions are to be re­moved – the is­sue of great­est con­cern to Iran. But th­ese same sanc­tions are also the source of the great­est lever­age over Ira­nian be­hav­iour, which means that many in the US and Europe will want them to re­main in place un­til Iran has fully met its crit­i­cal obligations.

A third source of doubt is whether the var­i­ous par­ties will ap­prove any long-term pact. The two main un­cer­tain­ties in­volve Iran and the US. So-called hard­lin­ers in Iran will un­doubt­edly ob­ject to an agree­ment with the “Great Satan” that places lim­its on their coun­try’s nu­clear am­bi­tions. But there is also a wide­spread de­sire among Ira­ni­ans to get out from un­der eco­nomic sanc­tions, and Iran will ap­prove a pact if Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei favours it, which he pre­sum­ably does.

The un­cer­tain­ties are greater in the US. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama must con­tend with a far more com­plex po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, be­gin­ning with Congress. There is wide­spread and un­der­stand­able con­cern about leav­ing Iran with any nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties, about the ad­e­quacy of pro­vi­sions for mon­i­tor­ing and in­spec­tion, and about what will hap­pen in ten or 15 or 25 years when var­i­ous lim­its on Iran ex­pire. Per­suad­ing Congress to ap­prove the fi­nal pact and/or lift sanc­tions is any­thing but as­sured.

This ques­tion of gain­ing po­lit­i­cal ap­proval is closely tied to a fourth area of con­cern: how any fi­nal agree­ment is im­ple­mented. The his­tory of arms con­trol sug­gests there will be oc­ca­sions when Iran, which has a record of with­hold­ing rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion from UN weapons in­spec­tors, is sus­pected of not living up to the let­ter, much less the spirit, of what was ne­go­ti­ated. Agree­ment is needed on the process for judg­ing Ira­nian be­hav­iour and for de­ter­min­ing ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponses.

The fifth con­cern stems not so much from the ac­cord as from ev­ery­thing else about Iran’s for­eign and de­fense poli­cies. The agree­ment is only about Iran’s nu­clear ac­tiv­i­ties. It says noth­ing about Iran’s mis­sile pro­grammes or sup­port for ter­ror­ists and prox­ies, much less about what it is do­ing in Syria or Iraq or Ye­men or any­where else in the tur­bu­lent Mid­dle East, or about hu­man rights at home.

Iran is a would-be im­pe­rial power that seeks re­gional pri­macy. Even a nu­clear agree­ment that is signed and im­ple­mented will not af­fect this re­al­ity and might even make it worse, as Iran could well emerge with its rep­u­ta­tion en­hanced and a long-term op­tion to build nu­clear weapons in­tact.

Obama is right: A nu­clear agree­ment of the sort out­lined is prefer­able to Iran pos­sess­ing nu­clear weapons or go­ing to war to pre­vent that out­come. But any agree­ment must also gen­er­ate wide­spread con­fi­dence in the US and the re­gion that it will place a mean­ing­ful ceil­ing on Iran’s nu­clear pro­gramme, and that any cheat­ing will be dis­cov­ered early and dealt with firmly. This will not be easy; in­deed, it is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to pre­dict that the ef­fort to gen­er­ate such con­fi­dence may well prove as de­mand­ing as the ne­go­ti­a­tions them­selves.

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