by Dr. Steve Elwart
It is indicative of today’s world that the first word of an imminent agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program came via social media.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first to issue a message on the agreement on Twitter: “Found solutions. Ready to start drafting immediately.” This was shortly followed by a tweet issued by the European Union Foreign Affairs and Security Policy chief Federica Mogherini. “Good news,” she tweeted.
In an additional sign of the time, among much fanfare, after the news was already out on the Internet, U.S. President Barack Obama made an announcement about the agreement via the mainstream media. Obama said that the agreement reached will “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.”
Analysts following the negotiations said they were “pleasantly surprised” that there were more written details to the agreement than were anticipated and more concessions from Iran than were predicted. Proponents of the agreement in both the United States and Iran were celebrating the agreement.
Unfortunately, the celebrating was premature. Even in the announcement celebrating the agreement, the U.S. President admitted the deal is not done yet. Nothing has been signed and there are still large issues to be resolved.
It appears that all parties wanted to come up with something dramatic when the self-imposed negotiation target for the negotiation framework of March 31 passed. In fact, the parties continued talks for 43 hours after the deadline.
The Devil in the Details
As the saying goes, “The Devil is in the details”. For this agreement, the Devil is alive and well. There are several unanswered questions in the agreement left to be resolved. Any of them could be a “deal breaker”.
First, there may not even be a “common framework”. There is one framework that was issued by the United States Department of State. Then there is another framework described by the Iranian delegation in Switzerland. There is a remarkable disparity between the two versions. So much so that Foreign Minister Zarif accused the United States of lying to the American people. Until these two versions are resolved, no agreement will be reached.
The State Department framework as described in their factsheet outlines a better deal that what is coming out in the public via leaks. It promises tougher inspections, fewer centrifuges, longer duration, and generally better results than even what the administration had been proposing in recent weeks.
The State Department’s framework is probably better than whatever the final deal will be. This will lead to eventual letdown once the final details are known. It is a trial balloon that marks the U.S. initial negotiating position. From there, the U.S. will be playing “Let’s Make a Deal”. The final deal will most probably will be worse for the U.S. and better for Iran.
The deal outlined by the State Department may represent the best deal the U.S. can get, but it could have been better. From the beginning, President Obama has signaled his willingness to get a deal, any deal, to preserve his legacy. Secretary Kerry has done much the same.
President Richard Nixon and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” game down to an art form. In his negotiations with the North Vietnamese, Kissinger essentially said, “Look, I’m a reasonable man, but that Nixon fellow is crazy and will bomb your country into the Stone Age if you don’t give him what he wants.” They did essentially the same thing with the Communist Chinese when they opened up a dialog with that country.
In the present case, Obama and Kerry are playing “Good Cop, Good Cop”. They are both showing an eagerness to get an agreement, which gives the economic leverage to the Iranians. Anyone who has bought a used car or house knows you don’t tell the salesperson how eager you are to buy their product. You lose your negotiating position.
That is what the Obama Administration has done.
From the beginning, Obama violated basic principles of Diplomacy 101. As a result, he squandered U.S. leverage and convinced everyone that he needed a deal, any deal, more than the Iranians did. We will never know for sure what tougher negotiations might have yielded; we only know for sure Obama did not try them.
One problem with the current framework is that it seems to be a one time, one time only agreement. Would this same deal be offered the Saudis, the Turks, and the Egyptians? If recent statements from Saudi Arabia wanting nuclear weapons are any indication, this question is not hypothetical. The answer is “probably not”.
While being touted as a diplomatic victory, if one looks at the original attitudes towards Iran’s nuclear program of a decade ago, it is indisputable: the United States has conceded the most and Iran has won the most.
The terms of the interim agreement are bound to be picked over in coming days, but the information that has been released so far from the U.S. State Department seems to read as follows:
The agreement unveiled on Thursday allows Iran to continue some of its enrichment activities but imposes strong limits on those efforts. Iran will be required to reduce its number of installed centrifuges by two-thirds to about 6,000. Of those, 5,060 will be allowed to operate during the next 10 years.
The question of the number of centrifuges Iran can deploy is connected with what diplomats call Iran’s possible “breakout time.” That is, the time it would take to amass enough fissionable material should Iran decide to break the agreement. The terms of the deal appear to put the breakout time at about a year.
Breakout time may be a moot point since the agreement would last only 15 years. At which time, Iran would be free to pursue a nuclear bomb. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said well when he said that the agreement would not stop Iran from developing a bomb; at best, it would only delay it.
Fordow, Natanz, and Arak
If Iran ever decides to clandestinely pursue a nuclear weapon, its facility at Fordow will be key. Buried underneath a mountain to protect it from air strikes, Fordow is currently home to thousands of centrifuges. But by the terms of the Lausanne agreement, Iran has agreed not to carry out any enrichment activities at the site for 15 years. It will instead repurpose it as a nuclear, physics, and technology research center. During that time period, the site will not be home to any fissile material.
For Iran’s negotiators — the so-called P5+1: the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and Germany — the changes at Fordow represent a significant victory, one that hampers Iran’s path to a bomb.
At the same time, however, Iran will be allowed to keep some centrifuges at Fordow, though they will not enrich uranium. Speaking to reporters in Lausanne, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif highlighted this fact as a victory his delegation was able to secure at the negotiating table.
The information that has so far been released about the agreement does not include a great deal of specificity about the centrifuges at Fordow, and this caused Scott Kemp, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to question estimates about Iran’s possible breakout time under the agreement.
“Although the U.S. fact-sheet indicates that no uranium is allowed at Fordow, centrifuges are allowed and those centrifuges must be included in the calculation of breakout times,” Kemp wrote. “The U.S.-released text suggests a maximum of about 1,000 centrifuges will be allowed at Fordow, and does not specify restrictions on the centrifuge models installed there. Assuming Iran’s current best technology is used, Fordow centrifuges could reduce breakout time to about three months.”
Iran’s other key site for enriching uranium lies at Natanz. With Fordow no longer working with fissile material, Iran’s enrichment activities will only take place at Natanz. Five thousand centrifuges will be allowed to run, a restriction that will be place for ten years. At Natanz, Iran will only be allowed to use its most basic centrifuge model, though it can engage in “limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges,” according to a State Department fact sheet.
While Iran’s nuclear program has focused on uranium enrichment, some observers fear that it could use its heavy water reactor being built at Arak to produce plutonium, another possible bomb fuel. Under the terms of the agreement, Arak will be redesigned so that it can no longer produce weapons grade plutonium. The reactor’s current core will either be destroyed or sent out of the country. Spent fuel from the reactor, which could be used to make nuclear weapons, will be shipped out of the country as long as the reactor is running. (This point has been rejected by the Iranians as will be discussed later.)
All of these restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be meaningless if the international community lacks the ability to monitor its compliance. With that in mind, the agreement sets up an aggressive inspections regime, giving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to all of Iran’s nuclear sites, including any other sites deemed suspicious.
But when it comes to the ability of inspectors to detect covert activity, the Iranians have been very good at playing “hide and seek”. As Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA official once wrote: “History shows surprises.”
“The Russian centrifuge program went for years without detection despite tremendous intelligence efforts,” Heinonen wrote. “The Iraqi and Libyan programs were not immediately detected, and South Africa, which manufactured nuclear weapons, ended up destroying its program before the IAEA saw it. The Syrian reactor in al-Kibar also came a bit out of the blue, as did North Korea’s advanced centrifuge plant.”
The pace of sanctions relief
If Iran complies the terms of this agreement, it will experience wide-ranging sanctions relief. The United States and the European Union will suspend such measures upon verification by the IAEA that Iran has fulfilled its “key” nuclear-related obligations. What constitutes a “key” obligation has not been entirely specified, and is likely a point of contention.
After IAEA verification, the U.N. Security Council will pass a fresh resolution lifting all past resolutions on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. That new resolution will likely include restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles, asset freezes, cargo inspections, and other provisions to encourage transparency in Iran’s nuclear activities.
What isn’t said in the framework is that once sanctions are lifted, none of the P5+1 countries, with the possible exception of France, will be willing to reimpose them. The world powers are weary of the talk over the Iranian nuclear weapon program and don’t feel that they are particularly threatened by Iran getting the Bomb.
A Diplomatic “JV Team”
For all the hoopla, negotiations with the Iranians have been a series of amateurish mistakes. Both President Obama and Secretary Kerry were eager for an agreement and let the world know it. That became painfully clear when Iranian journalist defected to the West and stated in a tweet, “The US negotiating team are [sic] mainly there to speak on Iran’s behalf with other members of the 5+1 countries and convince them of a deal.”
Given the eagerness of the Americans to seal a deal, the Iranians were only too happy to press their advantage.
In a typical negotiating tactic, at the last minute, Iran backed off of their initial agreement to ship any nuclear material not needed for power generation and “research” to Russia for safekeeping. This is very typical in any negotiation. In the eleventh hour, one side will take a harder line on an issue then before, hoping that the other party will agree to the demand, to “get the ball over the goal line”.
In 1985, U.S. and Soviet negotiators met in Geneva to attempt to reach agreement on bilateral nuclear arms reductions. The negotiators reached an impasse. Since Gorbachev and Reagan had developed a personal relationship, both leaders hoped a face to face meeting at Reykjavik might revive the negotiations.
The talks between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik proceeded well. They decided on limiting the strategic missiles in Europe and were close to concluding the talks when Reagan said, “Well, why don’t we just get rid of all of them (the strategic missiles)?” That opening led to another round of talks over the next few days. The two came to a general agreement on eliminating all nuclear weapons from the planet. At one point Reagan even described to Gorbachev how both men might return to Reykjavik in ten years, aged and retired leaders, to personally witness the dismantling of the world’s last remaining nuclear warhead.
Then Gorbachev threw Reagan a curve ball.
After the two were in agreement, Gorbachev said, “Of course, you’ll stop SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars”). This was the one thing Reagan said from the onset he would not do. Gorbachev, thinking Reagan would relent, made this a last minute condition. Reagan balked and they walked away from the table with no agreement whatsoever. It would be another year after Reykjavik before the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), for the first time eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons.
This is a fear of both the United States and Iran in these negotiations, that a last minute curve ball will scuttle the agreement. There are so many open questions, that many fear that the much touted agreement-in-principal will end up like Reykjavik, only Iran will not come back to the table.
- US, Iran publicly at odds over 6 key aspects of nuke deal, Israeli expert finds
— The Times of Israel
- Obama Calls Preliminary Iran Nuclear Deal ‘Our Best Bet’
— New York Times
- Netanyahu continues attack on Iran nuclear agreement: it’s ‘a very bad deal’
— The Guardian
- Iran’s Negotiating Triumph over Obama and America
— Wall Street Journal
- Howard Dean: U.S. Should Walk Away from Iran Negotiations
— National Review
- An Iran Nuclear Deal Built on Coffee, All-Nighters and Compromise
— New York Times
- Iran’s remarkable achievement
— Washington Post
- The Deal of a Lifetime
- – From KHouse.Org