Blog No 21. The Agreement with Iran: Historic Breakthrough or Historic Mistake?

As soon as it was signed, the Agreement with Iran became a subject of vigorous debate. As is often the case, questions some of the claims on both sides of the debate. In our view, it is neither a historic breakthrough nor a historic mistake. Whether it is one or the other, or more likely neither, will not be known for at least six months or perhaps much longer.


Iran’s Nuclear Capability: BBC News, Nov 24, 2013

Readers of are presumably familiar with the basic terms of the Agreement and the principal arguments pro and con. Although NBC News and other media outlets termed the Agreement a historic breakthrough, editorials written in support of the Agreement have tended to be more cautious. Even those who favor the Agreement acknowledge that it is essentially an agreement to talk about reaching an agreement. Thus, the immediate impact of the Agreement is limited, and it may be more significant for what it foreshadows for future negotiations. The path to any future agreement is fraught with difficulty and the prospect of reaching a long-term accord is uncertain at best.

Among supporters of the Agreement, The New York Times asserted that “Even though the temporary agreement does not achieve permanent and total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, no one can seriously argue that it doesn’t make the world safer.” Well, quite a number of serious observers, both Republican and Democratic, have argued precisely that. For example, they have pointed out that, apart from a commitment to “dilute” some of its enriched uranium, Iran has not agreed to dismantle anything. Critics have estimated, without apparent contradiction, that restrictions on uranium would delay Iran’s conversion to weapons grade fuel by only a few weeks. And the Times acknowledged that “the perils ahead are many.”

The Washington Post supported the Agreement with obviously limited enthusiasm: “Though the accord is freighted with risk, it is worthy as an interim step — and preferable to the military action that might otherwise have been deemed necessary.” As benefits of the Agreement, the Post cited its limitations on uranium enrichment and a halt in the construction of a reactor. Yet the editorial acknowledged that “When all the provisions are implemented, the time Iran would theoretically need to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb, which is now about one month, would extend by no more than a month or two — or as little as 24 days, in the estimation of unhappy Israeli officials” Such an extension would seem to be a rather slender benefit indeed. Turning to risks, the Post cited rifts with Saudi Arabia and Israel and possibly other allies, and the fear that loosening even a few sanctions might cause the entire structure of international sanctions to crumble.

One weakness of the Agreement is its implied acceptance of the principle that Iran has some right to enrich uranium. While Secretary Kerry and the White House have stoutly denied any recognition of such a right, their position seems tenuous in light of language indicating that the final agreement would:

Involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities, capacity, where it is carried out, and stocks of enriched uranium, for a period to be agreed upon.

That is language from which the United States and its allies are unlikely to escape. And when enrichment is permitted, the risk of a conversion to weapons grade can be limited by inspections and monitoring but cannot be eliminated.

Still, the Post was entirely correct in arguing that the Agreement was preferable to military action. A broad variety of Republican and Democratic leaders have frequently declared that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and that in negotiating with Iran, the threat of military action was not “off the table.” Such a threat may be legitimate, and even essential, as a negotiating position, but as a matter of policy to be executed, it is highly questionable; many military and intelligence officials have indicated that such a strike would be extremely unwise. For example, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has said that such an action would be “catastrophic.” It would delay but not end Iran’s nuclear program, invite retaliation, disrupt oil production and have a de-stabilizing effect throughout the Middle East. The Agreement does take military action “off the table” for the duration of its term, but whether it remains off the table will obviously depend on reaching a further agreement.

If supporters of the Agreement have been restrained in their approval, many of its critics have been less so in attacking it. A Wall Street Journal editorial was headlined “Iran’s Nuclear Triumph,” and an accompanying op-ed piece by Mark Dubowitz and Orde Kittrie was titled “A Bad Agreement Likely to Get Worse.” Both writings emphasized not only the limited nature of the restraints placed on Iran but the writers’ expectation that, over time, the sanctions on Iran would become increasingly eroded. As the Journal put it:

The message is that the sanctions era is over. The loosening of the oil regime is especially pernicious, inviting China, India and Germany to get back to business with Iran.

We are told that all of these issues will be negotiated as part of a “final” accord in the next six months, but that is not how arms control works. It is far more likely that this accord will set a precedent for a series of temporary deals in which the West will gradually ease more sanctions in return for fewer Iranian concessions.

Thus, the argument is, sanctions should not have been relaxed at all unless and until Iran agreed to a far more drastic and irreversible dismantling of its program.

It cannot be denied that there is a risk, as even supporters of the Agreement have conceded, that the sanctions will be eroded. If that becomes fact, Benjamin Netanyahu’s assessment of a “historic mistake” may be vindicated. On the other hand, such erosion is by no means certain, especially as the Administration’s spine will be stiffened by a Congress that appears more than willing to impose sanctions that are not subject to waiver by the executive.

Moreover, the problem with the critics’ argument is that, while the sanctions appear to have brought Iran to the negotiating table, there is no persuasive evidence that continuing, or even enhancing, them would have produced an agreement that they would find satisfactory. Indeed, many of today’s critics would probably be satisfied by nothing short of regime change. And as Syria continues to demonstrate, such change may be extraordinarily difficult to bring about, even when clearly justified and widely supported. Could a harder bargain have been struck with Iran? History will have to be the judge, but even history is unlikely to render a definitive verdict.

In any case, further negotiations lie ahead. As they progress (or fail to progress), Congress should watch closely to assure that the structure and application of sanctions are protected. Sanctions may or may not provide sufficient leverage to achieve the desired result, but short of military action they are they the only tool we have. Nevertheless, “moving ahead as soon as possible to strengthen sanctions,” as the Journal recommended in a coda to its editorial, would be a serious mistake. It would seriously undermine the credibility of not only Mr. Obama but that of the United States in future negotiations with Iran or, for that matter, other nations.

Finally, there is the matter of Saudi Arabia and Israel, two strange bedfellows perhaps, both of whom disapprove of the Agreement. While Israel, through Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been the more outspoken on the subject, Saudi Arabia is clearly uncomfortable with it as well. An interesting essay by George Friedman in Stratfor explains that the interests of both countries extend well beyond the issue of whether an agreement would effectively restrain Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Rather, Friedman argues, they are perhaps equally concerned with whether such an agreement would lead to a broader relationship between Iran and the United States and what the implications of that development would be for the region.

The apprehensions of both Saudi Arabia and Israel are legitimate and understandable and will require skilled diplomacy to manage. Clearly the United States should not permit either long-standing ally to feel abandoned. Nevertheless, if the end result should be a more balanced United State policy in the region, in fact and appearance, that could be a good thing.

5 thoughts on “Blog No 21. The Agreement with Iran: Historic Breakthrough or Historic Mistake?

  • Thanks for the extremely realistic, well-balanced assessment of a highly controversial agreement. Good to see the hype and over-statements cut through in this attempt to reduce, without violence, one of the many issues tormenting this conflict-ridden region.

  • Military intervention or threat is still present through Israel with SA backing. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not removed his red line. This will get very interesting and soon.

  • Iraq,Afganistan,Pakistan,Algeria,Lebanon,Syria!
    Our agreements and interventions have all been horrific failures.
    But now this possible agreement will safeguard the world from another nuclear catastrophe.
    Please Savior, protect us from our misguided intention and our naivete.

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