It appears we have a deal to have a deal with Iran. That’s the upshot of months – years - of negotiating, including some frantic last-minute sessions aimed at preventing Congress from punishing Iran’s intransigence by imposing further sanctions. President Obama, predictably, hailed the “historic understanding”; Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, predictably, said the framework “would threaten the survival of Israel.”
The reality, as Netanyahu claimed in his speech before Congress, is that the framework announced fails to abolish Iran’s nuclear capability. It therefore also fails to meet the demands laid down in 2012 by President Obama himself, when he promised that any deal would require Iran to “end their nuclear program.” The program is diminished, but not abandoned. Ten years hence, it will go forward and Iran will almost certainly have the ability to create a nuclear weapon.
Many questions and issues remain. For instance, the response of Arab leaders is unknown. President Obama has invited the heads of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and others to Camp David to try to win their support for the proposed agreement. If they remain unconvinced, and more anxious about Iran’s intentions than our optimistic Commander in Chief, this deal will indeed be “historic.” It will ignite a nuclear arms race in the world’s most unstable region.
Another pesky detail left unresolved by Foreign Minister Zarif, Secretary of State John Kerry and the other members of the P5+1 negotiating team is the timing and process through which the sanctions will be lifted. Obama is indicating that relief will be phased in as Iran meets various obligations under the agreement; the Iranians say sanctions will be lifted immediately. The gap is huge.
Zarif tweeted that the U.S. misrepresented the accord, saying “Iran/5+1 Statement: ‘US will cease the application of ALL nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions.’ Is this gradual?” He then added, “Iran/P5+1 Statement: ‘The EU will TERMINATE the implementation of ALL nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions’. How about this?”
If sanctions will be lifted only as Iran follows through on various requirements outlined by the deal, then it is more likely Tehran will behave. If the restrictions are removed immediately upon signing the final version in June, the U.S. will have lost its leverage and Iran can proceed as it likes. President Obama has pledged that the sanctions will “snap back” into place if the mullahs fail to abide by the agreement, but the U.S. controls only one portion of the restrictions in place.
Other limits on sales of industrial materials that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon, for instance, fall under an earlier U.N. agreement. Reinstatement would require getting Russia and China to agree, which, given those countries’ commercial interests in dealing with Iran, might prove impossible. The U.S. could certainly impose new restrictions unilaterally, or in concert with the EU, but the impact would be significantly diluted.
This will be a difficult item to resolve in the next three months. It is also crucial, because there is no reason to believe that Tehran will allow the “intrusive” inspections that are demanded by the framework, or in other ways honestly comply with the proposed agreement. The published framework says Iran will allow the IAEA “regular access” to its nuclear facilities. Does that mean scheduled or impromptu inspections? Once a year or any time the agency deems appropriate? Such details will determine the value of this agreement.
Years of cheating, of hiding facilities and lying about their nuclear program have made it clear that Iran is not to be trusted. To highlight why the U.S. should remain skeptical, it is worth noting that Tehran has still not answered the questions posed by the IAEA about their military weapons research that casts doubt on claims that the program is only for peaceful purposes.
The biggest shortcoming of the deal is that the U.S. failed to demand any gesture of good faith from Iran – such as freeing the three Americans currently held hostage in the country, or backing off its support of the Houthis in Yemen. Or, maybe Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could just once tell the chanting multitudes that “Death to America” is not state policy.
Some gesture to indicate that Iran intends to modify its aggressive support of terrorism would be welcome, and overdue. The problem is it would also be out of character. Which is why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is negative on any deal that “paves” Iran’s road to a nuclear device and leaves the country’s nuclear infrastructure intact. Unlike President Obama, he is convinced that Iran really would like to see Israel annihilated, that such threats are to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Netanyahu has history on his side.
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