Why Kerry’s Iran Deal Will Hold Up

Why Kerry’s Iran Deal Will Hold Up

REUTERS/Denis Balabouse

Secretary of State Kerry pulled off a hat trick in Sunday’s pre-dawn hours, when six world powers and Iran announced an interim deal in Geneva on the latter’s nuclear program. 

Kerry was all over the Sunday morning talk shows, soft-pedaling the significance of the agreement for one perfectly evident reason: to avoid provoking Congress, Israel, or the conservative Arab states any more than negotiations with the Iranians already have.   

Related: Iran Nuclear Deal Seen as Historic Mistake by Israel 

The pundits and analysts—regrettably, it must be said—obediently followed the State Department line. Supposedly, the Geneva accord amounts to legerdemain without much in the main. Supposedly, Kerry and the foreign ministers of five other world powers made a purchase on the substantive work lying ahead, nothing more. Supposedly, this thing is less a product of diplomacy than of diplomacy cleverly, and maybe desperately, deferred.

This is off the mark. For one thing, Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have moved relations from 35 years of bitterness and caricature—“Great Satan,” “seat of ‘Islamofascism’”—to talking over a table, and the table is the center of gravity now. Commentators are wearing out the word—“This is historic”; “no, it is not”—so here is my last go: It is. 

For another, two critical points are now in writing. One is this, verbatim: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons.” This has been stated policy for many years, but policy obliges a nation nothing. Now it is a commitment in an international pact. 

Point 2 also comes straight from the text: In a comprehensive agreement, Iran is promised “to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the Non–Proliferation Treaty in conformity with its obligations therein.” This acknowledges the NPT as the governing document in these talks. This is a concession to the Iranians—a sensible, inevitable concession—in disguise. 

Related: Iran Nuclear Deal Draws Fire from All Sides 

These core principles will endure in any comprehensive agreement Kerry and his allies in the “P5 + 1” group sign with Iran, assuming they do so within a year (not the six months mistakenly bruited about). The stipulations now going into effect specifically for the next six months include these: 

• Iran can continue to enrich uranium up to 5 percent oxide content (the power-generating level) but restrain its stocks. These are now 6 tons, will rise to 7 tons, and then drop back to 6 tons. 

• Iran will retain half its inventory of uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is nearly (but not quite) weapons grade, for use in fuel fabrication. The other half will be diluted.

• All activity at three sensitive research and production sites—Natanz, Fordow, and Arak—will be suspended.

• Inspectors from the international Atomic Energy Agency can make daily, unannounced, but not unrestricted inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The term in the text is “managed access.”

• International sanctions will be eased or fixed as they are now in sectors including oil, petrochemicals, precious metals, and autos. The U.S. puts the value of this relief at $6 billion to $7 billion.

• The U.S., the European Union, and the U.N. Security Council will impose no new sanctions during the next six months.

Related: Netanyahu Visits Russia to Lobby against Iran Deal

It is odd to hear what each side takes away from this well-crafted document: You get the opposite sides of the moon. It is especially weird to watch Kerry hide his light under a bushel, as the English say, but this is what politics requires of him now.

So you get Zarif saying, “The force option is no longer on the table.” You get Kerry telling “Face the Nation,” “The fact is the president has not taken that threat off the table.” You get Zarif saying the deal recognizes Iran’s right to enrichment, while Kerry asserts, “No, there is no right to enrich. We do not recognize Iran’s right to enrich.”

This stuff is knitted into the document, enabling each side to go home and say what it wants. This is especially crucial on the question of enrichment, which is what makes the NPT the key reference.

The NPT text was written 45 years ago. It guarantees signatories the right to a “peaceful nuclear program.” Enrichment was not treated as a separate question; neither was any other component of a nuclear program. The argument that the treaty does not provide for enrichment—the U.S. argument now—is roughly to say cars do not necessarily need gasoline (or electricity, at this point). 

At bottom this is specious, and I suspect Kerry knows a flaw when he sees one. Study his two statements above on this topic. They say two different things. The second is true, the first false. He is eliding, a familiar but not often successful diplomatic device. 

Related: Here Comes Obama's Big Moment with Iran

A lasting agreement still turns on settling the enrichment question, and Iran has no intention of moving a millimeter. Geneva last weekend suggests for the first time Iran could get its due as a sovereign nation. They want it badly, and they appear to be smart enough to keep this train on the track. 

This means one thing more than any other: The real work in coming weeks and months is the Obama administration’s to get done or not, and it has nothing to do with Tehran. It is to get its own side in order.  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was instantly out of the gate: “What was concluded last night in Geneva was not an historic agreement,” he said. “It was an historic mistake.” On the Sunday talk shows, American legislators suggested a new tactic: Pass new sanctions now, write into them a six-month delay. 

A lot of mistakes are out there waiting to be made. It is a question whether Kerry and Obama (in that order, it seems) are skillful enough to avoid them. Washington and its allies have to train their eyes to recognize a good interim outcome, surprising as it may be.    

On ABC’s “This Week,” William Kristol, the conservative commentator, observed that the Iranians went home from Geneva happy, as if this were some bad thing— evidence that Kerry and the rest of P5 + 1 gave too much away. The logic is bent.  

If the Iranians were not happy to one or another extent there would be no interim deal. Versailles 1919 is the self-evident lesson. Nothing works if an equitable gain-and-give is not the core of the transaction. Kerry gave, yes, but he also got back. 

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