It is difficult to be categorical when judging this agreement.
Much depends upon huge uncertainties that will play out over years or decades. American politicians are condemned to focus on near-term costs and consequences. Our system tends to discount the future very heavily—election cycles, business cycles, news cycles all drive decision-making focus on the near term. We do not play a long game very well (if at all). We tend to buy time in small increments.
Still, gazing further into the future, it is not hard to see a world where the US and Iran have more extensive relations—particularly economic. The very youthful Iranian population will grow up. It’s hard to see the next generation following the same path as the current Iranian leaders.
But you have to get to that future without things going horribly wrong.
Judging the immediate position regarding the narrow (but important) issue of Iran’s nuclear program should account for a few facts.
- This isn’t like Iraq. There really is an Iranian nuclear program that is very advanced. Iran has a very large nuclear infrastructure covering all aspects of nuclear work—whether peaceful or military. Iran has the capacity to make nuclear weapons. It is just a question of will.
- We do not know how much work Iran has done to develop a nuclear warhead. The US was convinced there was a “weaponization program” that was suspended or otherwise halted (probably only temporarily) in 2003 coincident with the US invasion of Iraq. Maybe they thought they were next. Who knows? The point is that no one other than the Iranians knows how developed and how well-tested a weapon design may be. The recent agreement does nothing to answer this question. In fact, one of the key items the IAEA seeks to clarify is just this point. They have sought access to a military site (Parchin) where reports indicate Iran conducted explosive testing that would only be done for a nuclear weapon development program. Iran must come clean on the status of its weaponization work if the international community (and the IAEA) wants to have effective monitoring in the future. This is vital.
- Iran must declare all its enrichment capacity—to include centrifuge production capacity and parts. To be able to monitor compliance in the future, there must be a solid baseline understanding of all enrichment capacity, not just the designated sites.
- Don’t forget Iran has long-range ballistic missile programs that appear best suited for nuclear warheads. Those programs are continuing in earnest. We are not talking about a country like Japan that has the talent and wherewithal to make nuclear weapons, but does not choose to compete in the military realm. It makes its mark economically.
- What are the objectives of a deal with Iran? It is unclear what the explicit goal of a final agreement is. Is the goal to remove all Iranian capacity to enrich Uranium (or make plutonium)? Or is the goal to cause Iran to have a detectable “breakout” time of no less than some period of time?
- There is a trade-off between enrichment and the need for very intrusive inspections. If Iran had no enrichment capacity, then monitoring for a weapons program is much easier. However, once some type of enrichment is accepted, then the pressures to conduct very intrusive monitoring go up substantially. This is a trade that negotiators may put to Tehran. If they want to enrich, then they should accept a very intrusive inspection regime. If they do not want highly intrusive inspections, then they should relinquish enrichment capacity.
Some other considerations.
Iran may have viewed the recent Syrian decision regarding its Chemical Weapons programs as an indicator that cooperation on WMD will buy them legitimacy. Iran might also have concluded that a US military strike against Iran was really unlikely. The spectacle of President Obama going to congress to get authorization for a limited bombing mission in Syria (and failure being all be assured) communicated something—probably not strength. On the other hand, the strong sanctions put together over both the Bush and Obama administrations with international support is quite a powerful tool. As we learned after the invasion of Iraq, Saddam’s highest priority was to get out of sanctions. Incrementally he gave up his WMD to that end…the problem was no one believed him (and, of course, Saddam was going to rebuild his WMD capacity as soon as conditions permitted—this is the part many tend to forget).
The US is not in a strong position on Iran. This administration is focused on domestic issues. It seems international issues are evaluated first on their domestic consequences. That is not unusual, but when President Obama says “all options are on the table,” it does not mean the same thing as when President Bush said the same.
Moreover, an objective assessment of the US role in the region would have to consider that the US is simply not as dominant as it was. We are withdrawing though we don’t say that. We are less needful of imported oil. Our policies have tended to undermine long-time allies. Many countries, particularly the Gulf States are realizing they are on their own and should not count of the US for support or leadership that suits them. The world has changed. Russia, China, France and others are rising in influence.
Under the circumstances, maybe we were lucky to get as good a deal as we got. To get to the point of a final deal that is verifiable and truly removes any near term risk of an Iranian nuclear weapon will require a lot more.
Finally, once sanctions are off, no matter what anyone says, it will be near impossible to put them back on. This was the elephant in the room during Security Council debates concerning Iraq’s compliance with WMD. No one really believed that once sanctions were lifted, Saddam wouldn’t reconstruct his programs. And there would not be the will to reimpose sanctions once the world was re-engaged in commerce with this wealthy country. That was Saddam’s strategy and, absent the changed world after 9-11, it probably would have worked.