Diplomacy is codified on paper but its success is defined in action. In Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry and the P5+1 world powers have reached a six month deal with Iran. This provides a short window in which Iran will gain limited sanctions relief and the opportunity to show good faith in addressing international concerns over nuclear weaponization. As President Obama put it, this deal intends to “create time and space” for a broader agreement to prevent an Iran that’s armed with nuclear weapons.
Let’s face it, nuclear diplomacy with Iran was always going to be messy; this issue is too technical, too politically complex, and too emotionally laden to allow anything else. As an extension, the global reaction to this deal has been predictably polarized. To some, it represents Obama’s greatest accomplishment – an extraordinary feat of leadership and peacemaking. To others however, this is a disaster – a modern successor to Munich.
The truth is somewhere in between.
On the positive side, the most obvious benefit is that this deal offers something new. After 10 years of failed negotiations, brooding mistrust, and continued Iranian nuclear advancement, Geneva has injected new meaning to the process. At a basic level, the deal puts Iran on the record. By incentivizing Iranian compliance with a re-enforced inspections regime, this agreement will test whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is serious when he claims that Iran has nothing to hide. This honesty benchmark is crucial and long overdue. If the ayatollah breaks his word, he will only have himself to blame for the consequences that may follow.
That being said, this deal offers more than simple trust-building opportunities.
First, by allowing for more intrusive inspections, especially at Fordow and Natanz, the deal will allow inspectors to gain a greater knowledge as to whether Iran’s claims of peaceful research are true or false. In this regard, the deal brings a little bit of light to a nuclear program that has been hidden in the dark for far too long.
Second, by halting the construction of Iran’s heavy water facility at Arak, the deal produces a short-term delay to the potential for an Iranian plutonium-based nuclear weapons capability.
Third, by “diluting” Iran’s existing stock of 20 percent medium-enriched uranium, Iran’s short-term ability to produce a nuclear bomb has also been delayed.
Fourth and perhaps most important, by committing Iran to a low percentage cap on enrichment, the deal begins to address the defining issue: the question as to what minimum and maximum enrichment-level will define Iran’s nuclear program going forward.
As I’ve argued before, Iran is extraordinarily unlikely to ever accept a deal that completely precludes any measure of enrichment. At the same time, from the US/EU perspective, unless Iran’s enrichment program is limited to a low level (and can be verified as such), Iran’s ability to actualize a nuclear weapons program would be intolerably high.
Of course, there are also negatives here.
First, although Iran has agreed not to operationalize further centrifuges, their existing enrichment mechanisms remain in place. And while it’s true that if the new inspections are effective, Iran’s capability won’t be an issue (the inspectors will be able to verify whether or not the regime is complying with its commitments), that “if” remains a big question.
Remote-access monitoring, such as a CCTV provision, is a lot different from physical-access monitoring. And physical-access monitoring itself has various degrees. If Iran prevents inspectors from no-notice spot checks or if it attempts to evade their inquiries, inspections will serve no purpose in gauging whether Iran has continued to develop its nuclear program.
Certainly, negotiators have to guard against a potential effort by Iranian hardliners to use this deal as the new status quo. They need to be careful here. From Fordow to Parchin, Iran has a long record of covert activities. Again, the next six months will show whether President Hassan Rouhani is a puppet of Khamenei or an honest, empowered leader in his own right.
Until then, this deal is only a piece of paper. Just as the “anti-deal” crowd is wrong to burn diplomacy in the womb, so too is the “pro-deal” crowd wrong to crow with gleeful triumphalism. The only sensible reaction is one of hopeful but healthy scrutiny. Perhaps Republican Senator Jeff Flake tweeted it best, “Just heard President Obama describe nuclear deal with Iran. Look forward to studying details.”