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Vienna Dispatch: Nuclear Agreement Reached, Puts Iran on Path to Bomb

The P5+1 global powers and Iran today announced the conclusion of nearly two years of nuclear negotiations. The talks, which began with the aim of permanently dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, concluded with a deal that will allow Iran to have an unlimited enrichment program in a decade, and will permit the international community to actively cooperate with the Islamic republic on nuclear research in the meantime.

A series of collapses – which picked up pace in the days before framework talks last spring in Lausanne, Switzerland and accelerated afterwards – have been blasted by experts for adding up to a deal that is too weak to verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even during the period before restrictions are lifted. Following those talks, which ended with an announcement on April 2, former Deputy-Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Olli Heinonen noted that even if the deal worked – even if it kept Iran from going nuclear for a decade – the other concessions made by the United States meant that Iran would be “a threshold breakout nuclear state for the next 10 years.”

Analysts have drawn particular attention to American concessions on four core issues: the demand that Iran detail the full extent of its nuclear program including its possible military dimensions (PMDs) to the IAEA, the duration of the agreement, the inspections regime that is supposed to verify a deal, and the structure of sanctions relief.

The deal will stop short of forcing the Iranians to disclose the full extent of their nuclear program, prior to receiving sanctions relief. The IAEA initially referred Iran to the United Nation’s Security Council in 2006 over its refusal to cooperate and continued stonewalling. The Security Council then passed six resolutions that sanctioned Iran for failing to end its uranium enrichment program and come into compliance with its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. Despite its commitment in November 2013 to begin working with the IAEA to resolve the differences, Iran has still not made sufficient progress. It partially answered just two of the twelve outstanding questions that the IAEA has about Iran’s past efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

The final deal appears to allow Iran to receive sanctions relief and capital before resolving all of the IAEA’s concerns. According to Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post, “Iran commits to take steps to answer PMD questions by Oct. 15, but compliance is not linked to lifting of sanctions.”

The concession had never been seriously contemplated, inasmuch as resolving the PMDs issue – finding out everything Iran has done – is a prerequisite to base-lining the program and then verifying that Iran has given it up. Washington was still insisting that the Iranians would be compelled to meet the requirement as recently as April when, in an interview on PBS Newshour, Secretary of State John Kerry declared about the PMD resolution that “They have to do it. It will be done. If there’s going to be a deal, it will be done…It will be part of a final agreement. It has to be.”

David Albright, the President and Founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, pointed out in Congressional testimony (.pdf) that allowing the Iranians to put off detailing their program until after sanctions relief is functionally equivalent to letting them indefinitely delay the requirement:

If Iran is able to successfully evade addressing the IAEA’s concerns now, when biting sanctions are in place, why would it address them later when these sanctions are lifted, regardless of anything it may pledge today?

Furthermore, most of the relevant restrictions in the final deal will expire or “sunset” after about a decade. Previously, U.S. negotiators maintained that restrictions should last for twenty years. Instead, restrictions will be phased out over the duration of the deal. Tzvi Kahn, a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative, has explained that “a ‘phased’ sunset clause would permit the regime to gradually ramp up its nuclear activities in the agreement’s final years.” Experts have called (.pdf) the controversial sunset provision a “giant get out of jail free card” and, alternatively, a “carte blanche” that will allow Iran to “walk, not sneak, into the nuclear club.” In an April interview with NPR, President Barack Obama acknowledged that after a number of years, “breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” Additionally, experts warn that the sunset provision could prompt a nuclear arms race and “effectively put[s] the region on notice that it is only a matter of time before Iran has the bomb.”

The deal may not even be verifiable. It appears that the U.S. has capitulated to an Iranian demand that inspections to sensitive sites be “managed” by a committee that would include Iran itself. Analysts and lawmakers had long expected – based on administration promises – that inspectors verifying the deal would have “anytime,anywhere” access to facilities. As recently as April, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told reporters, “We expect to have anywhere, anytime access.” Instead, inspectors will receive “managed access.”
Heinonen has emphasized (.pdf) that anything short of unfettered access is functionally no access at all:

Unfettered access to sites, facilities, material, equipment, people, and documents is imperative to the credible long-term verification of any nuclear agreement with Iran. This “anywhere, anytime” access and short notice inspections must not be subject to a dispute resolution mechanism, which would delay the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) access.

The new model includes risks such as allowing the Iranians to use military bases to stockpile uranium and to house additional centrifuges. The concession is particularly damaging because verification is all the administration has left to offer lawmakers. Administration officials had once promised Congress that measures would be implemented to physically preclude Iran from racing towards a bomb: facilities would be shuttered, centrifuges would be dismantled, etc. All such demands have been given up, and instead the administration is relying on the hope that the Iranians would be caught fast enough if they did cheat.

Even if the Iranians were caught, however, the structure of sanctions relief makes it unlikely that the U.S. could implement the promised so-called “snap-back” provision to reimpose sanctions in a robust way. According to Reuters, the mechanism to restore sanctions is actually a 65 day process. This provision confirms the concern of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz who wrote in The Wall Street Journal after the last round of talks to emphasize (Google link) that any snap-back “is unlikely to be as clear or as automatic as the phrase implies.” Furthermore, David Rothkopf, CEO of The FP Group, described the sanctions regime as “the Humpty Dumpty of foreign-policy mechanisms – nearly impossible to put back together again once shattered.”

Former U.S. Treasury official Matthew Levitt had noted that any mechanisms for restoring sanctions were too complicated to even work:

No one should be fooled into thinking there will be any automaticity here…If we thought Iran was cheating, the debate then moves to whether there was in fact a violation. You can see a situation where Russia and China will dispute whether there is in fact a violation.

As The New York Times reported this morning, “Nothing in the deal announced Tuesday eliminates Iran’s ability to eventually become a nuclear threshold power — it just delays the day.” The Times offered a two-paragraph assessment of the various calculations involved in making the deal:

Mr. Obama is essentially betting that once sanctions have been lifted, Iran’s leaders will have no choice but to use much of the new money to better the lives of their long-suffering citizens. He has told his aides that he expects relatively little to be spent to finance terrorism or the emerging corps of Iranian cyberwarriors, a group now as elite as Iran’s nuclear scientists.

Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard generals, dedicated to preserving the principles of the 1979 revolution, are taking the other side of that bet: that they can use the money and legitimacy of the accord to advance their interests and to keep in check a young Iranian population that is clearly a lot less interested in next-generation centrifuges than it is in getting visas to visit and study in the West.

[Photo: ARIRANG NEWS / YouTube ]