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The Iran Nuclear Deal: Bitter Fruits of a Failed Nonproliferation Strategy

As much as the Obama administration and its supporters—including some members of the so-called “arms control community”—want to sell the Iran deal as a foreign policy victory and nonproliferation success story, it is nothing of the sort. Not even according to many who reluctantly lent their support to the deal over the past few months, or the majority of the American people. The Iran deal is not “about peace,” as claimed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, nor is it a stellar deal that cuts off all of Iran’s routes to the bomb, as pronounced by President Barack Obama in his speech at American University. The reality is that the deal is full of holes and is deeply flawed, and Iran remains as committed to a military nuclear capability as ever, with no indication that it intends to moderate its aggressive stance.

A sound assessment of the problematic implications of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally known, demands in-depth knowledge not only of technical issues, but also, and perhaps more importantly, of the political context within which efforts to curb Iran’s military nuclear ambitions have been embedded for the past 12 years. One must have an understanding of Iran’s military nuclear ambitions, which continue to be publicly denied by this determined proliferator with a steadfast narrative of having “done no wrong” in the nuclear realm. This is a narrative that the P5+1 group of nations that negotiated with Iran have inexplicably refused to undercut, delaying the inquiry into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program to the post-deal period. They agreed to problematic provisions for the inspection of the Parchin military base, according to the dangerously non-specific principle of “managed access.”

A reasonable assessment of the deal must also incorporate insights into how Iran has been “playing the game” with international negotiators for over a decade, including the experience it gained in exploiting ambiguities and loopholes in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and abusing previous commitments that it made with the international community. An understanding of this history should have raised many red flags with regard to problematic aspects of the deal.

Any attempt to assess the long-term viability of the deal must be carried out with an eye to the political realities that will very likely constrain both the ability and the will of the P5+1 nations to act effectively and in a timely manner to ensure that Iran upholds its end of the deal. Statements issued by the U.S. administration, promising that any violation will be detected and taken care of “in time,” cannot simply be accepted at face value. This is anything but a foregone conclusion, due to problems with the verification regime itself—especially regarding the ability to effectively inspect suspicious military facilities—but also because of the lack of a clear path for confronting Iranian violations, coupled with an Iranian threat (embedded in the deal itself) to leave the deal in part or in whole if sanctions are reimposed.

Moreover, the history of the past 12 years has taught us to be wary of assurances that international actors will be able to do what needs to be done in time. How quickly have international actors reacted to Iranian misconduct in the past? Perhaps we would not be in the current situation if, for example, the international community had reacted swiftly and with determination when the uranium enrichment facility at Fordow was revealed in 2009 (the third violation of Iran’s “safeguard agreement,” following the two facilities revealed in 2002), or in the face of Iran’s unwillingness to address the questions about its military capabilities posed by the IAEA in late 2011.

The international community has an extremely poor record when it comes to quick reactions, which is why it was of paramount importance to dismantle as much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as possible. And Iran should never have been allowed to continue R&D work on an entire range of advanced centrifuges as part of the deal, nor should the P5+1 have included a section about working with Iran to ensure its nuclear security. The fact that such provisions were included raises questions about how determined the negotiators really were to close dangerous loopholes. Indeed, the many ideas that have been offered by experts over the past months regarding means for improving implementation of the deal seem to be falling on deaf ears. If there had been a desire to be more precise about what Iran must adhere to in the context of the deal, the holes would probably not have been there in the first place. In the post-deal period, the incentive of the P5+1 to take a tough stance on any future misconduct by Iran will most likely be even weaker—no one will want to risk jeopardizing the deal that it took so many years to conclude.

The United States deserves much credit for holding a congressional review of the deal, regardless of the final result. No other P5+1 state conducted anything near such a rigorous debate. But for the Obama administration and its supporters to declare a foreign policy victory on the basis of an unrealistic decision-making procedure for the review—which created near-impossible conditions for expressing disapproval of the deal—is unwarranted. The fact that lawmakers who were unwilling to overlook the flaws in the deal were not able to meet the conditions to demand improvements does not translate into a meaningful victory for deal supporters.

Moreover, no matter what supporters of the deal claim, the flaws remain for all to see. They are included in a written text that stands, and can be read and reread. Some of the Democratic senators and congressmen that in the past months granted their support for the deal also issued some of the harshest criticism, justifying their decision only by their fear that voting the deal down at this late stage would risk isolating the U.S. rather than Iran, and causing the sanctions regime to collapse. But these votes were clearly much more about political loyalties to the Democratic Party than substantive arguments.

Although the Iran deal is set to be implemented, it is a mistake to regard the poorly handled negotiations that led to this dangerously flawed deal as water under the bridge. These negotiations are a prime case study that must be revisited and examined in order to assess the ability to rely on a strategy of diplomacy and negotiations to stop a determined proliferator—especially one that is a known violator of the NPT. There are important lessons to be learned for nonproliferation efforts down the road. One salient question to be probed is the degree to which this was a failure of the strategy per se, or the result of the policy failures of those attempting to execute it.

The weak result—which at the very best may delay Iran’s ability to move to a weapons capability for 10-15 years, after which any meaningful restrictions on Iran will be lifted—is a far cry from the goal that the international negotiators set for themselves only two years ago. Backing away from demands to significantly dismantle the nuclear infrastructure of a proliferator that has been deceiving the international community for years, in favor of merely delaying the inevitable outcome, is indication of the extent of the failure. In 15 years, Iran will be even better positioned to move to a nuclear weapons capability; it will then be unstoppable. Presenting this sad result as a policy victory or nonproliferation success story is misguided and wrong. If Iran becomes a nuclear state, we will all be huge losers.

The message to Iran deal supporters is simple: stop the celebrations and get back to the real world; do what can be done to improve what can still be improved. Fundamental improvements, however, will no doubt have to wait for a new administration, willing to chart a different course. For arms control researchers and analysts, the failure to stop both North Korea and Iran raises a more fundamental question: what went wrong in these negotiations, and can diplomacy work as a strategy for stopping a determined, NPT-violating nuclear proliferator?

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