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Iran nuclear deal: Surrendering to grim reality

Iran nuclear deal: Surrendering to grim reality

The conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to give it its formal title – has already guaranteed us one thing: mutually assured hyperbole.

Barrages of outrage were being fired even before the deal was signed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted on 8 July that 'Iran's increasing aggression is more dangerous than that of ISIS, and the true goal of this aggression in the end is to take over the world.'

Bibi's histrionics might be charming were they not so damaging to his cause. His deeply partisan speech to Congress last March has, for example, already made it more difficult for those Democrats with serious reservations about a nuclear deal to stand with Republicans in any veto-proof majority against the agreement. Iranian President Rouhani's comments that the deal came despite Israel's 'best efforts' to stop it even suggest that Bibi's loud complaints helped convince the Iranians to sign ('If Bibi is so dead against it, how bad can it be?').

But there is also plenty of hyperbole coming from those who support the deal. It is being described as 'historic'; the Middle East is about to be 'transformed'. All this before the 80-page agreement has been even lightly parsed.

The truth is, it is way too early to be either heading for the fallout shelter or vacuuming the Nobel Prize podium.

Certainly, the deal is a significant diplomatic achievement, especially at a time when diplomacy has become very unfashionable, and not just in the Middle East. It demonstrates that you can actually achieve something by patient, purposeful and well-executed talking. In fact, it begs the question of why similar efforts are not being made elsewhere in the region, most notably in Syria. [fold]

But implementing this deal will be at least as hard as negotiating it. In fact, it will probably be harder, given that there will be more opportunities for opponents of the deal to throw spanners into its very complex works. As we have learned with other peace agreements in the Middle East, no one should be handing out Nobel peace prizes until the hard work of implementation is done. 

Supporters of the deal also have to acknowledge that there is a kernel of validity in the Israeli Government's complaint that, in signing the deal, the West has surrendered to Iran.

In his remarks yesterday, President Obama claimed that as a result of the agreement, 'every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off.' It is certainly true that one pathway has been cut off: the plutonium route via Iran's reactor at Arak, which is to be redesigned and its spent fuel shipped out of the country. But while other pathways, most notably Iran's enrichment program, have certainly been made longer and will now be subject to inspection and verification measures, it is not true to say they have been cut off.

As significant an achievement as the agreement is, it's founded on an undeniable concession: that Iran will, more or less, retain the means to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran will retain the infrastructure and the knowledge to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, and it may already have, or could relatively easily get, the knowledge to turn that material into a weapon.

Supporters of the agreement would argue that this concession represents not so much a surrender to Iran as a surrender to grim reality, and they are right. For over a decade, the West has tried everything short of invasion and regime change to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program, particularly its enrichment effort. Not only did his effort fail, it failed spectacularly. When the Bush Administration began its highly principled but totally unrealistic effort to talk Iran out of its enrichment program in the mid-2000s, it was negotiating over a few hundred centrifuges. The talks that just ended in Vienna were negotiating over just under 19,000 of them.

Given these circumstances, the purpose of the deal is not so much to prevent Iran from having the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. That jinn is already out of the bottle. Instead, the goal is to create a framework of incentives and disincentives that ensure Iran never makes the decision to produce a nuclear weapon. 

In other words, the agreement is an attempt to convince Iran to be more like a nuclear Japan than a nuclear Pakistan. This relies on the assumption that all governments — democratic, autocratic or even theocratic — make more or less rational cost-benefit analyses of decisions. In this particular case, it relies on Tehran calculating that the costs of producing a nuclear weapon, even covertly, outweigh the benefits.

The problem for proponents of the deal, and the reason why the reality of this deal is likely to prove as grim for them as for its opponents, is that this is a highly complex equation to maintain. Ensuring that the costs of not producing a nuclear weapon outweigh the benefits will rely on what is in the deal, but also on what is not in it – and not all of that will be in the gift of the West.

It's doubtful, for example, that Iran would have made the concessions it has in this agreement if Saddam still ruled Iraq. The improvement in Iran's strategic circumstances caused by the demise of its most immediate enemy and rival is one of the less visible pillars upon which this deal is founded. But if Iran's security circumstances suddenly change, then its calculations around a nuclear program will probably change also.

Similarly, Iran has also been motivated to reach this agreement by the domestic economic damage caused by sanctions, particularly in recent years. But what happens once that damage is repaired and Tehran feels that the new international economic ties it has built can withstand any new effort to re-impose sanctions?

Finally, there is the question of Iran's ambitions. Even taking Tehran at its word (that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon), the regime probably saw its civilian nuclear achievements, and the implicit threat contained therein, as way to buttress its claims to regional leadership. Is the region now simply expected to accede to that leadership to keep Iran from building a bomb?

None of this is an argument against the deal that has just been signed in Vienna. Many of these questions have good answers. Nevertheless, they are a reminder that we are at the beginning of a difficult, complex and uncertain process. They are a warning that accepting the current deal as the best of a lot of bad options is not the same as accepting that the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions is now resolved.

As Henry Kissinger once said, 'every victory is only the price of admission to a more difficult problem.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.

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