Iran: getting from a “deal” to THE deal

Well, the big news while I was traveling was obviously the announcement of a framework agreement, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” between Iran and the P5+1 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Moreover, for a negotiation that looked to be puttering toward some kind of incredibly vague, hastily cobbled together statement of principles thrown together at the last possible minute in order to claim some progress, this agreement was actually surprisingly comprehensive and detailed. To their credit, negotiators worked almost non-stop last week, blowing through their March 31 deadline and refusing to leave Lausanne until the job was done.

Now, let me get the Debbie Downer stuff out of the way. The first thing to note about this agreement is that, despite all the talk of a “deal,” this isn’t the deal. It’s an agreement on the framework of the deal, the technical details of which will now be filled out through further negotiation and is supposed to be completed by July 1. Some of those technical details could still prove challenging, like the timing of sanctions relief, which seems to still be unclear. The Iranian position has been that sanctions should be lifted as soon as the deal is signed, their argument being that if Iran’s obligations kick into effect at that point, surely the P5+1’s obligations should as well. The P5+1 position has been that sanctions should only be gradually lifted as Iran demonstrates its compliance with the agreement’s terms (not just taking initial action to come into compliance, but demonstrating an ongoing adherence to the terms), which also makes sense from the standpoint of enticing Iranian compliance. The framework agreement is vague on this point, maybe deliberately so, but the compromise seems to be forming around the idea that sanctions will be lifted more suddenly than the P5+1 had wanted, but only after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken the steps needed to meet the deal’s terms, so not as quickly as Iran had wanted. This could still be a big sticking point, particularly as Iran’s relationship with the IAEA tends to wax and wane (and right now, it’s clearly waning).

Also unclear is the mechanism by which sanctions might be reimposed if Iran is caught violating a deal. The State Department fact sheet about the agreement says that US and EU sanctions will “snap back” into place in that case, but who’s to say whether the US and EU will see eye-to-eye about taking that step? US sanctions alone are enough to hurt Iran, particularly secondary banking sanctions, but it’s been the international solidarity of the sanctions regime that’s made it so effective thus far. More importantly, what about the UN sanctions? The fact sheet says simply that in the case of an Iranian violation “all previous UN sanctions could be re-imposed,” which, sure, in theory, but are UNSC veto-holders Russia and China going to go along with that? The other four members of the P5+1 may want some assurances in that respect in the language of a final deal, but Russia in particular could still balk at that.

The other big problem that could still sink this potential deal is the political climate in Tehran and Washington. The Obama administration still faces an uphill fight to convince Congress not to torpedo the progress that has already been made. Gary Samore, who runs the Sheldon Adelson-funded group United Against Nuclear Iran, predicted before the agreement was announced that Congress would be unlikely to override a presidential veto, and given his ties to the “Bomb Bomb Iran” caucus, his prediction should carry some weight here, but there’s still a big sales job to be done to convince Congress to keep itself on the sidelines (I’m keeping a healthy pessimism on this one). On the other side, Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif may actually have a comparatively easier job selling the deal to their side, partly because the nature of Iran’s government means they only really have to win the support of one guy as opposed to 535 legislators (or at least enough of them to uphold a veto). Ayatollah Khamenei has already shown a fairly open mind about the nuclear talks, which is encouraging, and he also seems to be fairly responsive to Iranian public sentiment, which at least initially appears to be overwhelmingly behind the agreement. In the sermon during the communal prayer in Tehran on Friday, which is generally the forum in which Khamenei makes his own feelings public, prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani praised the negotiators and the agreement, which is a pretty strong sign that Tehran’s hardliners probably aren’t going to be a problem.

However, that could always change. Rouhani and Zarif also still have a sales job to do (the major hardline newspaper Kayhan, for example, has been very critical of the agreement, and it also has a pretty close relationship with Khamenei), and the Obama team needs to be careful that it doesn’t sell the agreement to Congress in a way that undermines Rouhani’s position in Tehran (and vice versa). We may have seen the first glimpse of that tension after the aforementioned US fact sheet was released; it drew considerable criticism from Iranian negotiators, including Zarif, who said that it didn’t reflect the actual agreement but was instead an American interpretation. Zarif has a point in that the fact sheet is just a US interpretation of the agreement, but the bigger issue is that US and Iranian efforts to win support for the deal at home need to be mindful of making that same job more difficult for the other side. On the other side, for example, Rouhani has lately been telling domestic audiences that a nuclear deal is the first step toward a broader Iranian opening to the rest of the world, which is the kind of rhetoric that terrifies conservative US opponents of a deal and worries fence-sitters whose support in Congress is critical. He might want to tone that down somewhat. We don’t live in the kind of world where you can get away with saying one thing for international consumption and another thing to your domestic audience anymore.

Now for the positives. As I said, the JCPOA is far more detailed than anyone expected, and it’s also much harder on the Iranians than I think anyone really expected. Iran agreed to cut its operating centrifuges back to just over 6000, with about 1000 of them dedicated to the enrichment of medical isotopes and other non-fissile materials (the price for leaving the Fordow facility open and operating). It agreed not to enrich any uranium past 3.67%, though the Iranians say that limit will be in place for 10 years while the Americans say 15, so this could be another problem moving forward. Iran will be allowed to research more advanced centrifuge models, but will not be allowed to deploy anything more advanced than its outdated IR-1 model for the duration of the deal. Iran will have to reduce its current 10,000 kg stockpile of low enriched uranium to 300 kg for the duration of the deal. All these obligations will bring Iran’s estimated 2-3 month current breakout time to the 12 month range sought by the P5+1. More importantly, IAEA inspectors will have full access not only to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, but to its centrifuge manufacturing facilities and its nuclear supply chain as well, which is a surprising addition that makes it more difficult for the Iranians to try to sneak their way to a weapon should they choose to do so. Iran will implement the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which has been a major sticking point, though it’s unclear whether they will be required to ratify it or not (and this may be another potential problem for negotiators). The Arak heavy-water reactor will have its core removed and a new core installed that will not produce weapons-grade plutonium. The sides managed to bridge their gaps (reportedly due in significant measure to the work of US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz) in ways that preserved the integrity of Iran’s nuclear program (in which it’s invested a lot of national pride) while satisfying P5+1 technical demands (barring uranium from Fordow but not closing the facility is a good example, as is swapping out Arak’s core).

The deal is so good that many arms control/proliferation experts are raving about it, or at least getting as close to “raving” as you generally see a scientist get. It’s good enough that another major UANI analyst, Harvard’s Graham Allison, can, in a piece otherwise riddled with anti-Iran errors (you’ll be surprised to learn, for example, that Iran “has pursued for over a decade” a plutonium nuclear bomb at Arak, a facility that still hasn’t come online), can nevertheless conclude that “the Obama administration and its indefatigable secretary of state deserve a hearty round of applause for what has been achieved at this point.” There’s even a case to be made that the deal is good for the Bomb Bomb Iran crowd, since the intel that could be gathered about Iran’s program from even the first wave of new inspections could make it much easier to deal it a serious setback through military means, and since it sets clear markers by which an “Iranian violation” can be measured. Hell, even the Saudis are endorsing the deal, so far.

Another sign of the deal’s quality is that you can already see US critics moving the goalposts; the big knock on the potential deal now seems to be that it won’t do anything to curb Iran’s regional ambitions, and, OK, it won’t make me lose 25 pounds and fall face first into a giant chest of gold doubloons either, but is that really a reason to scuttle the deal? Yes, Iran will have a stronger economy as a result of sanctions relief, but wasn’t the point of the talks specifically to put a firewall between Iran and a nuclear weapon? Why are critics suddenly changing the terms?

Then there’s David Kenner’s curious piece in Foreign Policy last week, “Iran Deal Threatens to Upend a Delicate Balance of Power in the Middle East.” Look, the folks at FP, and David Kenner in particular, don’t need me telling them how to do their jobs, but maybe they haven’t noticed that the current “delicate balance of power in the Middle East” sucks out loud. Three full countries (Syria, Yemen, and Libya) and a third of another one (Iraq) are on fire right now, with the flames threatening to spread into Lebanon and Jordan, Egypt has backslid right into full-blown dictatorship, the Saudis are throwing their weight around in ways that have yet to do anything other than make things worse, and the threat of more Israeli-Palestinian violence is always right around the corner. How could things get any more upended? There is, as Paul Pillar notes, every reason to expect that a deal might curb Iran’s regional excesses by steering it in a more pragmatic direction, toward regional cooperation rather than proxy conflict. A concluded agreement will also let the US reset its own role in the region; once it no longer has to worry about upsetting the Iranians and breaking off the nuclear talks, the US can engage Tehran on a more stable basis, both in areas where we might collaborate (stabilizing Afghanistan, fighting ISIS) and where we are on opposite sides (Bashar al-Assad’s future, the civil war in Yemen, Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel, maybe even Iran’s human rights record if we’re interested in human rights again). If this really is the first step in a grand regional reset, then frankly that can’t come soon enough.


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