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Iran: Good Deal or Bad Deal? It’s Both


The moment the accord with Iran was announced, it was denounced. Even-handed circumspection was not the tenor of the day. What was most bewildering was to listen to those who find the deal disastrous but who are unperturbed by what would result if there is no deal.

The defects emphasized by the detractors are real and worrisome, and conservatives in Congress vow to block the deal when it comes up for vote in late September. For them, the fantasy of a "better deal" persists, undeterred by negotiations that have taken 20 months with repeated deadline extensions as negotiators fought over final terms and language. When at his press conference President Obama spoke of war as an alternative, there it was again: A freshman representative from Long Island named Lee Zeldin (R-NY) popped up with, "Here's an alternative better than war: A better deal". At this terminal moment, Mr. Zeldin, how would you force a better deal on Iran?

"I think a better deal is possible", Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Tougher sanctions would force "Iran to choose between lifting the sanctions and rolling back, truly rolling back, their nuclear capability". The opposite is assumed. With no carrot of sanctions relief, Iran would build its bomb. Lindsey Graham operates in the same imagined reality. "I'd enforce the U.N. resolutions, saying remove all the highly enriched uranium". Enforce by what army? To Iran he says, "We're not going to lift sanctions until you stop destabilizing the region".

sanction erosion

The fantasy is that the sanctions, the thumbscrews that brought Iran to the table, will always be available. In fact, there seems to have been something of a race to get the deal done before the sanctions fall apart. More than the six negotiating nations have gone along with sanctions, but countries such as Japan, South Korea and India are restive. They are not in Iran's crosshairs as is the U.S. and, while cooperative, they will not indefinitely injure their economies. Britain's ambassador to the U.S. says the sanctions have already reached the high water mark and will probably erode if the pact is rejected. Germany's ambassador said, "If diplomacy fails, the sanctions regime might unravel". Former CIA director James Woolsey thinks "the sanctions regime is slipping; the world is tired of these sanctions".

Moreover, the provision that if Iran cheats, sanctions will be "snapped back" is a "mirage", says a Wall Street Journal editorial (titled "Tehran’s Nuclear Triumph"). Getting all signatories to face down business interests newly engaged in trade with Iran and vote to restore the sanctions would be a tough go. Brit Hume of Fox News says the likelihood of sanctions collapse is probably the best argument for the deal to go through. There won't be another.

breakout now or later

The deal is designed to extend the "breakout" time — the time needed to create enough enriched uranium for a single bomb — to a year. Right now, with 19,000 centrifuges and an enriched stockpile already in hand, the breakout time is estimated at a mere 2-3 months. Yet those opposed are astonished at a deal that will allow Iran to emerge a decade hence with the full capacity to create a nuclear bomb that they could produce right now in three months. How to explain the alarm for the future that is greater than alarm for the immediate present?

"They were months away from it in 2013", said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va), referring to bomb development. "Could you imagine a point at year 15 or 25 where they might do something bad? Yes, you could …but remember that we were at that point two years ago" before the interim accord froze Iran's activities so that talks could proceed.

viewed in a vacuum

As an exercise to understand how the detractors seemingly view the deal, assume there is no consequence to aborting the proposed agreement. Looked at that way, Iran certainly looks to have emerged triumphant.

The deal subjects Iran to an inspection regime that — if we suspend our belief that Iran will cheat long before — variously lasts 10 to 15 years and, as critics say, fails to dismantle Iran's nuclear undertaking altogether (the original objective) and instead "legitimated a program until this morning that was illegal, that was in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions", said former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden on the day of the announcement. "As we get to the sunset years, even assuming success across the board for the agreement …Iran is very well-positioned to break out if they choose to do so". Sen. Graham says much the same: "If they comply with everything in this deal, they become a nuclear power… We've now locked in place an industrial size nuclear program".

That's the case because the six nation consortium yielded to Iran's merely mothballing two-thirds of its 19,000 centrifuges rather than destroying them, permitting ongoing enrichment up to a certain level with the remaining machines, allowing continued research on advanced centrifuge design, and diluting their enriched uranium rather than shipping it out of the country.

money for nothing

Where the critics are absolutely correct and the government Panglossian is the danger posed to the region by an economically revived Iran. Every commentator on the right erupted about the $100 billion to $150 billion in blocked funds that will be released to Iran in 90 days time if they behave to the inspectors' satisfaction, and the lifting of sanctions that will bring companies from around the world eager to do business. As Iran shows no sign of moderating its practices — its "revolution" — it is expected to use its new-found wealth to fund its combative proxies in the region.

And what became of Obama's insistence on a phased lifting of sanctions in cadence with Iranian compliance with the agreement? Sanctions are not to be lifted on signing as Iran had been insisting, but they will be lifted all at once rather than phased out. How that concession came about, and with no evidence of anything in return, has not been mentioned.

we're the decider

The outrage at seeing how well Iran has done arises from a belief held by Americans — the opposition in Congress, anyway — in an all-powerful United States that can dictate to the world. Since an outline of terms was agreed to in March, we have heard them repeatedly say we should insist on a better deal as if its terms are ours alone to decide. Iran is its own sovereign nation of over 75 million that doesn't take dictation. The George W. Bush administration decreed that Iran could not have any enrichment at all — "not one centrifuge spins", was the edict of Robert Joseph, then the State Department's top proliferation official. So, Iran did what it pleased and went from 164 centrifuges to 6,000 by when Bush left office, and now has more than tripled that amount. Arrogance blinds us from the obvious — that there are limits to America's power short of war, and short of war all we have are the sanctions. To those opposed to the deal, Secretary of State John Kerry asks, "their alternative is what, perpetual state of sanctions? Not going to happen".

Kerry, understandably, sees the deal differently. In an interview on Andrea Mitchell's news program on MSNBC, negative questioning by the often right-leaning host (her husband is Alan Greenspan, after all) provoked some irritation from Kerry, who listed the accomplishments of the deal:

"We negotiated a series of restraints on Iran ranging from a 300 kilogram stockpile [of enriched uranium] for 15 years, a limit on their enrichment to 3.67% [far below weapons grade] for 5 years, a limit on metallurgy, a limit on heavy water, all for 5 years, a limit on their centrifuge production — with insight to their centrifuge production — for 20 years, and a complete tracking of their mining, milling, their use of and their disposal of uranium for 25 years. And beyond that there's the lifetime, forever requirements of the Additional Protocol and the mechanism by which we negotiated access."

anywhere, anytime

But what happened to anywhere, anytime? In the rush to judgment, detractors decided that it had vanished. The moment the deal was struck, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) appeared on the PBS NewsHour. "I’m on page three of 158 pages, but…" he was an expert nonetheless, telling us, as would others who followed, that, "This deal is totally different. It’s up to 23 to 24 days after notice before the Iranians have to let anybody in". Megyn Kelly on her Fox News program: "Iran gets nearly a month's notice and only if the overseeing nations agree that the inspections are warranted". The clownish Jesse Watters, who works for Bill O'Reilly, appeared on a Fox program named "Outnumbered" to spread disinformation with "What does it say? We have to give them a 24-day alert before we go in and inspect the nuke facilities?". Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Tn) on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" made the unverifiable statement that, "Senior administration officials are already saying on background that anytime/anywhere inspection, which is the standard this president set, will not be met". Donald Trump explained, "It's called anytime, anywhere, and if you don't have that, you have nothing because...you know, the Iranians are going to cheat".

One after another misinformed the nation that Iran had to agree to all inspections. They had quickly found the section of the accord — the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) — titled "Access" and apparently rushed to the cameras the moment they read its opening sentence which began, "Requests for access pursuant to provisions of this JCPOA...". Requests?

Kerry explains:

I will tell you, as a negotiator for these last many years, we never had a discussion about anywhere/anytime. Anywhere/anytime is this euphemism that’s out there maybe in the political atmosphere, but it’s not a realistic or existing term of art within arms control. There is no country anywhere in the world that allows anywhere/anytime… The only example I can think of is Iraq after we invaded, once we had a total surrender and a takeover of the country. That’s different."

Well, not quite. That would count his own aide in the negotiations, nuclear physicist and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, as a member of the "political atmosphere". In April, Moniz said that “we expect to have anywhere, anytime access.”

Had any of them read further, they would have discovered that the "Access" section deals with "undeclared nuclear materials or activities...at locations that have not been declared under the comprehensive safeguards agreement or Additional Protocol", which you may recall Kerry mentioning above. It is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that does the inspecting and the protocol the agreement dating from 1997 that sets the rules for inspections agreed to by all signatories to nuclear nonproliferation.

In other words, the drawn out "request" to inspect pertains to suspect sites, not the already known sites such as Natanz and Fordo at which the IAEA has continuous access and even on-site personnel. The Additional Protocol is evidently unknown to our perfunctory senators. "Iran has agreed to adopt the Additional Protocol of the IAEA. That has a huge set of additional requirements for access and for accountability", Kerry assures us.

suspect sites

But the drawn out process for access to undeclared sites that arouse suspicion was a surprise and has caused valid consternation. The IAEA and Iran have 14 days to agree or disagree about access, then a commission of seven negotiating countries have seven days to discuss it, and if Iran loses the argument it has three days to comply. The back and forth can chew up to 24 days "after they've been able to scrub their site" said Tom Cotton. He was the senator who rounded up 47 Republican signers of a letter to the Ayatollah Khomenei to warn him that the United States can't be trusted.

Secretary Moniz says the 24 days are not a problem which is why the process was accepted because the Iranians could not eliminate all traces of uranium from a site. That assumes illicit work would always be done with uranium present. And otherwise, the tracking of all milling and movements of uranium would, say proponents, quickly reveal a diverted quantity.

why not everything

Critics who showed the least intelligence were those who assailed what was not in the deal — the return of hostages, renouncement of threats to Israel, promises to make nice in the region. "Does this deal resolve all other threats Iran poses to its neighbors in the world? No", said Obama. "Does it do more than anyone has done before to make sure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon? Yes. And that was our top priority from the start."

Kerry and the administration steadfastly kept the focus on that singular purpose. But the media is always ready to drop the main story to chase after a sideshow. They had one when a CBS reporter asked the President if he was "content" to leave the hostage trade off the table. Obama's answer said that if we had made hostage return part of the negotiations, Iran would demand yet another concession to weaken the nuclear deal. Three Fox programs that we watched cut that part of his answer in order to make Mr. Obama seem only contentious.

arms and iran

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey had said, "Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking", yet we did. The arms embargo will be lifted in five years; for missiles, eight years. John Kerry says that the United Nations resolution that bans arms and missile imports lifts when Iran comes to the negotiating table, so this would happen anyway. "We won that battle" by these extensions, and did so against negotiating partners Russia and China, who wanted the ban to end immediately so they could partake of some of the billions of frozen assets that are to be returned to Iran's coffers.

Restrictions on development of missiles with which to deliver a nuclear weapon was unaccountably never part of the discussions. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of CentCom, has said that Iran has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. A year ago, the head of our missile defense agency said, "Iran can develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015". So opponents of signing say that not only will Iran be poised to develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons ten years hence — and that's if they don't cheat — but will as well have the missiles to put them on.

Says Lindsey Graham, "Any member of the Senate that votes for this deal, you're insuring that the largest state sponsor of terrorism has more money, not less; they will have more weapons, not less; you're insuring that one day they will have a nuclear weapon. You will own the outcome of this deal".

But if the U.S. Congress scuttles the deal, they will own the fallout. Not just the partners in the negotiations, but the world, will have confirmation that the United Stated can't be relied on, can't get the job done. We will show ourselves as incapable of leading by virtue of our factionalism. "Iran is almost certain to react by portraying the United States as dishonest and as blocking arms control and peace", says Anthony Cordesman, former military advisor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The prosperous Iran that the disputants fear will happen anyway, because without the United States, the sanctions will definitely evaporate.

Iran will have erased the sanctions, which will be very difficult if not futile to reconstitute, in return for a temporary stay of their nuclear plan. They have patience. The hope that the country will rejoin the "family of nations" is wishful. Rather, Iran shows every ambition of becoming the hegemon of the Middle East. They have inserted themselves in Iraq to combat ISIS. They are supporting the Houthis in Yemen. They back Hamas in Gaza. Once the deal is signed — a deal that does not govern their non-nuclear behavior — will they turn Hezbollah, and its thousands of rockets, loose against Israel?

And eventually, they will build their bomb. We have merely delayed the inevitable.

1 Comment for “Iran: Good Deal or Bad Deal? It’s Both”

  1. Al Rodbell

    Good summary of the agreement.

    In some ways, the issue of congressional approval is distorted. This agreement has been signed by all of the major countries involved which were required to have a meaningful boycott of trade. (More accurate term than sanctions) This boycott is now in the process of being dismantled subject to Iran meeting their obligations.
    Not only could any congressional disapproval have to have a veto proof majority, even something unrealistic such as impeachment and removal of the President — twice to get one who is against the agreement — would not do the job.

    This agreement is now in process, meaning that if Iran allows inspections as they agree, that all of the signatories will end their boycott, and release frozen funds. Even if a law was passed over a presidents veto not to release such funds, there is no provision for other counties to back out of the deal.

    This agreement was not by the UN, but was endorsed by all permanent members of the Security Council, which is in effect one of the most meaningful de facto decisions of this body’s history. In effect, this agreement is a rare example of meaningful international law that transcends that of any constituent country.

    This is welcomed by some, and feared by others.

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