Give the Nuclear Framework a Chance

Based on an initial reading, I believe the framework for a nuclear agreement with Iran is worth trying to develop into a concrete deal, as long as the US-led coalition stays tough on terms, and recognizes that there are no verification measures that can guarantee that Iran won’t cheat. These negotiations are not about creating a legally binding document that replaces Iran’s existing obligations under the Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT), which remain binding. Thus, the details of compliance and measures of verification are notable, but they won’t prove to be decisive in ultimately assessing the merits of the agreement.

In the end, Iran must decide for itself that it is in its best interests to not possess nuclear weapons, rather than to have them.

In fact, Iran has a long and sordid history of cheating on the international community and the IAEA. It would strengthen global pressure on Iran in the long term to have an internationally-supported basis to both judge and condemn Iran if it seeks to breakout from the NPT’s prohibition against developing nuclear weapons. A detailed enumeration of Iran’s obligations would represent an upgrade over relying on an IAEA monitoring regime based on a nebulous definition of what constitutes nuclear-weapons-related activity under the NPT. Indeed, the problem with the NPT is that it does in fact allow signatories, including Iran, to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Demanding that Iran forego all uranium enrichment is folly, because it is not supported in international law, and a clear distinction between what activity constitutes military and peaceful enrichment cannot be enforced, practically speaking.

In terms of pursuing alternatives to striking a deal, I question the efficacy of undertaking military action against the Iranian nuclear program for two fundamental reasons. 

First, strikes would probably not knock out much of Iran’s weapons-related work, such as the current state of nuclear know-how, low scale research and development related activity, and any specific weapons-related activity that is being undertaken in still-secret facilities. Depending on the scale and duration of military strikes, nuclear weapons-related capabilities probably would not be set back for more than a few years. In estimating the impact of military strikes on Iranian facilities, it must also be borne in mind that Iran has operated in an environment of systematic disruption of their program for many years. Iran has been hardened enough by a series of compromises, reported assassinations, and alleged covert action activity to be able to stay largely on track with where it wants to be.

Second, military strikes on Iran’s soil would help legitimize the regime’s argument to the Iranian people that they need the bomb to defend themselves from aggressive and vastly superior enemies. In assessing their national security options, the Iranians must consider that the US and Israel already possess nuclear weapons, have much more sophisticated armed forces, and vastly superior defense budgets.

Myths clouding the logic of the deal

There are four myths circulating in the media that frustrate a clear understanding of the pros and cons of trying to hammer out an acceptable deal that would adequately constrain Iran’s nuclear activity, in exchange for sanctions relief. 1) The Iranian people are celebrating because they received a better deal than the west. 2) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks for all of Israel. 3) The status quo is preferable to a deal. 4) President Obama is “cozying up” to Iran.

Here is the truth:

  •  The Iranian people aren’t out in the streets celebrating that they got the better of the west in the deal. They surely haven’t focused on the terms of the deal and probably aren’t very interested in the relevant details. The people are celebrating the prospect of re-joining the international community. People’s heightened expectations exert a far greater pressure on the Iranian regime than anything that can be imposed on them through a nuclear agreement. For now, at least, the responsibility of satisfying the desire of the Iranian people to join the global community lies squarely on the regime, not on the US and the west.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not speaking for all of Israel. He is speaking for his political coalition, and perhaps, for his place in history. That is understandable, considering the grave threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel. The world should listen to what he has to say, but he is not the only voice on this matter in Israel. Public opinion in Israel has been rather muted on the nuclear talks. Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan has expressed the sentiments of some military and intelligence officials who question the wisdom of the military option. Their call for a more measured response does not minimize the dangers of an Iranian bomb to Israel and to regional stability; it only suggests that the risks are manageable. The situation would no doubt be very different if Israel itself did not reportedly possess a large arsenal of nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
  • The argument that the status quo is better than a “bad deal,” or that the US-led coalition should get a “better deal,” is simply unrealistic. If the global coalition could squeeze better terms from Iran, it would. If the US walks away from a deal without provocation from Iran, which is a possibility, the global coalition that has imposed sanctions on Iran will in all likelihood melt away. And its not just the Russians and Chinese who will walk. The Germans and French want to do business with Iran, and would not stand by idly if the framework succumbs to US internal wrangling. It was never realistic to think the US could hold western sanctions on Iran together indefinitely. If the US is seen to have scuttled a deal due to divisive domestic American politics, it would be naive to believe sanctions could be sustained.
  • President Obama is not “cozying up” to Iran. The US is trying to de-escalate a crisis that has frustrated Republican and Democratic presidents in the past, before it becomes a war no one should want to wage. The people who scare me most are those who are quick to call for war. They are the same voices that make absurd arguments that the US should not negotiate with our adversaries. Of course we should talk to our enemies, if there be any hope of resolving our differences peacefully. We must communicate in order to develop mutual understanding and identify narrow areas of common interests, even as we continue to disagree in the main. Have we not learned to stop setting red lines that we cannot, or will not enforce? To all those who say they are determined to stop Iran from getting the bomb, I say, “how will you do that, exactly?” Where does resorting to force begin? And when does it end?

Any agreement is fraught with the risks of non-compliance. The global coalition must proceed with a clear-eyed recognition that Iran may well opt to violate any terms to which they have agreed. In this vital sense, the legally binding nature of this deal is less important than the political breakthrough that it potentially represents. Iran might try to continue to get away with clandestinely developing nuclear weapons, with or without a deal, if that is the will of the regime. It is unknowable whether Tehran’s intentions vis-à-vis nuclear weapons will remain the same tomorrow, or in a decade. Those are the risks we must be willing to accept, in any deal.

Even with such questions, however, it is better for the US to gamble on the prospect of peace, over the certainty of an unwise war. 

This is especially true in these tumultuous times. The region is teetering on the brink of a Sunni-Shia conflict. A growing human rights catastrophe is being fanned by the barbarity of terrorist groups, most notably ISIS. Terrorists are fomenting a religious war that viciously targets Christians, among others. People’s cries for help must be heard, or there will be no end to this crisis.

The suggestion that any state, in this case Iran, has a command of the situation defies ground truth. The fog of war is thick. The winds of change are moving rapidly in the Middle East. All states in the region lack adequate foresight and early warning of emerging threats. They are largely in a reactive mode. There are no clairvoyants who know what tomorrow will bring.

Any nuclear deal that is reached should be viewed as only a piece of a policy chess game to enhance stability and order in the Middle East. More than any single agreement, the world needs can-do leaders who are willing to undertake calculated risks to lift the world out of the abyss. Politics as usual must give way to war-time leaders who do not feel bound by the conservatism that constrains peacetime leaders. This bid for nuclear truce cannot be assessed in isolation of this broader situation in which we find ourselves. On this basis, the framework agreement is a step in striving for a change to a bad status quo, towards a better tomorrow.

 

About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.