On Iran, a triumph for diplomacy

The deal is the best chance for a peaceful resolution of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, despite a double standard on which states can possess nuclear weapons

By: /
July 22, 2015
Iran Deal
Discussing the deal at the United Nations: European Union representative Thomas Mayr-Harting, left, and Iranian UN envoy, Gholamali Khoshroo, right. (Reuters)

That the Iranian nuclear quagmire could result in military conflict has never been an alarmist exaggeration. Even after the July 14 announcement of the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) reached by Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), sabers have not fully ceased to rattle.

But the deal struck in Vienna goes a long way to avoid the dire scenario of a military confrontation in the already-volatile Middle East, which could have calamitous consequences for global security. The parties involved would do well to see it through.

Despite knee-jerk skepticism from predictable quarters—Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to label the agreement a “historic surrender”—the JCPOA constitutes a redeeming victory for modern diplomacy, which has often come under intense scrutiny for its failure to avoid armed conflict. After nearly two years of protracted negotiations, it is safe to say that this deal is the best the negotiators could achieve. Each country sent its top diplomats, who carried the full weight and authority of their respective governments.

Of course, the fact that the deal is necessary and addresses legitimate proliferation concerns does not obscure the profound double standards upon which it is founded. Each of the P5+1 nations has nuclear weapons stationed in their territory. Israel, the nation most vehemently opposing the deal, is the only state actually in possession of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and one of only four outliers to the nearly universal Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. No state should be allowed to have nuclear weapons in the 21st century.

While implementation of the JCPOA is fraught with risk and uncertainty, most initial analyses concur that the agreement is solid. Not only will it serve to gradually defuse the stalemate over the Iranian nuclear program, it will lay a strong foundation for normalized relations between the Islamic Republic and the West. The negotiation process itself represented a rare example of rapprochement between serious adversaries, which may yield ancillary benefits as the P5+1 and Iran work to overcome a history of mutual transgressions and utter mistrust.

It should come as no surprise that both sides had to compromise; unilateral concessions were never on the table. Yet some members of the United States Congress have expressed strong opposition to the agreement and a firm desire to scuttle it. Remarkably, it seems that the seal of approval of both the President and Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on Earth does not guarantee that the United States will live up to its end of the bargain.

Iranian officials have repeatedly asserted that Iran is not willing to renounce its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. But the facilities, processes, and technical expertise required for a peaceful nuclear energy program can also contribute to the production of nuclear weapons. So how does the JCPOA prevent diversion of nuclear energy to the production of nuclear weapons?

The agreement calls for the removal of crippling sanctions on Iran—which have affected ordinary Iranians more than the country’s leadership—in exchange for strict limits on Iran’s nuclear activities. For example, Iran has agreed not to enrich uranium for the first 15 years beyond the level of 3.67 percent purity, needed to produce the low-enriched uranium (LEU) used in nuclear power stations. Weapons-grade uranium is 90 percent enriched.

Iran has also agreed to inspections of its past nuclear-related work by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which must certify Iranian cooperation before sanctions relief occurs. This despite repeated Iranian accusations that the IAEA has a pro-Western bias—and Iran might have some grounds for this belief. In a 2009 U.S. State Department cable revealed by Wikileaks, a U.S. diplomat stated that IAEA chief Yukiya Amano was “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”

Chief among early criticisms of the deal is that Iran will have the option of presenting reservations to IAEA requests to inspect suspicious facilities. In such cases, an arbitration committee made up of the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran—the latter in a clear minority—will convene within two weeks after Iran presents a reservation, and make a decision within seven days thereafter. This timeframe, critics argue, will give Iran the opportunity to conceal any wrongdoing.

It is hard to believe that negotiators did not take into account the IAEA’s technical means and expertise to detect and assess recent nuclear activity when establishing this timeframe. Further, it seems unlikely that Iran would so recklessly risk reverting to the suffocating sanctions regime that brought it to the negotiating table to begin with.

Perhaps most importantly, the P5+1 maintain the prerogative to react swiftly and sternly to any perceived undue obstructions from Iran. Sanctions could be reinstated.

The JCPOA was the best possible deal under current geopolitical circumstances. And while cheating on the deal could certainly occur, it has opened up the possibility of good faith progress on a solution. Close scrutiny will help to ensure compliance and Iran will undoubtedly face dwindling options should it decide to blow this opportunity.

The fiercest critics of the deal will likely remain skeptical, no matter the assurances about JCPOA provisions, verification mechanisms, and responses to non-compliance. What they have consistently failed to explain is exactly which form a realistically attainable agreement would need to take in order to avoid such skepticism.