Failure will be a hidden in the detail of any US-Iran nuclear deal
I AM on record predicting that a nuclear deal with Iran will founder on the opposition of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Iranian diplomats, I wrote in May, “will allow this round of negotiations to fail and bargain instead for an extension of the current interim agreement. It will get the extension and then play for time again. There will never be a final deal”.I was vindicated on the first point in July, when US Secretary of State John Kerry purchased a five-month extension for the talks with $US2.8 billion ($3.2bn) in direct sanctions relief for Tehran. I’d be willing to make a modest bet that I’ll be vindicated again when the November 24 deadline for a deal expires.
The latest talks in Oman between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seem to have gone nowhere. As former US president Jimmy Carter discovered during the hostage crisis, the mullahs are especially contemptuous towards those they see as weak.
But let’s say I’m wrong. What sort of deal would we likely get?
Above all, it will be a technical deal. Hyper-technical. If you want to master its details, be prepared to know the difference not just between LEU (low-enriched uranium) and HEU (high-enriched), but also between IR1 and the far more efficient IR2 centrifuges. You’ll need to know what a cascade is, and you’ll have to appreciate the importance of footprints when it comes to M&V (monitoring and verification) mechanisms. You’ll have to appreciate that, as in watches, proliferation resistant is not the same thing as proliferation proof, an important point if Russia is to turn Iran’s enriched uranium into fuel rods for the reactor at Bushehr.
Also, get a handle on PMD (Possible Military Dimensions) of the Iranian nuclear program, a regular staple of reports by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) as well as Iran’s acquiescence to the AP (meaning the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, not the news agency). Meantime, keep a close eye on Arak (the plutonium-breeding reactor near the city by the same name, not the liquor). Examine the feasibility of “snap-back” sanctions.
And so on. The avalanche of fine print will convey an appearance of meticulousness and transparency. If this were a nuclear deal between the US and, say, Finland, no doubt it would be so.
But we’re talking about Iran, meaning the abundance of detail will serve a more obfuscatory function. The Obama administration will count on a broad measure of public ignorance and media credulity, meaning it can sell a deal by citing experts who happen to agree with its conclusions. Anyone want to have a debate about how much U-235 dances on the head of an Iranian SWU?
As for Iran, a deal with 100 moving parts also serves it well.
“The Iranians will cheat the way they always cheat, which is incrementally, not dramatically,” says sanctions expert Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. “Sooner or later, we’ll spot a potential violation and get into a debate about forensics: Are the Iranians complying or not? This will eat up time before we even get to the political debate over what to do about it.”That’s been the Iranian M.O. ever since their covert nuclear program was first exposed in 2002. We’ve been negotiating their noncompliance ever since. Why should a regime that has paid no price for dishonesty suddenly discover the virtues of honesty in a post-deal world?
Supporters of a deal offer three answers. One is that the sanctions relief the West will offer in the deal can always be reversed in the event Iran cheats. “We can crank that dial back up,” as US President Barack Obama said about sanctions last year. They also argue that what Iran seeks is to become, in the Bismarckian sense, a “satisfied power”, one that achieves its goals of diplomatic normalisation, economic prosperity and nuclear pride — but also knows its limits.
Finally, as the Economist magazine argued in a recent editorial, time is on the West’s side. Think of China in the early 1970s: sooner or later, Khamenei, like Mao, will die; sooner or later, public thirst for modernisation, led by a Deng Xiaoping-type figure such as President Hasan Rowhani, will steer Tehran to a better path.
Maybe so: dreams sometimes come true.
But diplomacy based on dreams usually fails.
Iran, under its moderate leadership, executes one person roughly every seven hours. It boasts broad sway over four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and, most recently, Sanaa, in Yemen. The President of the Great Satan is all but begging for a nuclear deal. European companies are already salivating at the thought of a piece of the post-sanctions Iranian economy. Try dialling that back.
As for the opposition once known as the Green Revolution, when did you last hear from it?
The White House likes to make much of the notion that Iran, starved by sanctions, is like a beggar at a banquet. If so, this beggar doesn’t settle for scraps. If Iran says no to a deal, Kerry will soon be back with a better offer. If it says yes, it will take what it’s given and, in good time, take some more.
Al-Qa’ida on a “path to defeat”. America “out of Iraq”. It won’t be long before a nuclear deal with Iran will join the list of Obama’s hollow Mideast achievements.