The technical aspects of the Iran Deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) are solid and more restrictive than any previous arms control deal. The broader aspects of the deal are important, too, and potentially very positive. So it should be no surprise to anyone who’s been reading Nuclear Diner that I support the Iran Deal.
- The technical aspects: As President Barack Obama said in his August 5 speech, all paths to a bomb are closed off. The verification provisions are strong. Many weaknesses in the Agreed Framework of 1994 with North Korea and in previous IAEA monitoring of Iran have been corrected. At the same time, Iran gains some things they wanted, like keeping Fordow open while repurposing it to international scientific collaboration. Both sides have to feel that the deal is favorable to them in order to support it. The aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that could easily lead to a bomb have been cut back in return for continuing operation of Iran’s flagship facilities. The time periods spceified in the agreement flow into obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which have no specified end date.
- Diplomacy before military force. During the George W. Bush administration, and stretching back to Bill Clinton, military force became the go-to option for the United States. The Iraq War of 2003 was one of the outcomes of that approach. Although the United Nations inspectors found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the United States declared war anyway. George Bush later joked about the absence of those weapons, so casual was he about that mistaken use of force. That war contributes to today’s instability in the Middle East. As President Obama said in his speech, the Iran Deal changes that priority for the United States.
- The agreement begins to open Iran to the world. The redesign of the Arak reactor is to be done by an international team. Fordow is to be an international research center. It is not possible to isolate people as Iran has done when they are interacting with people from other nations. The agreement’s purpose is to limit Iran’s nuclear program, but it has a good chance of additional positive effects.
The Middle East is changing, whether we like it or not, whether we participate or not. Only by participating, however, can the United States have any influence over outcomes. It will be influence, not direction, because a large part of the unrest in the Middle East has to do with colonialism and later support of dictators by the United States and former colonial powers. Iran is a large and influential country in the region and cannot be isolated or ignored.
Historical features of the Middle East are breaking down: assured stability by those dictators and its importance as a source of oil. Israel’s refusal to end its occupation of Palestinian lands is becoming less acceptable to the world community. A broken Iraq removes one of the counters to Iran’s power and serves as a sanctuary for ISIS, which is a danger to both friends and adversaries of the United States. Some of the historical features that remain are not positive: Turkey continues to beat down the Kurds. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to support repressive religion. Egypt has returned to a military dictatorship after a short flirtation with democracy.
The war in Syria has displaced an estimated 9 million Syrians, 6 million within the country and 3 million dispersed to other countries, largely Syria’s neighbors and Europe. Other refugees, including from North Africa, have been attempting to get to Europe. Russia’s volatile Caucasus region is not far from the fighting.
There is no easy path to stability in the Middle East, and there is no possibility of hanging on to the status quo. The US and Europe have used military force in Libya and Syria to no obvious benefit. The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan do not serve as models for the region. It is not even clear which faction(s) should be aided in Syria.
Iran is among the strongest powers in the region. Iran is involved in both Syria and Yemen, with Saudi Arabia openly fighting against the Iranian-backed Houthis. In Syria, Iran supports President Bashar al-Assad. Any path to peace in Syria and Yemen will have to include Iran.
Given all this, Iran will be less of a threat without nuclear weapons than with. Removing the paths to nuclear weapons is the purpose of the JCPOA. Iran has not engaged in weaponization activities since 2003. They have abided by the interim agreement since November 2013. They have participated in talks for two years; they are willing to accept severe JCPOA limits on their nuclear program and safeguards against a clandestine program. Perhaps all this is subterfuge, but if Iran were determined to have nuclear weapons, they could have built them already. So it seems likely they will comply with the deal.
Yes, Iran will have more money. The amounts estimated range from $50 billion, with higher estimates provided by opponents of the deal. They may put some of that into their allies. But Iran’s leaders have promised to improve domestic conditions. And, if Iran is to get more income from its oilfields, it needs at least $100 billion in improvements. Iran will have to budget its additional funds carefully.
Blocking Iran’s path to nuclear weapons is enormously favorable to Israel, the only holder of nuclear weapons in that region. Syria’s nerve agent arsenal was intended to be a deterrent to Israel’s nuclear weapons. That arsenal has been removed. Now the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is being removed. Israel will remain, by far, the most militarily powerful nation in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia will receive military aid from the United States as a consequence of the Iran Deal. Neither needs to fear a non-nuclear Iran.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are uneasy worrying whether the United States will move closer to Iran. Some US sanctions will remain in place against Iran, and diplomatic relations are not being resumed. Europe, Russia, and China will benefit most from commercial relations with Iran.
What is the worst that can happen? It’s unlikely that Tehran would completely dump the deal; if they did, the world would know they were building a bomb and could take appropriate steps. Iran has shown little or no propensity toward that since 2003. Or they could try marginal attempts: a centrifuge workshop here, explosives experiments there. They would need much more to build a bomb: a uranium mine, a reactor, another Natanz or Fordow. A single small clandestine facility (and even the opponents admit it would have to be small) is not enough to produce a single bomb, let alone an arsenal. There will be arguments around the edge; the US and Russia are currently engaged in such an argument about Russia’s test of a cruise missile. But the larger structures of agreement hold.
That’s why I support the JCPOA and hope that Congress will wake up and let it go into effect. Here are articles I’ve written about it, if you want more detail.
Also, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation expert now at IISS, gives twelve reasons why the JCPOA is a good thing.