Obama’s Good First Step in Iran Leaves More to be Done
Plenty of work remains, and there is plenty of arguing to do, before a final accord governing Iran’s nuclear program can be concluded by the June deadline diplomats have set. Let both proceed: This deal is as historic as the Obama administration and many commentators have claimed since the framework was agreed in Lausanne last Thursday.
There are two basic ways to read what just came out of Switzerland. First, how does this agreement shape up in the details? Second, there are the wider implications. What’s in the deal beyond the deal?
Secretary of State Kerry has brought home a success in both respects. What’s now on paper is vastly more specific and comprehensive than anyone expected even a few months ago. Beyond this, Kerry has opened the door to new ties with Iran, a more stable Middle East, and an urgently needed rethink of America’s posture abroad.
This column has been unsparing in its critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in any number of contexts. But there’s simply no denying that what Kerry just got done counts as a very considerable redemption.
Gary Sick, an adviser on Iran to presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan and now a distinguished scholar at Columbia University, put it curiously on Charlie Rose a few hours after the news came from Lausanne: “We ought to be honest with ourselves. This is a significant accomplishment.”
Translation: We have to put the politics away now, refrain from exporting our animosities toward one another to the Middle East, and eat the bitter fruit of Kerry’s initial success in rebuilding a working relationship with Iran after three and a half decades of destructive enmity.
As all anticipated, reservations about the pact were immediately apparent. Settling the outstanding details such that critics are satisfied—or at least legitimately silenced—is Kerry’s job for the next three months. If he does it well, what finally goes into effect will be all the stronger.
The principle objections, at least as of now, are these:
• The deal sunsets too soon. The principle constraints on Iran’s ability to weaponize its nuclear program extend out only a decade. Then what?
• The inspections regime is not established in sufficiently granular detail. How can we be certain of complete access to Iran’s activities? What if Iran cheats? How will we know?
• Tehran backtracked on an understanding that it would send most of its stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia, re-importing portions of it as needed for a civilian nuclear power program and medical research. Now what?
• Iran’s nuclear hardware, from mining to milling to processing technology, is to remain in place. “This deal… formalizes Iran’s status as an eventual nuclear-threshold state by allowing it to maintain a vast nuclear infrastructure,” Jeffrey Goldberg, the conservative commentator at The Atlantic, wrote Saturday. “This was not part of the international community’s original plan, and it is a worry.”
There are answers to these questions, and work can be done on some. It will be key in coming months to see whether critics, notably Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Republicans on Capitol Hill, are able to consider the answers and the work to come with detachment, or if they hold to positions that are more political than rational. In brief:
• Key provisions, governing uranium mining and milling and centrifuge construction, for instance, extend out 25 years. The front-end supply chain is effectively locked up.
• The inspections regime as now laid out is by common reckoning the most extensive any nation has ever accepted—more intrusive, as former joint chiefs chairman Admiral Michael Mullins put it, than that imposed on the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
• There are alternatives to exporting the stockpile. Fuel can be diluted, for instance. Even now, Iran’s inventory of highly enriched uranium is all gone and its stockpile of low-enriched fuel has been reduced by 98 percent—from 10,000 kilograms to roughly 300.
• As to legitimizing Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, time to stop dreaming. Iran has as much right under international law to develop a nuclear power program as any other nation. Requiring Tehran to forego this right would have landed us instantly in another Treaty of Versailles syndrome, assuring trouble down the road. And Goldberg is being mischievous: The “international community,” apart from the U.S. and Israel, never advanced a plan assuming the Iranians would surrender the legal standing of its program.
The detail achieved, and the extent of Iran’s compromises, are both remarkable. Most notable is its agreement to accept the phased reduction of sanctions at the pace it implements the terms. Tehran had long insisted that the sanctions had to go all at once as soon as the deal was signed.
Critics of the agreement should take some credit. Kerry surely pressed as hard as he did in part because he understood that whatever he brought home would be in for intense scrutiny before he was even out of the airport.
It was key that Kerry recognize the high value Iran places on its sovereignty, and it wasn’t always clear the American team would. Hence the program remains intact while what it can do is adjusted downward. This is good diplomacy.
Example: As Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, explained on Charlie Rose last Thursday, negotiators drew a line connecting Iran’s capabilities with what it needs. Nuclear power requires so much low-grade fuel; medical research requires more advanced centrifuges but very few of them. Specific terms grew from this.
In a larger context, it’s not too much to say Kerry and Rhodes have at least nudged open some potentially important doors. They’ve demonstrated that compromise and negotiation don’t equate with surrender. In spades they’ve taken a high-profile step toward demilitarizing American foreign policy. They worked in a multilateral context, so pushing past the unilateralism favored in the post-September 11 environment.
All of these things are new. They make this a 21st century deal. Now we have to see what will come of it beyond a technocratic arrangement governing another nation’s nuclear industry. I see three immediate prospects.
One, foreign policy hawks in Washington, having overplayed their hand on the Iran deal may now find themselves in a weakened position across a range of questions.
Two, Iran may now be reintegrated into the global community such that its role as a regional power, which is inevitable, is exercised constructively.
Three, an overdue adjustment in U.S.-Israeli relations—predicted in this space when the nuclear talks commenced in the autumn of 2013—may now go forward. “The time has come to make a real reassessment in regard to the Israel-American relationship,” Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser in Israel, said over the weekend. Good enough if the thought takes hold in Israeli policy circles.