The US Iran nuclear deal: A historic mistake?

Mike Berger writes that a massive credibility gap exists when it comes to enforcement

Historic achievement or historic mistake: Is Iran getting away with murder?

Obama called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) coming out of Lausanne “an opportunity of a lifetime”, but Netanyahu and others claim it will “pose a grave danger to the region and to the world and would threaten the very survival of Israel”. The Israeli perspective, in particular, has received short shrift in the South African media despite it being the most vulnerable to Iranian aggression. It deserves closer scrutiny than it has so far received.

The terms of the draft agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations, at first glance, are impressively tough. Substantial reductions in the quantity and quality of centrifuges have been written into the draft and the stocks of enriched uranium are also drastically cut.

Sanctions on Iran will only be lifted after the IAEA has verified compliance with all key restrictions and will, theoretically, automatically “snap back” into place following any transgression by Iran. All constraints are in place for at least 10 years and some will be in force for up to 25 years, and even longer. The deal is designed to ensure at least a 1 year break-out time – enough, so the claim goes, to permit effective preventative action.

Surely this, and more, should allay the anxieties of even the most suspicious and vulnerable states. If so, what motives could underlie all the blowback this agreement has elicited? At the most fundamental level the two sides represent two opposed paradigmatic views of the world. Simplistically expressed the Obama side represents a progressive, idealistic view of world history whereas the other, the  Netanyahu camp, represents the cautious, “realist” view of political reality.

The first believes the world is basically manageable while the other believes that seriously adverse outcomes are generally underestimated. The progressive side is more willing to take on board moral responsibility for conflict and tends to perceive the “enemy” to be motivated by similar goals as themselves. Where the left sees opportunity the right is more risk-adverse. The first fears war and the other fears appeasement. Of course, these are matters of degree and are profoundly influenced by history, culture and context which differ profoundly between Obama and Netanyahu.

Of course no experienced politician is simply a robot acting in accordance with their underlying paradigm. Obama by now will have shed many illusions with which he may have entered the White House.

He agrees that Iran is a seriously bad actor in the Middle East with its expression  of openly genocidal anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, its promotion of innumerable proxy conflicts across the region, its sponsorship of terrorism, its dismal record of human rights, its corruption and brutal suppression of internal dissent, its prolonged and secretive militarisation of its nuclear program and its hegemonic ambitions. Furthermore, the entire region is engulfed in anarchic sectarian conflict with wholly unpredictable outcomes.

While these political realities together with intense internal and external political scrutiny have kept Obama on a relatively tight rein in his dealings with Iran, his fundamental commitment to “engagement”, as articulated in his interview with Thomas Friedman, comes as no surprise:  “(engagement) combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests...far better than endless sanctions and isolation... America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities”

That is precisely the problem critics have with the agreement: Obama was set on getting a deal – maybe the best possible under the circumstances - but engagement was his bottom line. The first and most obvious point is that while the USA may be confident it can ride out adverse outcomes, the same does not apply to Israel.

They exist in entirely different risk universes: for Israel a rampant, economically and militarily strong Iran emboldened to pursue its various ambitions is a direct, existential threat. For the USA it is a nuisance to be balanced against the chance that sufficient pro-Western potential exists within the country to curb the Islamist-inspired drive to regional supremacy and the elimination of the Zionist entity.

Secondly, Israelis and America’s allies have little faith that the USA will protect its interests when push comes to shove. For most Israelis the manifest eagerness of the USA to enter into an agreement with Iran is incomprehensible. They are acutely conscious of the open hostility Obama has shown to Netanyahu in striking contrast to the understanding and courtesies he has showered on militant Islamic regimes. His references to having “Israel’s back” and his expressed affinity for Israel’s values and history are unconvincing in the face of his actual behaviour in the turbulent world of global politics.

It is, therefore, worth looking deeper into this “historic achievement” in the light of the realist paradigm.

Serious disagreements have already surfaced publicly before the final document is signed. Iran claims that sanctions will be lifted immediately following a comprehensive agreement in contra-distinction to the JCPOA from Lausanne which requires full compliance with all key provisions before lifting sanctions. There are differing interpretations of the restriction on centrifuge research at Fordo and, while the USA claims that surprise inspections are permitted, Iran claims this is only a temporary provision.

Importantly, America expects Iran to export its vast excess of uranium whereas Iran offers to convert the material but keep it within the country. There does not seem to be a final agreement on the possible military dimensions of Iranian nuclear-related research on the table.

Unless these ambiguities are nailed down tight in the final agreement they will undoubtedly become significant points of contention in assessing whether Iran is complying with the final agreement which, in turn, becomes key when discussing Iranian breakout capacity.

But even more basically, why is Iran permitted to play these games? At the start of the international negotiations the goal, repeatedly stated, was that Iran would not be permitted any form of militarised nuclear program. This has been watered down to a one year break-out time or, as Obama himself chillingly put it, “Iran will not become a nuclear power on my watch”; a watch which ends in 2 years.

Thus a massive credibility gap exists when it comes to enforcement. Firstly, Obama is intent on outsourcing implementation and verification to the UN Security Council, the same Council with Russia and China as members where US influence is limited. Secondly, it is widely acknowledged that the “one-year breakout time” is a mirage. Should Iran seriously aim for nuclear weapons it can easily  blow sufficient smoke into the eyes of public opinion and the UN/IAEA alike, to delay an effective response till too late. 

In any case, “snap-back” sanctions is simply a public relations term. Besides differing ideological considerations and national interests, Iran is far too valuable an economic partner for countries to jump eagerly back into effective sanctions mode. Sanctions alone may be too little, too late and, given the current climate in the USA and the West, the threat of military intervention from those sources is a paper tiger.

In any case, the history of Western failure to prevent the emergence of nuclear-armed, rogue states is sufficient to induce serious scepticism. The most egregious example is, of course, North Korea and listening to Clinton selling the North Korea deal to the world public is a sobering experience.

Given that the Lausanne document is far from fail-safe one thing still remains in its favour: it has not been signed into a binding agreement. Israel, to its credit, has responded with constructive suggestions and a number of pertinent questions only to encounter a dismissive American response. Obama, by the huge investment of his personal prestige, has mortgaged his reputation to the agreement, a fact Iran will not hesitate to exploit.

Kissinger and Schultz, two former Secretaries of State, in a brilliant analysis of the key weaknesses in the Obama approach to the Middle East conclude “...the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region. Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms...

Besides the nuclear issue, there is also the question of Iranian political provocation, outrageous  rhetoric and regional destabilisation. An economically strengthened Iran free to pursue such activities under the umbrella of an internationally sanctioned treaty, can only be bad news for the region and globally. Surely, therefore, it is reasonable to tie relief of economic constraints to demonstrations of peaceful intent, starting with a complete cessation of genocidal threats against the existence of an Israeli state in the Middle East?

While both sides have spun the draft agreement and surrounding narrative to suit their political agendas, there is more than sufficient grounds for a serious re-appraisal – before the agreement is signed in June.

Mike Berger