In order to evaluate the new deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the medium run, it’s necessary to examine it both down in the weeds, and at the 30,000-foot level. After reading the text that’s been made available so far, I have major concerns from both perspectives.
Regarding the details, the monitoring and verification provisions are of course paramount, given the nature of domestic politics and international relations generally, and the Iran regime’s record of violating agreements specifically. And major problems can be identified with both the Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DSM) the agreement sets up, and with its procedures for inspecting the full range of Iranian sites that might be engaged in now-banned nuclear activity.
The DSM (paragraphs 36 and 37 of Section I) lays out a process that could take as long as 80 days to complete. Disagreements over whether the agreement’s terms are being violated could in principle go through a Joint Commission established by the pact, a panel consisting of the foreign ministries of all members, an Advisory Board comprised of representatives of the two main parties to the dispute and “a third independent member,” then back to the Joint Commission, and finally to the United Nations Security Council.
Deadlines for all these phases look automatic, and if Iran is determined to be the guilty party, any sanctions that have been lifted would be reimposed if the matter is not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction within 30 days. That sounds good in principle.
But if you fly up to the 30,000-foot level, it becomes clear what is all too likely to happen in practice: Iran would have nearly three months to engage in banned activities. Moreover, influential companies in the United States and all the European countries party to the agreement would start lobbying furiously to paper over the problem and avoid both disrupting business they had already begun, and killing projects that were in works.
And even without such corporate campaigns, the European governments themselves, starved for growth, would feel major pressure to continue capitalizing on new investment, export, and thus job-creating opportunities in Iran. Indeed, economist Jeffrey Dorfman of the University of Georgia has written a terrific column making clear how powerful these appeasing commercial forces has already been in the post-Cold War era.
Moreover, all of the governments that had concluded this deal with Iran would have major vested interests in preserving it even in the face of compelling but less than overwhelming evidence of Iranian violations. It should go without saying that the leaders in power today would be highly reluctant to admit failure. But so would any successors from their political parties. And in Europe in particular, leaders across the spectrum would surely be tempted to cite one of the most prominent defenses offered for the new agreement: However flawed it may be, it’s better than nothing.
Drawn-out procedures appear to be an even bigger substantive problem when it comes to the agreement’s provisions for those sites not yet officially determined by previous diplomacy with Tehran to be part of Iran’s nuclear complex. Worse, this section of the deal (Annex 1, Section Q) arguably contains at least one major loophole.
Specifically, even before inspections of these facilities are even on the table, the international agency charged with this responsibility (the International Atomic Energy Agency) needs to “provide Iran the basis for [its] concerns and request clarification.” In other words, the IAEA needs to tell Iran exactly what it would be looking for. Iran has to respond, but only if its explanations are deemed unsatisfactory can the IAEA request access – while also being required to let the Iranians know what incriminating information it has at its disposal. And Iran can hem and haw enough to extend this process for a total of two weeks.
But access to the facilities could be denied by Iran for another week, as a series of “consultations” is undertaken. And if these fail, five of the eight members of the Joint Commission – made up of Russia and China, the European Union, and the Western countries that would feel the above “30,000-foot pressures” – would need to determine that intrusive measures were indeed required. And after that vote, Iran would have three more days to grant access. It’s not rocket science to figure out that these procedures would give the Tehran ample opportunity to hide whatever its interlocutors want to find.
And then there’s the possible loophole: The agreement requires that inspections “not be aimed at interfering with Iranian military or other national security activities.” This could simply mean that inspectors ultimately must be allowed anywhere they wish to go, but promise to tiptoe their way around. But the wording is so ambiguous that it’s easy to imagine Iran interpreting it as placing all military site completely off limits – because any foreign presence would interfere with their operations. Indeed, the very vagueness of the wording makes that scenario not a possibility but a likelihood – along with agreement by China and Russia, plus squishier western politicians and business interests.
We’re still left with that “better than nothing” argument. At this point, I worry that it’s at least nearly offset by the varying sunset provisions of the agreement. They mean that, by the Obama administration’s own reckoning, even if every syllable is implemented perfectly, largely because of the nuclear programs it will be permitted to keep, in 15 years Iran might be able to “break out” of the accord and build a functioning weapon in one year. (This break-out time today is thought by many – but not all – analysts to be two to three months.) The agreement can also be legitimately faulted for a sanctions relief schedule that could within months start greatly enriching a regime that Mr. Obama himself believes is threatening major American interests in the Middle East.
As a result, I’d vote it down if I was in the Senate and needed to decide right now. But there remain some important details that have not yet been made public, and the big strategic issues just mentioned (as well as others) are still eminently debatable. In addition, I can claim no expertise on the nuclear technology that the agreement is trying to control; those provisions might fall short of acceptability as well. So I’m glad I have some wiggle room of my own before coming to a definitive conclusion, and all Americans should be grateful that their legislators don’t need to rush to judgment, either.