A historic deal for Iran and the world

Walking in sync. Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Editor’s note: Jaw-jawing, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, seems to have yielded dividends in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. In Vienna on July 14, Iran and six world powers (the US, China, France, Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom) signed a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Here scholars give their initial reactions to the agreement and its significance.

A diplomatic masterpiece

*Nancy Gallagher, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland *

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between Iran, the United States, and five other major powers is a diplomatic masterpiece writ large and small.

It can ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful and help Iran reintegrate politically and economically into the international community, two objectives that have eluded leaders for decades.

The specific actions to be taken at each stage by each party are spelled out in carefully crafted terms that address the technical and the political concerns of all parties.

Successfully implementing the JCPOA, however, will require even more skill, sustained hard work, and attention to detail.

Presidents Obama and Rouhani must now convince their respective legislatures to approve a deal that gives everyone what they need, but does not give anyone everything that they want.

Because this is not a legally binding agreement that puts any constraints on US nuclear capabilities or military operations, it does not need to be approved by the normal ratification requirement of two-thirds of the Senate.

Instead, the administration agreed to give both Houses of Congress 60 days to review the JCPOA and vote to approve or disapprove the terms before Obama can suspend any sanctions.

Some members of Congress have already gone on record with criteria for a “good deal” that neither Iran nor other country has ever voluntarily accepted, including anytime, anywhere, anyone, anything access rights for international inspectors.

Setting technically impossible and politically unobtainable standards for verification is one of the oldest tricks in the book used to block arms control without admitting that you have no real interest in cooperation on any terms.

But the biggest danger during this process is not that Congress will vote down the deal – as my own research shows, the public overwhelmingly supports making an agreement along these lines even in very Republican states, and critics have offered no credible proposals for achieving a better outcome by trying to impose more sanctions or going to war.

Instead, the main risk is that the administration will try to buy support from skeptical members of Congress by agreeing to things that hinder implementation of the deal or hurt chances for expanding cooperation.

Rather than taking responsibility for killing the deal outright, opponents of a nuclear agreement with Iran will try to erode support for it in the United States by doing everything they can to raise doubts about Iran’s nuclear program while undermining support for it in Iran by slow-rolling sanctions relief and political re-engagement.

They will also try to offset any economic or technological gains that Iran receives for fulfilling its side of the bargain by giving or selling advanced weaponry to US allies in the region.

Part of the beauty of the JCPOA is that it includes many provisions meant to head off misunderstandings and devious moves whenever possible. It also includes fair procedures so parties can address compliance concerns and implementation problems cooperatively as needed.

As a work of art, the JCPOA is more like the script for a play than it is like a finished painting.

If all the negotiating parties, backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the rest of the international community, stay focused on what they are trying to create together, play their parts well and improvise creatively when the unexpected occurs, then the results will deserve a standing ovation.


The science behind the deal

Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

The main US objective of the deal with Iran is to decrease the riskiness of Iran’s civilian nuclear program to a point that (1) future nuclear weapon production would be unlikely and (2) if Iran does cheat, it would be detected with reasonable certainty.

So have the objectives been achieved in the deal signed July 14?

Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed by all but a handful of the world’s countries, all countries who have signed it have obligations. Countries that did not test nuclear weapons before 1967, for example, are obligated to not seek nuclear weapons in return for unhindered development of their nuclear energy programs. (Note that India, Pakistan and Israel are not NPT signatories.)

The problem is that it is not always clear whether a nuclear program is civilian or hides a military purpose.

For example, in 1955 Canada built a 40 megawatt reactor for India in return for a promise that it would be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. However, in 1974, India broke that promise by conducting a nuclear test using plutonium (the explosive fuel of a nuclear bomb) produced with the same reactor.

The current Iranian reactor at Arak is of a similar type to that in India – and of the same power.

Iran has repeatedly assured the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the reactor’s civilian use, but the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, which brokered the deal with Iran – are not willing to take that chance.

For this reason, the final agreement has measures to ensure the Arak reactor will not produce weapons-grade plutonium – a byproduct of a nuclear power plant – during its operation while still meeting the peaceful objectives Iran had for the reactor.

In addition, over the past decade, Iran has invested heavily in uranium enrichment infrastructure, constructing several large enrichment plants. All of these facilities are presently under IAEA safeguards.

In the enrichment process, the more useful isotope uranium-235 is increased in proportion relative to the other uranium isotopes. Most power reactors use fuel containing uranium enriched to 3% to 5% uranium-235, whereas nuclear weapons use uranium that has been enriched to as high as 90%.

Uranium-235 percentages naturally, at reactor grade, and at weapons grade. FastFission/wikipedia

However, the enrichment process is not linear – it takes far more work to enrich uranium to 5% then it does to enrich from 5% to 90%.

And herein lies the problem. The P5+1 needs to be assured to reasonable certainty that even if Iran expels inspectors and enriches enough uranium for a bomb with current facilities, that time is long enough that a sufficient response can be organized. This “breakout” time is currently two to three months, but is extended to about a year in the final agreement.

The last route to a bomb is the possibility of the use of clandestine facilities to enrich uranium or extract plutonium. To close this gap, Iran will apply enhanced safeguard measures to its comprehensive safeguards agreement called the “Additional Protocol,” which is in force in 126 countries around the world. This agreement will not only severely limit Iran’s possibility to produce nuclear weapons but will open the doors to increased investment and herald a new era of international cooperation in the region.

Congress will now have 60 days to scrutinize the accord.

However, it is important to keep in mind that it is not reasonable for opponents to demand 100% certainty in verifying the agreement and it is also not necessary.

A cost-benefit analysis is always done to determine what is feasible. Often this is not understood, and unreasonable demands may be placed on the verification regime.


Pragmatic leadership

David Mitchell, Bucknell University

While it goes without saying that a variety of factors influenced the Obama administration’s ability to strike a deal with Iran — such as Iran’s more liberal leadership in the person of the country’s President Hassan Rouhani – the fact remains that President Obama’s leadership style played a central role.

President Obama speaking about the nuclear deal with Vice President Biden by his side. POOL New/reuters

Obama’s overall approach to foreign policy has been described as incoherent, idealist, and several variations in between.

However, at its core, Obama and his foreign policy can be most accurately described as pragmatic.

This is best evidenced by Obama’s view of the United States’ role in the world.

Obama believes that the United States can and should maintain a leading role in the world, yet he accepts that the United States has limits to its power and ability to shape events alone.

What this has meant for the nuclear negotiations with Iran is that Obama has sought to achieve the goal of reducing Iran’s possibility to acquire nuclear weapons, while also being sensitive to competing domestic and international pressures.

Domestically, he has had to reconcile a public weary of Middle Eastern conflict that supports nuclear negotiations with Iran with hawkish elements of the Republican Party that have vocalized support for greater coercive measures against Iran.

Internationally, he has had to account for allies that are averse to force, the threat of Israeli intervention, sanctions that have appeared to reach their limit, and the prospect of further proliferation in the region.

From Obama’s pragmatic perspective, a commitment to finding a negotiated solution was the only way to strike a balance between all of these constraints. This also helps explain why the administration has been willing to extend deadlines in order to arrive at an agreement.

For Obama, there is no other feasible solution that effectively deals with Iran’s nuclear capability, ensures widespread support and ratchets down the potential for greater conflict in the region.

This leadership style contrasts, for example, with that of George W Bush, who was less sensitive to external pressures and was committed to coercing Iran into compliance.

Bush viewed the Iran issue — and much of Middle East politics — in more black-and-white terms, which was a product of his moralistic world view and a tendency to make decisions based on instinct. Consequently, the possibilities for negotiations, although present, were limited. Bush had little desire to accommodate Iran, which, from his perspective, would have been perceived as weakness on the part of the United States.

Obama’s pragmatism has contributed to the ability of the administration to broker a deal, and this should be treated as a success. However, this pragmatism may prevent the administration from taking the next step to use this agreement to fundamentally change the dynamic of US-Iranian relations.