U.S., Israel Spats Blur Simple Truth: Neither Wants Iran to Have Nukes

Much Israeli criticism of the emerging nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries was based on speculation about a deal not yet concluded. Now it is done and we all have a better basis to evaluate it.

A common criticism has been that the six-month initial agreement would allow Iran to make progress in its nuclear program while negotiations continue on a final-stage deal. However, the initial step, as announced, would close off all significant avenues for advancing Iran’s program during the six months: By preventing the operation or further installation of advanced centrifuges, stopping production or stockpiling of near-20 percent enriched uranium, capping stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium, halting steps toward operation of the Arak reactor, and banning the production of additional centrifuges except to replace broken ones.

Another criticism is that the agreement will not roll back Iran’s program, for example by dismantling centrifuges. True, the first-step deal does not require dismantling. For the time being, Iran will be allowed to retain most of its current infrastructure, which will have to be substantially reduced at a later stage. But the first step will prevent Iran from sharply ramping up its capabilities in the next six months – including by operating a growing number of advanced centrifuges, enriching with the thousands of installed first-generation centrifuges now idle, and completing the Arak reactor or producing fuel for it. And it will roll back to zero the amount of near-20 percent enriched uranium in gaseous form that can most readily be boosted to weapons grade. Recall Prime Minister Netanyahu’s red line against Iran accumulating 250 kilograms of that material.

Critics have claimed that the initial deal would provide too much sanctions relief. But total Iranian earnings from agreed sanctions-easing measures would be $7 billion at most during the six months – a small fraction of the huge losses the sanctions will continue to impose. With oil sanctions still in place, Iran will still be making about $30 billion less in oil sales every six months than it was making before the sanctions were imposed. Although Iran will receive $4.2 billion of its own funds now held in restricted overseas accounts, most of its sharply-reduced oil revenues will still have to be deposited in such accounts. During the six-month period, the hole Iran has dug for itself will only get deeper.

Some observers have expressed concern that Iran would be happy to turn the first-stage deal into a permanent agreement and that the initial deal would not leave the P5+1 enough leverage to get Iran to agree to an acceptable final deal. But with the core sanctions still in place, the intolerable economic conditions that elected President Rohani and brought Iran to the negotiating table will continue during the initial deal and will only be alleviated when an acceptable final agreement is implemented.

Critics also worry that, even if oil and banking sanctions remain and agreed sanctions easing measures are modest, an initial deal will have a major psychological effect. They fear that, anticipating the early lifting of sanctions, companies all over the world will abandon their concerns about sanctions and reputational risk that have kept them away from Iran and will rush to restore or establish business relationships. No doubt, many companies will want to do business with Iran post-sanctions. But during the six-month period, continuing financial sanctions will be a major impediment, key sectors such as energy will remain subject to sanctions, and companies will be very reluctant to commit to new commercial ties when the outlook beyond six month is so uncertain. Predictions about the premature and widespread erosion of sanctions are therefore unlikely to materialize.

Beyond the implications of a first-stage agreement, criticism has also focused on the probable future elements of the final agreement, in particular the presumption that enrichment will be permitted. Clearly, a ban on enrichment would be preferable. But anyone who has followed the domestic debate in Tehran must conclude that such a ban is not achievable. And the agreed principles for a final deal make clear that ultimate acceptance of enrichment will depend on Iran’s acceptance of strict limits and monitoring measures that prevent the Iranians from having the ability to break out of constraints and produce enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons before the U.S. and others can take decisive action, including the use of military force, to stop them.

No two countries feel more strongly about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than the United States and Israel, although the heated rhetoric of recent weeks might have given the impression that the two close allies were adversaries on the issue. With the initial deal done and major negotiating challenges ahead, it is critical now that the public arguments give way to quiet engagement in which the two partners work together on a pathway forward that can produce an outcome that both agree will protect their vital security interests.