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The grand bargain: What Iran conceded in the nuclear talks

Since the P5+1 and Iran announced the agreed parameters for a comprehensive settlement of the Iran nuclear issue earlier this month, Washington punditry has obsessed over the fine points of both the joint statement read by EU Foreign Minister Mogherini and Iranian FM Zarif, and the fact sheet released by the Obama administration, to identify concessions made by the United States.

Much attention has centered on centrifuge numbers, the strategic implications of the Iranian nuclear program within the context of the deal and the decision to provide early sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for substantial nuclear steps by Iran.

As with everything in Washington as late, the discussion quickly divided into two camps: those convinced that Obama gave up critical advantage over Iran too readily in order to get a nuclear deal that, even if better than what was anticipated, still is not satisfactory; and, those convinced that, given the alternatives, what Obama achieved was worth such concessions.

Lost in all of the noise is any consideration of what Iran had to give up in order to get a deal and the value of what it will really get from sanctions relief (bearing in mind, of course, the fact that no deal has actually yet been signed and its premature to start the score-carding). For some, it is assumed that Iran’s temporary concessions are so meager that, in effect, the Iranians sacrificed nothing for a deal.

But, this misses an important point: Iran had to make several compromises in order to get a satisfactory nuclear deal and, in the end, the separation between Iran’s public and private stances is far wider than those of the Obama administration. Moreover, the U.S. readiness to engage in sanctions relief is not a give-away to Iran but rather a result of a proportional exchange of concessions that, though some may wish not to hear it, is the only way that diplomacy actually works.

Iranian compromises

To get this far, Iran had to make several compromises on its longstanding nuclear policy. This started in the Joint Plan of Action, in which Iran agreed to permit the P5+1 (and the United States in particular) to have a role in its nuclear program decision-making. For a country as proud of its independence as Iran, the significance of this step should not be discounted. And, a similar mindset is manifest in what emerged from Lausanne earlier this month.

For example, Iran stated clearly and unambiguously in early 2014 that it would not pull back from its centrifuge research and development activities. On January 23, 2014, FM Zarif told CNN that “in the context of R&D and peaceful nuclear technology, we will not accept any limitations.” Supreme Leader Khamenei went even farther, noting in series of redlines that were promulgated via his official Twitter account, that Iran’s “nuclear science movement should not come to a halt or even slow down.”

Iran made similar comments about not backing down with respect to centrifuge numbers. President Rouhani said on January 23, 2014, that Iran would “not under any circumstances” destroy any of its existing centrifuges. Instead, Iran underscored that it would require as many centrifuges as necessary to fuel its existing reactors, including the 1,000 megawatt power reactor at Bushehr (which is estimated to require around 100,000 centrifuges’ worth of work a year). Supreme Leader Khamenei reinforced this position with his now famous statement in July 2014 that Iran required 190,000 separative work units (SWU), which would roughly equate to 190,000 centrifuges. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran President Ali Salehi noted a short while after Khamenei’s comments that Iran would need this amount of SWU within 8 years in order to meet its enrichment demands.

But, even the most critical reading of either the P5+1-Iran Joint Statement or the U.S. fact sheet support the contention that, if anything, Iran made sweeping concessions to the U.S. position in this regard. The Joint Statement noted that:


As Iran pursues a peaceful nuclear programme, Iran’s enrichment capacity, enrichment level and stockpile will be limited for specified durations, and there will be no other enrichment facility than Natanz. Iran’s research and development on centrifuges will be carried out on a scope and schedule that has been mutually agreed.

Iran therefore conceded to limitations on its R&D activities, which at a minimum will be subject to a mutually agreed scope and schedule, as well as to the size of its enrichment program. The U.S. factsheet makes this concession even more stark, noting that there would be limits on Iran’s ability to use advanced centrifuges as well as on their contribution to Iran’s ability to engage in an enrichment breakout.

As for 190,000 centrifuges, the U.S. factsheet makes abundantly clear that, for 10 years, Iran would be limited to no more than 6,104 installed centrifuges, not even 4 percent of Khamenei’s demand.

In fact, the final positions reached in the Joint Statement and the U.S. factsheet bear more in common with the U.S. position than the Iranian position.

In February 2014, for instance, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and observed that: “there is no question it would be far preferable if Iran did not have an indigenous enrichment capability…but it may be that at the end of a comprehensive agreement, we have allowed for consideration of a very small, limited enrichment program to meet practical needs that would be highly monitored, highly verified, with intrusive inspections over a very long duration of time…”

She noted as well, in response to a question from Senator Rubio, that “our line in the sand on the enrichment issue is that any comprehensive agreement should give us full confidence and assurance in a verifiable manner that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.” She refused to be drawn out on a specific number of centrifuges, but confirmed that there would be a reduction.

Some may quibble with the amount of the reduction reached and definition of the words “very small.” No dictionary will be of aid in this situation, as interpretation is all in the eye of the beholder. However, 4 percent of Iran’s desired outcome in eight years and 30 percent of its currently installed centrifuges can be reasonably described as “very small.”

Likewise, Iran made others concessions to get a deal. The Joint Statement indicates that a:

set of measures have been agreed to monitor the provisions of the JCPOA including implementation of the modified Code 3.1 and provisional application of the Additional Protocol. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be permitted the use of modern technologies and will have enhanced access through agreed procedures, including to clarify past and present issues.

The U.S. factsheet goes beyond this, noting that Iran will grant the IAEA “continuous surveillance” of its uranium mills and centrifuge production and storage facilities. The factsheet also indicates that inspectors will have access to Iran’s supply chain for its nuclear program and that included in this will be a procurement channel to help prevent the diversion of procured items to illicit purposes.

This is a far cry from Supreme Leader Khamenei’s October 2014 redline that the “International Atomic Energy Agency should establish normal and non-extraordinary relations with Iran.”

But, it is very much in keeping with the concept of “unprecedented” transparency that has been advanced by President Obama and his cabinet. This particular comment has been criticized on several occasions and, in some cases, the criticism is valid.

For example, to consider the level of access to be granted under the comprehensive agreement to be negotiated with Iran as “unprecedented” without qualification is to argue that it would go beyond that which the international community had in Iraq in the 1990s and after 2003. But, in fact, this is an important distinction in its own right: to get more than the kinds of access that are promised in the U.S. factsheet, it had to go to war with the inspected country and, in 2003, occupy it for eight years.

Did Iran get a bad deal?

The point of this litany is not to suggest that the Iranians got a bad deal from the P5+1 in the parameters agreed thus far. It actually describes a set of concessions on both sides, both to one another and to the realities of nuclear physics.

For example, on Arak, the Iranians early on in 2014 acknowledged the concerns of the international community with respect to its potential plutonium output and offered to modify the reactor to address this risk. For her part, Sherman noted in her aforementioned testimony that “we do not believe there is any reason for a heavy water reactor at all in a civil nuclear program of the type that Iran is interested in,” leaving open the possibility of modifying the reactor to make it more compatible with Iranian needs and international concerns.

The Joint Statement reached by the P5+1 and Iran, as well as the U.S. factsheet, support the contention that this more modest gap has been closed, even if the final redesign of the reactor has yet to be settled.

By agreeing to the permanent modification of the Arak reactor, Iran is essentially foregoing in perpetuity a plutonium-based nuclear weapons option using this reactor. The redesigned Arak will be incapable of producing the 1-2 weapons’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium per year possible under its present configuration and, as such, its utility in a nuclear weapons’ breakout has been permanently removed.

Taken in combination with Iran’s indefinite renunciation of spent fuel reprocessing capabilities and decision to ship out all spent fuel from this reactor, the plutonium path will be closed to Iran. (And lest critics suggest that Bushehr could adequately serve Iran’s plutonium needs, the risk of this was considered sufficiently low that the Bush Administration reversed its earlier policy on Bushehr, welcoming its construction in 2007. Moreover, the no reprocessing commitments made by Iran would also apply here.)

In other instances, the P5+1 conceded to Iranian concerns, for example with respect to whether the Fordow plant should be physically closed. The U.S. and broader P5+1 position in early 2014 was evidently that the facility should be shuttered and, today, it has been acknowledged that the facility itself will remain open, even if substantially transformed.

Yet, even in this area, the United States did not foreclose the possibility of Fordow remaining open if converted to another purpose: the concern expressed by President Obama at the time, as well as by his officials, is that it not be an enrichment facility. Though some may argue that the presence of centrifuges on the site contradicts this demand, the whole purpose of the facility will be changed as a result of the modifications under discussion and the centrifuges remaining there will be incapable of supporting uranium enrichment. As such, the facility’s real ability to support a weapons-oriented breakout has been impaired significantly.

Given this, what is the rationale for demanding the facility itself be shut down? The fact that it is buried under a mountain only points to why uranium enrichment should not be permitted there and why inspector access is critical. Iran is full of mountains. Should they decide to use another one to engage in uranium enrichment, the key will be access and transparency, not whether the walls of Fordow are caved in.

This highlights a fundamental distinction between critics of the nuclear deal and its advocates. For those opposed to a deal, there are certainly some legitimate concerns about the nature of what may be agreed upon and these merit exploration so that the final arrangement can, to the extent possible, address them.

But, there appears to be as serious a frustration with the fact that the United States appears to have lost in some fashion. Criticism of the Obama administration “backing down” has been a part of the Iran negotiations from the start, but with the conclusion of the political framework, this has taken on an even more charged tone.

No less luminaries that former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz noted in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that “while Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal,” implicitly arguing that the side that offers solutions to problems is somehow intrinsically the weaker side.

In my view, this reflects a fundamental disregard of the realities of the situation: only the P5+1 can offer credible suggestions of what it would take for Iran to build international confidence in its nuclear program because they are the demanders. Iran’s need to get out from under sanctions is significant, but hardly puts Iran in a position to define what kind of nuclear steps are necessary to resolve the situation to the P5+1‘s satisfaction. To Iran’s mind, the issue itself was all a fabrication in any event. If the P5+1 wanted to have solutions to its loss of confidence in Iran’s nuclear program, it would have to offer them.

But, the asymmetry of demands does not mean that there were asymmetries in concessions. Put simply, in order to get a nuclear deal acceptable to the P5+1, Iran was forced to pull back on its nuclear program for a significant period of time. It is sacrificing a national treasure—and one for which considerable national hardship has been endured—to get a deal. And, realistically, it has sacrificed any reasonable nuclear weapons breakout option for at least 10-15 years and perhaps longer.

For the P5+1, it relinquished a tool that it only picked up in order to address the nuclear problem Iran created. Far from lamenting the opportunity lost, critics of the nuclear deal ought to be marveling at the elegance of a coercive diplomatic victory by the United States and its partners, coming only at the expense of a tool that never would have existed save the nuclear issue.

What does the loss of current sanctions really mean?

This raises the issue of the value of the sanctions to be suspended and then lifted as part of the final arrangement under negotiation. Some have argued that the loss of the sanctions that are being considered as part of the agreement will cripple the U.S. effort to deal with Iranian regional maneuvers, violations of human rights and support for terrorism. But, as the Administration has stated time and again, there is no intention on the part of the United States to relax its unilateral sanctions focused on terrorism or human rights, or which control the spread of arms to Iran that are covered in myriad national laws.

It is true that, in time, UN sanctions on Iran that cover this ground will be terminated, but it is also true that these sanctions only came about because the members of the UN Security Council were focused on preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Though like any other person concerned with Iran’s activities in the region, I would prefer that UNSC sanctions on Iranian arms and missiles remain in place until these problems have been definitively addressed, this was not the basis of the original UNSC action and our ability to secure additional such provisions in the future from the Security Council is dependent, in part, on demonstrating that we will remove such sanctions when their underlying basis has been resolved (as, indeed, the closing paragraphs of UNSCR 1737 and its successors make clear).

Perhaps more to the point, the analysis that sanctions can only be lifted on Iran when a plethora of other regional concerns have been ameliorated suggests that the United States can automatically have its own way when it comes to the implementation of and adherence to sanctions. But, as has been made clear time and again, sanctions that do not involve U.S. actors inherently require international cooperation, even if coerced. It is certainly possible that some international partners would stay with the United States if it abandoned a nuclear deal with Iran in deference to regional issues, but it is implausible to suggest that Russia would stay the course, nor should we expect China, India and other countries to do the same with respect to their trade balances. If the best that is achieved through the insistence that other issues be dealt with before nuclear-related sanctions can be lifted is that the sanctions regime frays, then this would not be the best deal for the United States or, indeed, the region.

This is important because it is doubtful that retaining the sanctions would have the desired impact on Iran’s freedom of movement in the region. We should not forget that the sanctions to which so many are now wed, were only imposed in 2011, long after Iran began exporting its revolution to other parts of the region. And, despite the overwhelming sanctions pressure applied against the country, this has not stopped Iran from supporting Assad, arming the Houthis, or for years supporting  militias who attacked and killed U.S. service-people in Iraq.

Suggesting that relaxing the sanctions now will unleash Iran is to ignore this basic reality; it is moreover somewhat galling considering that one of the most impactful tools of U.S. sanctions, the effort to push companies out of Iran’s oil and gas sector, was only seriously implemented in 2010 by the Obama administration after years of neglect by the president’s predecessors. The problems that are created within the region by Iran—under sanctions or not—require different solutions of which sanctions may not be the most impactful. Steps such as U.S. support for Saudi actions against the Houthis in Yemen, continued support for opposition forces in Syria, and the decision to begin selling arms to Egypt again are, in all likelihood, more important to combating Iran’s regional presence than sanctions would be.

Some critics also claim the U.S. sanctions relief capitulation goes far beyond the nuclear benefits received because, as Kissinger and Shultz argue, “the agreement’s primary enforcement mechanism, the threat of renewed sanctions, emphasizes a broad-based asymmetry, which provides Iran permanent relief from sanctions in exchange for temporary restraints on Iranian conduct.” However, as I noted in a previous article, it is not the case that Iran will get away with permanent sanctions relief in exchange for temporary nuclear measures. Though true that this same need for international cooperation will hamper rapid enforcement of the deal, this does not mean that U.S. presidents would lose their ability to resolve an Iran breakout attempt with force, nor does it mean that—after the deal concludes— more U.S. sanctions could not be pursued to deal with the challenges in front of the United States at the time. If nothing else, what’s being exchanged is temporary sanctions relief with an option on permanent relief if the Iranians do nothing to prompt concerns in the out-years that their nuclear program has regressed to a weapons option.

This takes me to a final point: the inevitability of an Iranian challenge to the international nuclear order. Iran’s decision to embark on a nuclear program involving enrichment was not made earlier this month nor has its ramifications only emerged since the framework was forged. To borrow and abuse Kissinger and Shultz’s words, the failure in the NPT to appropriately address the threats that result from any non-nuclear weapon state’s complete nuclear fuel cycle is what “will enable Iran to become a significant nuclear, industrial and military power” after the framework agreement expires at some point in the future, not the framework agreement itself. The NPT and the NPT system’s inability to deal with threshold nuclear states is itself the problem of which the Iran case is only a symptom. If Iran had never tried to engage in illicit nuclear activities, the United States and its partners never would have had the support to impose Chapter VII UNSC sanctions against Iran in the first place or engage in the effective sanctions effort that has unfolded since 2006.

Implications for the ongoing debate

Has the United States given up too much or has Iran? It is really too soon to tell. The final deal has yet to be negotiated and may still collapse. But, if a deal is reached, it will reflect compromise on both sides and involve concessions that are dearly held at home and ignored as insufficient abroad. This is the nature of diplomacy, as is the outrage of outsiders that negotiators got too little in exchange.

In the last analysis, the test of whether an agreement serves a country’s interests is not whether it or its negotiating adversary traveled the greatest distance between initial positions and negotiated outcomes. A truer test is how well the negotiated outcomes measure up against the country’s key goals in the negotiations. If, under the terms of the agreement reached, Iran is not permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon and the U.S. retains the ability to counter that threat into the future, then in my estimation, these negotiations will have been successful by any reasonable standard.

This piece was originally published in The National Interest

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