Don’t let fears of a “bad” nuclear deal with Iran kill a good one

By Ariane Tabatabai | March 20, 2015

Pundits and politicians opposed to a nuclear agreement with Iran have accused US negotiators of trying to reach a “deal for the sake of having a deal”—the implication being that the White House and the US negotiating team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, at this point simply want to be seen as having achieved something. But as Iran and six world powers continue meetings in Lausanne, Switzerland to strike a deal that would limit Iranian nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, it’s beginning to look like many of those critics simply oppose a deal for the sake of opposing a deal. They accuse the White House of pursuing a “bad deal,” but have little concrete to say about what they find problematic with the agreement under discussion.

Some US hardliners have said they reject the idea of a sunset clause, which would provide for the terms of the agreement to come to an end at some point—most likely after 10 to 15 years. This suggests that they would like to see an agreement implemented indefinitely. This is not a realistic objective, because Iran has said very clearly that by the end of the timeframe agreed, its goal is to be considered a normal, non-nuclear weapons state member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Open-ended limitations on Tehran's nuclear program wouldn’t be acceptable to either the Iranian establishment or the general population after having paid a high price to reach a deal.

In practice, though, some measures under a comprehensive agreement would be implemented indefinitely. For instance, Iran may agree to carry out a change to the design of the Arak heavy water reactor that would be difficult to reverse.

Other elements of a deal, though, would need to have a clearer timeline if Iran is to assent.  For instance, Tehran can't keep the number of operating centrifuges below 10,000 indefinitely. The country’s stated goal, as expressed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, is to have an industrial-scale peaceful enrichment program, capable of supplying enough fuel for its nuclear reactors.

One of Tehran’s concerns is that it doesn’t want to trade irreversible or hard-to-reverse actions for ones that could be quickly overturned. Such fears are not alleviated by some statements coming out of Washington—like the letter that 47 Republican US Senators addressed to Iran’s leadership on March 9, claiming that a future US president could undo whatever the current one agrees to. Indeed, some Republicans have clearly stated that they’d reverse any agreement, going against the administration as well as US allies and negotiating partners.    

Some US allies, meanwhile—in particular Saudi Arabia and Israel—object to a deal not so much because of the substance of what’s on the table as because it would end the status quo. They fear that Tehran, politically and economically isolated for more than a decade, would resume relations with the West, leading them to lose their privileged place in the region vis-à-vis Washington. Likewise, if the focus shifts away from the Iran threat, newly reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could face more pressure from the United States on his domestic policies.

Negotiators are trying to produce a framework agreement by March 31 that would provide an outline and pave the way for a comprehensive deal by the end of June. This week has been a crucial time for Iran. The moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani would no doubt have loved to announce a framework deal by March 20, the Persian New Year, starting the year fresh by telling citizens that Iran is finally putting more than a decade of political and economic isolation behind it.

That may not have happened, but the fact that Tehran is still at the negotiating table despite the push from US critics is worth celebrating. The letter from Senate Republicans gave Iran the perfect way out of the talks and ammunition for a potential blame game, and Iran’s negotiating team didn’t take the bait. Tehran’s presence shouldn’t be taken for granted, though. Right now (as I’ve discussed here and here), there is consensus and political will among Iranian leaders. But this momentum will not last, especially if Congress starts to push for more sanctions prematurely.

The alternative to striking a deal could be an end to any cooperation beyond the terms of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, setting the clock back to before the 2013 Joint Plant of Action. Iran would likely resume 20 percent enrichment, use all its operational centrifuges, research and development activities, and work on the Arak heavy water reactor. It might also bring some of its more advanced IR-4 centrifuges online, which are capable of processing much more uranium.

Behind closed doors, the details of what looks like an emerging deal are very attractive, providing the best assurances yet that Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful. In other words, there is almost a deal on the table that stands a solid chance of being acceptable to all parties. If they get their way, though, the hawks saying they don’t want a “bad deal” will kill a good one.

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