The luxury of being a policy analyst is that one can afford to say what politicians cannot: ‘it’s complicated’. If I had been voting on the 14 July nuclear deal with Iran, I would have had to abstain.
American and European diplomats worked hard to close most of the avenues and loopholes that Iran could exploit to advance its nuclear programme. The enriched-uranium stockpile and the number of centrifuges will be significantly reduced. The plutonium route is blocked. The list of prohibited activities is impressive, as is the scope of monitoring – from uranium mines to procurement channels. The E3/EU+3 (France, Germany and the UK, plus China, Russia and the United States) have been creative in ensuring that the threat of reimposing sanctions is not hollow. And whatever happens next, the patient efforts of the E3/EU+3 since 2006, along with the harshest non-proliferation sanctions ever imposed, will have demonstrated that illegal nuclear proliferation is costly. Simply put, this is the most detailed non-proliferation agreement ever devised. But it nevertheless includes several problematic aspects, which deserve careful scrutiny.
The original goal of the E3/EU+3 was for Tehran to make a strategic choice – to turn 180 degrees and agree to forfeit any capability to rapidly build nuclear weapons. Since 2006, however, the goalposts have been moved.
A renowned expert supporting the deal recently incited readers to follow Nietzsche’s dictum: ‘the most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what one is trying to do’. The argument can be turned against his thesis, for we did forget what our specific objective was. Around 2012, under US pressure, the E3/EU+3 abandoned roll-back in favour of containment. And in 2014, the envisioned duration of the key provisions of the deal moved from a generation to a decade. Iran has become a nuclear-threshold state, and it will remain one, with our blessing. This is bad news: persuading countries in the region and elsewhere to forsake fuel-cycle activities has suddenly become much more problematic.
After investing billions of dollars and the effort of hundreds of scientists and engineers, not to take the final step requires stopping a powerful momentum. When is the last time that after such a long, dedicated military-oriented effort, a country reached the nuclear threshold and just stopped there, without ever building a device? It has never happened. Countries do not give up when they have invested so much, unless they are forced to do so after a major war (as Iraq was), or when regime change comes (as it did in Brazil and South Africa). Sweden had invested a lot in a military nuclear option in the 1950s and 1960s before terminating its nuclear programme, but not as much as the Islamic Republic. Unless there is a sea change in the nature of the regime, a complete cessation is unlikely to happen. It is regrettable, by the way, that Iran was not requested to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) – its abstention makes the scenario of a hypothetical ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ (such as the one India carried out in 1974) not far-fetched.
Legitimate questions also arise about the deal’s verification procedures. It is not known whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have access to scientists – a key necessity, according to the inspectors themselves. The delay in resolving questions about suspicious activities, which could reach up to 24 days, may be too long to allow for the timely detection of some forbidden activities, particularly if they involve non-nuclear activities or very small quantities of nuclear materials.
The IAEA–Iran road map that aims to clarify the so-called ‘possible military dimensions’ (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear programme is another area of concern. After several years of stonewalling and procrastinating, we can hardly expect Iran suddenly to either give credible explanations for all its suspect activities, or to admit that it has conducted weaponisation experiments. It is thus logical to believe that there will be a tacit understanding among all parties to hide them under the rug. This would be a bad precedent for the non-proliferation regime and the credibility of the IAEA. So would the lifting of the remaining US sanctions before the IAEA has reached its ‘broader conclusion’ that all nuclear material in Iran remains in exclusively peaceful use.
A short time in politics
The deal’s main flaw, even assuming that implementation goes smoothly for more than a decade, is its short duration. (The agreement will last roughly the same amount of time as it took to negotiate, if one starts with the 2003 European effort). President Barack Obama does not hide the fact that he is kicking the can down the road, and time is certainly a valuable commodity in international diplomacy. But a decade is a short time both by the Islamic Republic’s standards and by those of slow-motion, incremental nuclear programmes such as Tehran’s. Fifteen years ago, as the first signs of an illegal military-oriented nuclear programme in Iran were becoming clear, I had a conversation with a senior French diplomat that ended in the following way: ‘Anyway, in ten years Iran will be a democracy, and democracies don’t build nuclear weapons.’ He was wrong on both counts. (Reminder: the majority of the current possessors of nuclear weapons are fully fledged democracies.) The eternal hope of Western diplomats is that authoritarian regimes are on the wrong side of history and therefore cannot last long. But sometimes they do. In 1994, some US negotiators were persuaded that the Pyongyang regime would have collapsed by 2004. The now happily retired French diplomat does not have to deal with the consequences of his bad judgement. Neither will the negotiators of the 14 July deal, except for the younger ones.
Iran’s ability to maintain large quantities of centrifuges is not concerning per se – after all, Germany and the Netherlands, which are non-nuclear countries that no one would suspect of being interested in nuclear weapons, do so. (The irony is that the E3/EU+3 legitimised an enrichment programme that is not large enough – and not needed – for its domestic power plants consumption, even though they have agreed that Iran would only have an enrichment programme ‘consistent with [its] practical needs’). Likewise, I have no quarrel with the fact that the agreement did not cover ballistic missiles: the Iranians can rightly argue that they need them for their conventional defence. But no non-nuclear country in the world maintains an enrichment programme that makes no sense in economic terms. And no non-nuclear country, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, possesses medium-to-long-range ballistic missiles. Iran has both. This in itself is reason to doubt the (unsubstantiated) claim that Iran never wanted to cross the threshold.
Japan is sometimes mentioned (including by some Iranians) as a model for a ‘nuclear threshold’ Iran. The comparison is wrong on three counts. Firstly, Japan’s enrichment programme has a clear rationale: to produce one-third of the fuel for its reactors to mitigate the effects of any political or economic changes that could affect the reliability of foreign supplies. Secondly, Japan does not have ballistic missiles (while some of Iran’s missiles have been tested for carrying a nuclear-type payload) and its space launchers would have to be modified and tested to carry nuclear weapons. Thirdly, there is no evidence of Japanese work on weaponisation.
Iran will not be allowed to have any research reactors able to quickly generate large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium. But by year 15 (around 2030), Iran will be allowed to build as many heavy-water reactors and reprocessing plants as it wants. Is this too far in the future for us to worry about? Not when one remembers that several nuclear countries embraced the plutonium route only after they had made their first weapons using highly enriched uranium (HEU).
Let us assume that Iran will maintain its weaponisation expertise. After all, a former French ambassador to Tehran publicly boasted a few years ago that he advised his Iranian friends to simply put it in a locker. François Nicoullaud writes: ‘I told him [a close friend of Rouhani] of a similar case in Europe when a country had to implement the freshly signed Chemical Weapons Convention. The researchers were given enough time and funds to archive all the data they had collected in order to protect their achievements for the future. A while later, my interlocutor happily reported: “I conveyed your message ... It worked!” My conviction that these officials were talking about the weaponization program was reinforced when the November 2011 IAEA report about the termination of that programme noted that “staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects”.’
By 2025–30, providing its weaponisation expertise is solid, Iran will be technically in a position to make, in a matter of months, a nuclear weapon that can be carried by a medium-range ballistic missile. By year 15 of the deal, producing one bomb’s worth of HEU might take less than two weeks; and after a few more years, it might only be a matter of days. And by the end of the deal, if it had not ratified the Additional Protocol, Iran could just stop its ‘voluntary’ implementation.
But it may even be a delusion to believe that we have at least gained 10–15 years. There is no reason to believe that Tehran will change its strategic behaviour. Based on what it has been doing since the mid-1980s, one can bet that the Islamic Republic will test the West’s resolve over and over, re-interpreting the agreement’s clauses, procrastinating and showing goodwill on some sites only to better hinder access to others. Remember the joint US–UK Operation Desert Fox, a major offensive against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 1998, after excessive Iraqi footdragging? And can we really count on the threat of ‘snapback’? Reimposing sanctions will be hard when hundreds of Western, Russian and Chinese companies flourish in Iran. In this sense the enforcement mechanism of the Vienna agreement is the equivalent of massive retaliation. Does Iran see it as a credible deterrent? As per the threat of military action, unless Iran did something as insane as secretly building a nuclear device, Tehran almost certainly sees such a threat as hollow.
A change is not going to come
It is unlikely that the nuclear agreement will trigger positive change in the Middle East. This is not a downside of the deal per se – more an element to be taken into account when doing a net assessment of its costs and benefits. Forget about US–Iran ‘reconciliation’ (an inappropriate word anyway, as if this was a marriage dispute): the Vienna deal is transactional, not transformational. For Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei, a modus vivendi with the US requires first an American capitulation in the Middle East. As Iranian conservatives put it, opposition to the West is in the regime’s political DNA. It can even be feared that Khamenei will want to tighten the screws to show who is boss, and limit the political space opened to President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran’s financial benefit from the lifting of sanctions will help. Western and Iranian interests will continue to diverge in Iraq (where the West seeks an inclusive, not Shia-dominated, government) and in Syria (where Iran has doubled down on its support of the regime, even though it may be ready to sacrifice Bashar al-Assad). Iran is fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) because it is in its own interests to do so. And there is already de facto coordination between the coalition and Iran to fight ISIS in Iraq, through the Baghdad government. Nobody knows how Tehran will spend the financial gains from sanctions being lifted. But what is certain is that budgetary problems will no longer be a hypothetical obstacle to the Islamic Republic’s extending its long arm even further into the region.
Could the deal have been better? Its supporters have used two slogans: ‘this is the best possible deal’, and ‘this deal now or war later’. Both are false alternatives, giving the impression that they were created for rhetorical purposes. Washington’s self-imposed deadlines left it negotiating against itself. It may very well have been wiser to wait until Iran felt the pressure of sanctions even more. At times, the United States may have given Tehran the impression that it needed a deal even more than the Iranians did. The second argument is equally spurious: few serious analysts or politicians would support immediate military action against Iran.
But the time for regrets has passed. Rejecting the deal now, with a view to agreeing a better one later, would be even riskier than accepting it – perhaps considerably more so. Thus we should make it work. This will require careful and constant monitoring: let us beware of ‘Iran fatigue’. The E3/EU+3 should supplement the massive-retaliation snapback provisions with informal understandings among the group’s members on how to respond to minor violations: a graduated response is needed. A key aspect will be the way the IAEA will judge whether or not the PMD question is settled. Here, Tehran should not be let off the hook. Finally, the E3/EU+3, or at least its four Western members, should regularly – perhaps annually – make a solemn commitment that they will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear explosive device and are ready to use any means to that effect.
What happens next is not only about Iran, but about the very future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Any precedent the Iranian crisis creates will be fully exploited by the next ‘Nth country’. At the end of the day, the Vienna deal is an experiment in strategic risk-taking. We will only know in a few years whether this was a reasonable bet.
This commentary will appear in the October–November 2015 issue of Survival.
Bruno Tertrais is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, and a Contributing Editor to Survival.