Nuclear Negotiations Ain't Beanbag

The landmark agreement between six world powers, including the United States, and Iran, curbing Iran’s uranium enrichment and nuclear program activities has shaken the foundations upon which an existing order of things in the Middle East has rested for decades.

For many years, Iran’s legacy of terror – from its seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran to its bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, from its arming of Hezbollah in Lebanon to its support of Hamas in Gaza, from its support of Syria’s brutal president Bashir al-Assad to its gaudy spectacles of Holocaust denial – had been enough to give at least some nations with a moral compass cause to shun the regime and to impose sanctions on it.

But it was Iran’s ambitions to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities, which Iran steadfastly denied even as it aggressively increased its capacity to enrich uranium, that ultimately prompted a consortium of countries to impose highly restrictive sanctions on Iran, sanctions that over the course of the past several years wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy and brought Iran to the negotiating table seeking relief.

In parallel with a kind of charm offensive beginning in 2013 on the part of Iran, during which Ayatollah Rohani purportedly tweeted Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews around the world and in which a breakthrough cell phone call occurred between the Ayatollah and President Obama during the United Nations General Assembly, complex and lengthy negotiations between our countries began in Vienna that culminated in the agreement reached last week, and that will soon be before the United States Congress for debate.

Many are praising the deal for what it promises: a significant slowdown in Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium; strict limits on the extent of enrichment; repurposing of nuclear facilities; and comprehensive inspection capabilities.

Others find much to dislike in the deal, in large part because of what the deal does not do. It does not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability. Critics says it simply kicks the can down the road (in ten years, Iran can resume enriching at a much more rapid rate.) The agreement provides for much less robust inspection opportunities than the original, loudly touted “anytime, anywhere” requirement; and, above all, provides enormous sanctions relief to the Iranian regime in the near term.

The Jewish community and other segments of the American public are sharply divided on the deal. While many want to support and reward President Obama’s and Secretary Kerry’s relentless efforts to give diplomacy a chance, and fervently want to believe that a deal like this will slow Iran’s march to nuclear capability and, perhaps, force Iran to become a more compliant and more moderate nation, many others see this deal as throwing Israel and our other Middle East allies under the bus on little more than Iran’s promise to behave itself (while enjoying $150 billion in sanctions relief.)

Thanks to the Nuclear Free Iran Act of 2015, enacted by Congress despite the initial objections of the administration, Congress will now undertake a comprehensive review of the proposed agreement. There will be hearings in both houses of Congress, and the pro’s and con’s of the deal will be debated front and center for the next sixty days.

Get ready for some interesting moments in Washington.

Given that many highly informed experts and commentators in this country and in Israel have analyzed the agreement, there’s probably no clamor to read yet another piece on the pluses and minuses of the deal.

Still, there may be an interest in a straightforward, FAQ analysis of the deal, for the person who hasn’t had the time to read the entire agreement or inventory the many op-eds and columns picking the deal apart. In that spirit, and for what it’s worth, here’s my take on the agreement, its strengths and weaknesses, and in the end, whether we should support it or not. Have a look:

Why shouldn’t we support the agreement? Isn’t this a good deal?

The agreement achieves some good things. It significantly limits Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium and places limits, for a period of time, on acquisition of equipment that could be used for non-peaceful purposes. It repurposes some facilities to R & D and non-enrichment facilities. It provides for continuous inspection of some of Iran’s capabilities, and allows inspection upon request in many others. It gives us more access and information regarding Iran’s capabilities than we’ve ever had in the past.

So what’s the problem?

First, the sanctity of Iran’s commitments to reduce enrichment etc. depend entirely upon the ability of inspection teams from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to get access to Iran’s facilities and equipment. Initially in these negotiations, recognizing how important that access will be, the US and other signatories insisted on “anytime, anywhere” access. Under the proposed agreement, however, the IAEA has to notify Iran ahead of time that it would like to inspect, and Iran has the right to respond. In all, it could take 24 days for an inspection to take place. This is a long time when you’re dealing with a country that has been extraordinarily deceptive regarding its nuclear activities.

Second, the agreement will provide relief from many crippling economic sanctions almost immediately. Experts estimate that Iran could receive between $100 – $150 billion in relief from sanctions soon after the agreement is implemented. What will Iran do with this money? There is nothing in the agreement that prevents Iran from using these vast sums of money to support Hezbollah with weapons or funds that could be used against Israel, or to support Syrian president Assad, or to engage in terror or repression anywhere in the world.

Third, the agreement only prohibits Iran from enriching uranium and engaging in other suspect and forbidden activities for 10 – 15 years. Even if Iran complies to the letter of the agreement, it will be in a position to have weapons-grade uranium immediately after the expiration of this part of the agreement, by President Obama’s own admission. Ten years will pass in a heartbeat. During that time Iran will have accumulated enormous sums of money (sanctions relief) and will then be positioned to export further terror, unfettered by the restrictions imposed by the agreement.

Suppose Iran cheats. Isn’t there a “snapback” provision that would enable us to re-impose sanctions immediately?

The snapback provision, as some are calling it, in the agreement does not provide for immediate re-imposition of sanctions. In fact, it could take 45 – 60 days for the required processes to be completed. The snapback provision is more like an arbitration clause in a contract – there’s a process by which a complaint is made, a response is made, an argument is heard, and can actually be appealed. In other words, if Iran violates the agreement, it will have plenty of time before 1) the violation is discovered; 2) a complaint can be formulated and heard; and 3) sanctions could be applied.

So, if the inspectors think Iran is cheating, Iran would still have months in which to do whatever it was that raised the suspicions of the inspectors. And then, of course, there’s that $100 billion infusion.

But the President and the Secretary of State have worked so hard on this. Aren’t we undermining their authority and efforts by objecting to this agreement?

President Obama and Secretary Kerry deserve great credit for their tireless efforts to reduce the risk of Iran’s developing the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, as well as creating a period of time during which Iran’s political climate might moderate and in which it might join the community of nations. They deserve our thanks for seeking peaceful resolution of a very serious and threatening risk.

Even as we respect and appreciate their efforts, however, we cannot unquestioningly accept assertions that the deal is good and the very best one we could hope to achieve.

We live in a democracy, and the essence of our democratic process is debate. This agreement has far-reaching implications and we owe it to ourselves and future generations to be fully engaged and to debate the strengths and weaknesses of this proposed agreement.

Moreover, as we are frequently reminded when we travel, “If you see something, say something.” When it comes to matters of security, we have to say something. We are being nothing less than loyal Americans in expressing our concerns for what we see as real problems with this agreement.

But what’s the alternative? Isn’t military action the only other option?

There are alternatives, and it is unfortunate that those who are concerned about the agreement are being cast as “war-mongers” or somehow preferring military confrontation to diplomacy. 

If Congress disapproves this deal (i.e., refuses to support the waiver of the significant sanctions upon Iran), and is able to override the President’s anticipated veto of that disapproval, the sanctions against Iran would remain in force.

It is entirely possible that the European Union and other countries would then proceed to lift their own sanctions, but US sanctions are very significant, and are a critical, if not dispositive reason why Iran came to the negotiating table in the first place. Moreover, the influence of the United States remains enormous and our financial reach imposing. Our sanctions, and perhaps even stronger sanctions that Congress might then adopt, would continue to make a very real difference.

In sum, it is abundantly clear from the agreement itself that sanctions relief is absolutely essential to Iran. The only reason Iran was willing to discuss its nuclear program is because of the economic pain of sanctions. This is clear from even a casual reading of the agreement. A great deal of attention is dedicated to what sanctions must be removed and when.  The bottom line is that If US sanctions remained in place, Iran would continue to be in a significantly compromised economic position.

Suppose we don’t sign the agreement. Wouldn’t Iran just immediately begin enriching uranium at a rapid pace?

It is possible, but not only would our sanctions be in effect, Iran’s underlying motivations for developing a nuclear program would be out in the open for the world to see. Rapid progress towards enrichment would demonstrate conclusively that Iran’s goal was never purely peaceful civilian nuclear applications, but always applications like military applications that require more sophisticated processes. Why else would it begin engaging in activities that would be forbidden under the agreement?

Iran would also be subjecting itself to further isolation by the United States and by Arab countries who are distrustful of its intentions and would find its resumption of enrichment to be confirmation of Iran’s objectives.

More than likely, Iran would attempt to use its diplomatic power to align supportive countries against the United States and its non-signatory allies, thus beginning another phase of negotiations to make this deal better, and addressing many of the concerns expressed above.

Isn’t this the only possible deal? What’s the alternative?

This is not the only deal that is possible; this is merely the deal that has been negotiated. It’s a bit like having your attorney negotiate a deal with another attorney. That attorney has accepted the agreement on behalf of his client. Your attorney has said, “I’ll take it back to my client for review.”

We are the client.

Our negotiating team, led by Secretary Kerry, is our attorney. If we reject the deal, our “attorneys” will have to back to the table and say, “We couldn’t persuade our client. Here’s what we need to get the deal done.”

Will it be embarrassing for the administration? Perhaps.

But, as the saying goes, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”

Neither are nuclear negotiations.

If we want a better deal, we have the right – and the obligation – to strive to achieve it, even if our egos and feelings get bruised along the way.

This nation is strong enough to undertake a course correction. It will be far better to deal with that than it will be to deal with an even more aggressive, dangerous and unrepentent Iran.

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