This Deal Is No Deal
“The nuclear agreement is the best deal that Iran could have hoped for”
The nuclear deal the six world powers and Iran signed in Vienna in July will not prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. All it will do is postpone Iran getting the bomb. In exchange for Tehran’s acquiescence, the deal legitimises Iran’s nuclear achievements and strengthens its regime.
In return for a cash windfall, the end of its international isolation and even access to Western nuclear knowhow, Iran must only postpone and partially mothball its nuclear programme for the next decade. Some residual restrictions will remain for another five years. By 2028, though, Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb will be wide open. By contrast, Western powers only gain time and the ability to restart business with Tehran — a boon to sluggish European economies but also a critical lifeline to Iran.
Iran must first come clean on its past nuclear activities by providing answers to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog. But if the past is any guide, there is little hope Iran will reveal its nuclear secrets. After all, it stalled IAEA attempts to get answers for more than a decade. Sanctions should have been lifted as a result of, not in exchange for, a promise of some future Iranian compliance with its transparency obligations. Given what’s at stake, the IAEA is now under pressure not to scuttle the deal. Yet the agreement does little to enhance the chances of the agency succeedings. It does not force Iran to turn over decades-worth of documentation about its clandestine procurement; it does not give unfettered access to those scientists who hold the key to the nuclear kingdom; and it does not allow the IAEA to conduct those anytime, anywhere inspections which Western leaders had repeatedly and publicly declared to be essential to a good deal.
The Obama Administration, the British government and the other powers invested in this deal insist that the deal involves such unprecedented monitoring, access and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme that no path to a nuclear weapon remains open. This may be true for the monitoring of Iran’s declared facilities for the period during which they will be under stringent controls. But after little over a decade Iran’s nuclear facilities will be monitored only as much as they were prior to the deal, when Iran cheated the non-proliferation treaty under the noses of the international community. Besides, the agreement’s monitoring mechanisms offer no way of dealing with undeclared facilities. Much of Iran’s covert weaponisation activities took place in facilities that, thanks to the deal’s monitoring mechanisms, the international community will have a hard time inspecting. Even if Western intelligence discovers that elements of a clandestine military programme are still ongoing, a convoluted and contentious process will ensue in which the Ayatollahs have at least a temporary veto power and sensitive intelligence sources might have to be revealed.
Supporters of the deal dismiss alarm at some of the concessions they made because, they claim, the economic leverage of sanctions against the Iranian economy is retained thanks to a “snap-back” mechanism: were the Iranians to cheat, sanctions could be swiftly reinstated.
There are three reasons why this is little more than a soundbite. First, sanctions do not snap back. It took several years to build political support and diplomatic consensus for international sanctions to yield the desired effect. Iran will now have ample time to rebuild its shattered economy and devise antidotes to potential future sanctions. If Iran were to cheat on the deal, they would be able to build a bomb within a year, according to the deal’s supporters themselves. It would take longer for Iran to feel sanctions pain again. Second, a snap-back would trigger an Iranian walk-out. If sanctions are reimposed, Tehran will no longer consider itself bound by the deal. But it is not as if such a turn of events would restore the balance of forces before the deal was signed. Iran’s economy would be vastly improved and provisions allowing Tehran to continue nuclear research and development with Western cooperation would put Iranian scientists in a much better position than today. In eight years’ time, they can even apply for PhDs in the United States. Third, the snap-back mechanism is not straightforward — it requires going through a debate among the six powers, Iran and the European Union about whether there is a violation and whether it warrants reimposing sanctions. Expect pressure from the business community and the diplomats invested in the success of the deal to downplay any but the most egregious violations.
This leaves us the hope, candidly expressed by US and European dignitaries, that the deal can strengthen Iran’s moderates. In reality, the deal removes the arms embargo against Iran in five years and missile programme restrictions in eight. It rehabilitates all Iranian sanctions evaders. It delists all those Iranian entities that engaged in money-laundering over the years to circumvent sanctions. It promises eventually to remove all Revolutionary Guard entities and leaders from EU sanctions. It immediately lifts all restrictions on the Supreme Leader’s business empire. And it cancels all restrictions on business in those areas where the Revolutionary Guards and other hardliners excel. How is this going to benefit the moderates?
It is hard to argue that this is a good deal, unless, of course, one takes Tehran’s side — in which case, this is the best outcome Iran could have hoped for.