The 24 November deadline for a nuclear agreement with Iran came and went with no deal and the likelihood of further delays in 2015. Both the Obama Administration and its European allies are adamant that we have never before been as close to a deal as we are today. Delicate diplomatic issues, after all, require time.
There is little reason to believe them. All evidence points in the opposite direction. The international community can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme only at the price of meeting Tehran’s red lines. And the problem is that Iran will only agree to restrictions on its nuclear activities as long as they do not ultimately bar its path to a bomb. In the 12 months of negotiations conducted under the interim agreement, Iran won one major policy victory and gained four major concessions in the nuclear domain.
First, Iran has successfully made Western Middle East policy a hostage to the nuclear deal. Iran continues to pursue its hegemonic ambitions in the region. Tehran has stayed the course in Syria and kept up its support for Assad: training, advising and financing Assad’s forces and guiding their brutality over the past 45 months. Their ferocity, coupled with Western lack of support for a viable moderate opposition, is what prompted the rise of Islamic State in Syria. Iran’s brazen support for the Shia sectarian drive in Iraq did the rest.
Going after Assad and defending legitimate Sunni interests in Iraq is one promising way to complement a successful military campaign against IS. Yet Iran has persuaded Washington that seeking confrontation with Iran over Damascus could jeopardise a nuclear deal. The Obama White House has bought into Iran’s narrative that there is a convergence of interests between Washington and Tehran over stopping the advance of IS in Syria and Iraq. These two assumptions have consigned Western efforts against IS to a disastrous stalemate and handed Iran the strategic upper hand in the region. By strengthening Iran’s position, Washington has also broadcast weakness to its allies and adversaries alike. This weakness spills over into the nuclear negotiations as Iran is persuaded that Western refusal to go after Iran’s proxies means that our lack of resolve can be leveraged in the nuclear domain as well.
Second, the international community has already conceded that Iran will never have to suspend enrichment activities as stipulated under six UN Security Council Resolutions passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Moreover, in a final agreement, Iran will have a right to enrich uranium formally recognised. Few remember that Iran was building its enrichment facilities in secret and that, had they not been exposed twice, in 2002 and 2009, Iran might have had a nuclear bomb by now. In 2005 Iran was declared in non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it is a signatory; in 2006 the International Atomic Energy Agency referred Iran’s non-compliance to the Security Council. It was because of its enrichment activities that the Security Council considers Iran’s programme a global threat. It is because of Iran’s refusal to fulfil its NPT obligations that its economy is under sanctions.
Even for NPT-compliant member states, enrichment is not a sacrosanct right. The traditional position of the US government, at least, is that the NPT does not grant a right to enrich. Most NPT members obtain their nuclear fuel from a handful of suppliers.
To reward a country that was declared in non-compliance with the NPT with an industrial-sized nuclear-enrichment programme effectively creates a new benchmark. Henceforth, every nation on earth will expect at the very least to be treated like Iran, even if it chooses to initially pursue a nuclear programme in violation of the NPT. The enrichment capacity that will eventually be granted to Tehran will be the baseline for demands by other regional powers such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to have their own enrichment programmes.
Third, Iran has broken the growing tide of sanctions that was crippling its economy and deprived Western governments of a critical component of their strategy. Iran’s reward, though reversible if talks were to collapse, is double. Not only has it won a victory on enrichment even before a deal is done, but it has denied the West the critical sanction leverage that it previously wielded. By entering an interim agreement that deprives the West of the power to enact new sanctions, Iran can slowly erode their power without making meaningful concessions. Iran and the Obama Administration seem to agree on one point — that the only alternative to the current negotiating framework is war. With such a choice, Western governments will negotiate until Judgment Day rather than reimpose sanctions and risk war. Iran’s negotiating stance will therefore improve over time.
Fourth, Iran has removed its ballistic missile programme and its past military activities linked to the nuclear programme from the negotiations. It has already managed to sweep its missile programme under the carpet — although that is equally forbidden under UN Chapter VII resolutions. The six world powers have also agreed that lack of progress by the IAEA in its efforts to get Iranian answers on the possible military dimensions of its nuclear programme will not hamper a deal. Yet there is no chance a final agreement can put together a satisfactory implementation and verification mechanism unless Iran’s past clandestine activities are fully disclosed, investigated and accounted for. Any agreement that sidesteps such issues will inevitably only be able to verify Iranian good behaviour in known nuclear facilities — but not be able to detect any potential misbehaviour in clandestine installations. Given Iran’s history of deception, it is a recipe for disaster.
And fifth, Iran has eroded Western positions on key components of any future agreement, ensuring that, should these gains be consolidated into a final deal, Iran’s pathway to a nuclear bomb will be at most delayed, but not impeded. It looks as if a deal will eventually tie Tehran’s hands, ever so gently, for ten years at most. For a US President in his second term, even such a deal looks like a historic legacy. For a zealous regime driven by imperial ambitions and a religious sense of history, ten years is a blink of an eye and a promise that, within a decade, Iran will resume its dash to the bomb unimpeded.