Iran Nuclear Deal: There Is No Alternative

On April 3, President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to fill him in on the P5+1 deal with Iran. But the prime minister wasn’t buying. He told the President:

“The deal based on this framework would threaten Israel’s survival (and would) legitimize Iran’s nuclear program, bolster Iran’s economy, and increase Iran’s aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond.” Later, Netanyahu said that any deal with Iran must “include a clear and unambiguous Iranian recognition of Israel’s right to exist.”

The fervor of the prime minister’s rejection of the existing deal and his new condition needed for Israeli approval indicates how Israel’s ardent Evangelical and Jewish supporters in the U.S. will react to the deal.

U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (Republican, Illinois) rushed to make that perfectly clear:

“Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler. . .Under today’s deal, the United States and its international partners will dismantle the sanctions regime against Iran, while Iran, the world’s biggest exporter of terrorism, will be allowed to keep vast capabilities to make nuclear weapons.”

Lifting any more sanctions on Iran, Kirk argues, “dooms the Middle East to yet another war. . .We should be a reviewing presence to see how this unfolds. . . which we all know is going to end with a mushroom cloud somewhere near Tehran [after an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran].”

President Obama has a hard sell ahead. But just how “bad” or “good” is this deal?

Details of the Deal

Let’s start with the deal. It has the following provisions:

  • Iran accepts the “Additional Protocol” to its IAEA “Nuclear Safeguard Agreement” allowing additional intrusive and unannounced IAEA inspections for the next 25 years.
  • No new enrichment facilities may be built for 15 years. No uranium will be enriched above 3.7 percent, a level suitable for commercial power plants, but too low to be used in a nuclear weapon, for 10 years.
  • The current stockpile of 10,000 kilograms of 3.7% low-enriched uranium will be drastically reduced to 300 kilograms of 3.7% enriched uranium for 15 years.
  • The number of centrifuges at Natanz will be reduced to 6,104 from the current 19,000. Only IR-1 centrifuges, the earliest and least advanced of Iran’s centrifuges, may be used for 10 years.
  • Fordow will be converted, with international assistance, to a research facility. No enrichment or fissile materials will be allowed on the site for 15 years.
  • The Arak heavy water reactor core will be destroyed and replaced with a new core that cannot produce weapons grade plutonium. Iran commits not to build any plutonium reprocessing facilities or any new heavy water reactors for 15 years.
  • Iran will address through the IAEA concerns over its possible weaponization work.

Read more about the deal here.

 Sanctions Relief

  • In return for carrying out the deal, subject to vigorous inspection, Iran gets sanctions relief.
  • The parameters announced on April 2, 2015 for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by the P5+1 and Iran do not immediately relieve, suspend or terminate any sanctions on Iran. The only sanctions relief in force is the relief provided pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) reached on November 24, 2013 and extended through June 30, 2015.
  • The parameters announced on April 2, 2015 provide a path for sanctions on Iran to be suspended and eventually terminated in exchange for IAEA verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments.
  • As of today and until a JCPOA is concluded, other than the sanctions relief provided under the JPOA, all U.S. sanctions remain in place and will continue to be vigorously enforced.
  • The sanctions relief provided for under the JPOA reached on November 24, 2013 remains in effect, as described in published Guidance

More details here.

Temporary Sanctions Relief Given as an Inducement to Iran

The sanctions relief given to Iran in 2013 under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and scheduled to expire on June 30 2015 included the following:

  • Sanctions were lifted on:
    • Petrochemical exports
    • The Iranian automobile industry
    • Gold and precious metals
    • The supply and installation of spare parts for civil aviation
  • The U.S. agreed to pause its efforts to further reduce Iranian crude oil exports
  • Iranian funds held abroad were allowed to be used for:
    • Imports of food and agricultural products
    • Imports of medicine and medical devices
    • Medical expenses incurred abroad
    • Tuition payments for Iranians studying abroad

More details here.

Next Steps

Between now and June 30, technical specifications need to be written that translate the deal’s principles into operational steps. In the interim, the opposition to the deal — Israel, Saudi Arabia, much of the U.S. Congress and, of course, the hardliners in Tehran – will do their utmost to prevent the deal from ever coming into force.

Ayatollah Khamene’i is 75 years old and was operated on for prostate cancer in September 2014. He has recently reconstituted the Assembly of Experts charged with picking his successor. The new Assembly is packed with hardline, conservative clerics. The modestly reformist Ayatollah Rafsanjani was defeated in his efforts to be its chairman. Just as U.S. deal opponents suggested the next U.S. president could abandon the deal, so it may be in Iran.

But we are likely to hear the most bitter opposition primarily from Republican Senators and would be Republican presidential candidates. Senator Kirk is only one of the passionate opponents. At the same time, wealthy donors, primarily Jewish, are directing their funding to those opponents.

See this piece for further details.

Alternatives to the Deal

If this deal is so bad, how do its opponents propose dealing with Iran? Only two other possibilities have been suggested.

Some advocate ever more stringent sanctions, sanctions so punishing that the Iranians would either cave to U.S. demands and abandon their nuclear program or else would be overthrown by the suffering Iranian people.

More than one fallacy lies at the heart of the “tighten sanctions” policy. First, the coalition that the U.S. put together – best exemplified by the P5+1 who carried out the recently concluded negotiations in Lausanne – is a fragile one. China was the prime violator of the U.N. and American sanctions before the negotiations. It shipped materials essential for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs clandestinely and sometimes not so clandestinely. There is every reason to believe it will revert to that role if sanctions were tightened. Similarly, with the new foreign policy aggressiveness of President Putin, Russia would be highly likely to join with China to supply Iran with whatever it needed – both to quiet domestic discontent and also to advance its nuclear program.

A second fallacy is that the regime would cave to U.S. demands if the screws were tightened. That belief underestimates the extent to which the Iranians value their nuclear program. Soon after his assuming his leadership, Ayatollah Khamene’i made clear the significance of Iran’s mastering nuclear technology:

“They are opposed to the progress and development of the Iranian nation. They do not want an Islamic and independent country to achieve scientific progress and possess advanced technology in the Middle East region, a region which possesses most of the world’s oil and which is one of the most sensitive regions in the world. They are worried about anything that can help the regional nations to achieve independence, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. They want this populous region, which is rich in mineral resources, to be in need of them forever. This is why they are opposed to our possessing modern technology and to our youngsters making progress in scientific areas.”

For the Ayatollah, Iran’s success in mastering nuclear technology is the hallmark of the Islamic revolution in Iran and proof of its success. That is not something that could be given up, even in the face of the most stringent sanctions.

The third fallacy lies in the belief that the regime is vulnerable to a popular uprising. In fact, public opinion polls indicate that the nuclear program is wildly popular in Iran. Further, the regime has the capacity and the will to snuff out even the slightest whiff of popular resentment. Just two examples. The leaders of the “Green Movement,” the failed effort to elect a reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential election have been held under house arrest for over four years. Mohammad Khatami, the president of Iran from 1997 to 2005 has been under a gag order. The press is forbidden to report on anything he does or says.

The fourth fallacy of the “ramp up sanctions” policy is that in response to tightened sanctions, the regime would ramp up the nuclear program and, undoubtedly, ramp up the weaponization of its nuclear technology. In a struggle meant to overthrow the regime, nuclear weapons would seem an obvious and likely choice. Under the old sanctions the regime was able to vastly expand its nuclear program. The same would be true no matter how stringent the sanctions. (See China’s sanction busting above.) But the new incentive for the regime would be the threat of its demise leading to the decision to go for the bomb as a deterrent. In short, this policy would achieve precisely the opposite of what it intended to achieve.

So what’s left? John Bolton made the alternative:

“The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”

The alternative is to go to war with Iran. But what would be the likely consequences were the U.S. to bomb Iran? No doubt its nuclear physical infrastructure would be destroyed – the underground centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow and the above ground gaseous diffusion plant outside Isfahan and the Arak plutonium reactor. But the intellectual infrastructure – the nuclear knowledge and the army of young nuclear physicists that Iran has trained – would remain. Given how porous even the most stringent sanctions would be, Iran would begin to rebuild its nuclear plants and likely head straight for a bomb.

But worse, Iran would seek immediate retaliation. Its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen would ramp up their efforts. Iranian trained terrorists from those groups and others would be enlisted to attack soft targets outside the Middle East. The Iranian air force – as outdated and outgunned as it is — would seek to damage Saudi oil export facilities to drive up oil prices. Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf would lay down mines seeking to harass shipping.

The list goes on. Iran has retaliatory capacity and would be motivated to use it. So forget the surgical strikes. The U.S. would be going to war with Iran – war with yet another Muslim country.

In short, there really is no alternative to a deal.

Obama Promise

Congratulations are due the President and Secretary Kerry for bringing these negotiations to a successful conclusion – at least so far.

The President has been totally consistent in his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He always held out the possibility of using force to do so. But a military strike is the least good option, the best being a diplomatic solution. The President appears to have accomplished just that.

(For early Obama statements on preventing Iran from going nuclear, see this piece.)

Netanyahu’s Dilemma

Now that the deal has been reached, the likelihood of an Israeli military strike is as close to zero as it has ever been. The options for Netanyahu are instead to continue to stoke up his domestic allies and hope that they can find a way to torpedo the deal — yet another extraordinary example of Netanyahu’s interference in U.S. policy making.

Iran’s Oil Exports

Iran is desperate to export more oil. According to the new deal, it cannot do so until the IAEA certifies that it has met all its conditions. But those conditions are onerous and will be time consuming to fulfill. In short, the earliest any new oil could emerge on world markets is likely to be at least six months after the signing of the formal specifications, scheduled for June 30, 2015. And that’s optimistic.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago.



One Response to "Iran Nuclear Deal: There Is No Alternative"

  1. laotzu10   April 10, 2015 at 5:20 am

    Your entire position rests on extreme fear of Iran:. There are many aspects of this deal which are either amorphous or prevarications. The U.S. has the capacity to blow Iran off the map now…Why wait til they have more time and energy to launch a first strike?