Understanding the ramifications of the framework agreement with Iran on nuclear development is really difficult. As the versions distributed by Iran and the US differ in important respects, and positions are continually changing, we shall examine just a few of the underlying issues using President Obama’s view of the negotiations as presented in his interview with Thomas Friedman (New York Times April 5) and using the comments of Olli Heinonen a former IAEA deputy director (Times of Israel April 7).

The number one issue is verification. What inspections will be allowed to ensure that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the agreement?.

The key point of the President’s position is, ‘what we’re going to be doing is setting up a mechanism whereby, yes, I.A.E.A. [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors can go anyplace.” -Anywhere in Iran? I {Friedman} asked. – “That we suspect,” the president answered. “Obviously, a request will have to be made. Iran could object, but what we have done is to try to design a mechanism whereby once those objections are heard, that it is not a final veto that Iran has, but in fact some sort of international mechanism will be in place that makes a fair assessment as to whether there should be an inspection, and if they determine it should be, that’s the tiebreaker, not Iran saying, ‘No, you can’t come here.’

How did Olli Heinonen react on this issue? “The IAEA has extra rights – in principle it can go to other, non-nuclear sites,” he said. “When I read the fact sheets, it is not clear what extra rights the IAEA has particularly regarding undeclared sites. The IAEA should have reasonable short-advance notice — they should be able to go anywhere, but with a reason.”

‘What’s needed, he said, “is to make a model for this kind of access – to account for security concerns and safety concerns for the inspectors – and if Iran immediately doesn’t follow it, it is in non-compliance and there is a quick response.” The question of this quick response also concerns Heinonen, who said he was not certain that the much-discussed one-year time to breakout will give the international community enough time to respond effectively…..He {Heinonen} believes that if Iran tries to engage in covert nuclear development, the reaction time of the international community could be too slow – and the so-called “snapback” of sanctions could take too long to register an impact…..“When Natanz was revealed in August 2002, it took half a year until February 2003 before the IAEA got in,” he said. “The explanation was that this was the first place and said that it was a pilot plant. They used the half-a-year to build the pilot plant, in order to cover up the other place where they did research and development.” The same deceptive policy, he said, also underscored the development of the secret underground facility at Fordo.’

Clearly, what is needed is a verification/compliance mechanism that works in weeks rather than months and takes into account Iran’s proclivities to deceive. Iranian military bases should also be subject to inspection as undeclared nuclear research may well be going on there. One can make a long list of additional conditions to ensure that Iran is in compliance.

If it were possible to impose all of these conditions, there would be no need for protracted negotiations. The US could simply dictate the terms. Unfortunately, Iran has a say in any agreement that it signs. If Iran considers the terms overly onerous, it can walk away from the table, live with the sanctions (as it has been doing) and continue its nuclear program. Today, Iran is within three months of having enough enriched material to construct a nuclear warhead. Under the purported terms of the framework agreement, that three month period would be rolled back to twelve months. If there is no deal, that three month period could. soon be a few days.

Because the effectiveness of sanctions depends on the participation of all the major powers, the Obama administration is seriously constrained in the conditions that it can impose. If Iran can convince the other parties to the negotiations that the US is imposing excessive restrictions, they (particularly Russia and China) will use it as a pretext for for lifting their sanctions. Russia is trying to expand its sphere of influence in the Middle East and sees Iran as a possible client state. It has stated that it will provide S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran in spite of US and Israeli objections. It is already providing grain and construction materials for oil under a barter agreement. It’s hard to imagine China passing up commercial deals with Iran, given the slightest opportunity to lift the sanctions.

Our analysis of the negotiations assumes the US has ruled out military action. In the New York Times interview, President Obama stated, “We know that a military strike or a series of military strikes can set back Iran’s nuclear program for a period of time — but almost certainly will prompt Iran to rush towards a bomb, will provide an excuse for hard-liners inside of Iran to say, ‘This is what happens when you don’t have a nuclear weapon: America attacks.’

It is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, more than Israel, that are threatened by a nuclear Iran. There is a fear that they will also try to develop a nuclear weapons capability which would further destabilize the region. The Saudis and Gulf States are technologically backward and would have to buy weapons rather than develop their own nuclear capability. A regional alliance to contain Iran by the major Sunni states, Turkey and Egypt, together with the Saudis and Gulf States is not likely because of the rivalry between Egypt and Turkey for leadership in the Arab world.

Although President Obama has given assurances that the United States will back Israel if it is attacked by Iran, there remains considerable fear of a nuclear Iran – for good reason. Because Israel is so small, a few nuclear missiles striking Israel would have a devastating effect. US support after such a strike would not reverse the devastation.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has unanimously passed a bill that would give Congress a (limited) role in removing sanctions on Iran. It is likely to fly through the Senate and House with strong bi-partisan support – enough to override any veto. Although the administration originally opposed the bill, the President indicates that he will sign it. (He had no choice.) Passage of the bill should strengthen the hand of US negotiators slightly as they can now argue that the Senate will not accept a deal with weak verification.