Reading the Iran Deal: The United States Deters Itself

At the center of the debate about the Iran nuclear deal are the 156 pages of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) signed in Vienna on July 14 by the Islamic Republic of Iran with the “E3/EU +3” — that is, China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, the United States, the European Union’s Representative for Foreign Affairs. Far too few of the people who have expressed views in public about the deal seem to have read it or read it very carefully, yet, as is so often said about such documents, “the devil is in the details.” Advocates of the deal insist that it closes off Iran’s path to the bomb for fifteen years with a program of intrusive inspections and that the only alternative to the deal is war. In fact, the agreement places such effective barriers in the way of American enforcement in the event of Iranian violations that it is highly likely that Iran will be able to become a nuclear weapons power far sooner than in fifteen years. As a result, the deal, as its leading critics have been saying for months, does not close off Iran’s path to the bomb.

On the contrary, by entangling American power in a web of multilateral restraints, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb. As has been widely reported, Iran agrees to reduce, but not eliminate the infrastructure of its nuclear program, declares that it will “under no circumstances” will it “ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons” and accepts inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The E3/EU +3 E3/EU +3 countries agree to immediately lift all economic sanctions.

The first 50 pages of the agreement specify details about levels of permissible uranium enrichment, enrichment research and development, size of nuclear stockpiles, numbers and kinds of centrifuges Iran can use and manufacture, information about past activities and procedures regarding transparency and access. About eighty-five pages are taken up with an astonishingly detailed and comprehensive description of the multiple economic sanctions that will be lifted and various businesses and banks involved. Several annexes elaborate forms of collaboration between the E3/EU +3 and Iran that the deal establishes.

In fact, a close reading reveals that the agreement embeds the United States in a web of multilateral processes that place significant and perhaps insuperable obstacles to both a “snap-back” of economic sanctions or resort to an American military strike should Iran be found in violation. It creates institutions that foster growing amounts of economic self-interest on the part of other countries and perhaps our own as well that will be inclined to give Iran the benefit of the doubt in such instances.

It thereby enhances the veto power of other states, including our allies, over possible American action. By intentionally embedding American decision-making in complex and time-consuming multilateral processes, it is a crowning achievement for those who oppose the unilateral use of American power. Should Congress fail to override a promised Presidential veto, we will be living with an agreement that has no effective enforcement mechanism.

The first aspect of the language of the agreement that strikes this historian is the way in which it normalizes the Islamic Republic of Iran. The agreement does not insist that Iran cease its threats to annihilate the state of Israel, abandon public rallies calling for “death to America,” end support for terrorist organizations abroad, publicly reject the absurdities of Holocaust denial, release political prisoners or end violations of human rights at home. Reading the agreement, one would not know that there is anything distinctive about a country that led the United States and the UN Security Council to engage in years of efforts to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Instead, without mentioning anything about the nature of the regime in Tehran, the E3/EU +3”E3/EU +3 countries “anticipate that the full implementation of this JPCOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”

The JCPOA envisions “an exclusively peaceful, indigenous nuclear programme” for Iran. The implementation of the agreement will “progressively allow” the E3/EU +3 countries “to gain confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s program.” The agreement is a mix of technical discussions of nuclear technology combined with the assertion that the “JCPOA marks a fundamental shift in is consideration of this issue,” reflecting the desire of the signers — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, along with officials from the European Union and the UN’s IAEA — to “build a new relationship with Iran.” Yet amidst the avowals of a new beginning, the agreement says nothing about the nature of the Iranian regime that has led to the problem in the first place.

Second, the negotiations, which began with the intent of eliminating Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, ended with an agreement that allowed Iran to do the following things: keep an enrichment capacity at the Natanz nuclear reactor of up to 5060 already installed centrifuges; continue “enrichment R & D for 10 years” with its older IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges;…test more advanced IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges; and “commence testing of up to 30 IR-6 and IR-6 centrifuges “after eight and a half years.” At the end of the eighth year, “Iran will start to manufacture agreed numbers of IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuge machines without rotors.” These machines will be stored at Natanz under the IAEA’s “continuous monitoring until they are needed under Iran’s long-term enrichment and enrichment R & D plan.”

During these fifteen years the agreement allows Iran to continue “uranium enrichment-related activities including safeguarded R & D exclusively in the enrichment facility in Natanz. There it can enrich uranium up to “3.67%,” a figure that is not adequate for bomb-making material. Throughout this same period, Iran agrees to refrain from any uranium enrichment at the Fordow nuclear facility. Though Iran agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges from 19,000 to about 6,000, its nuclear infrastructure remains intact. The agreement allows it to continue doing research on more advanced centrifuges and to replace older ones in eight years. After fifteen years, all restrictions on its program are ended, at which point Iran would be a nuclear-threshold power.

So even if Iran does not violate the terms of the agreement, it will have nuclear weapons within fifteen years. Consenting to that outcome abandons long-standing American policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — full stop.

Third, the JCPOA appears to embed in the agreement an emerging alliance between Russia and Iran and allow Iran to acquire unspecified amounts of enriched uranium through importing it from abroad. As press reports have noted, for fifteen years Iran agreed to “keep its uranium stockpile under 300 kg of up to 3.67% enriched urnaiumhexaflouride (UF6) or the equivalent in other chemical forms.” However, according to the text of the agreement itself, “enriched uranium in fabricated fuel assemblies from Russia or other sources for use in Iran’s nuclear reactors will not be counted against the above stated 300 kg UF6 stockpile, if the criteria set out in Annex I are met with regard to other sources.”

The point is repeated in section 59 on “Uranium Stocks and Fuels.” That section includes the following sentence: “Enriched uranium in fabricated fuel assemblies from other sources outside of Iran for use in Iran’s nuclear research and power reactors, including those which will be fabricated outside of Iran for the initial fuel load of the modernized Arak research reactor, which are certified by the fuel supplier and the appropriate Iranian authority to meet international standards, will not count against the 300 kg UF6 stockpile limit.”

In other words, the agreement allows Iran to retain unspecified amounts of enriched uranium so long as it comes from Russia or other sources. The other sources are not specified but presumably could include North Korea or Pakistan. The agreement appears to concede that as a result of imported enriched uranium, Iran already has more than 300 kg on hand and that this amount could be increased from future imports. If that is a correct interpretation of the text, it means that the agreement does not, in fact, limit Iran to 300 kilogram of UF6 enriched uranium. In fact, it seems to place no limit at all on the amount of enriched uranium that Iran can import in excess of 300 kg. Hence, it would appear that through imports Iran could acquire sufficient amounts of enriched uranium to build one or even more bombs.

Fourth, the deal calls for establishment of research center in nuclear physics at Iran’s Fordow facility and for the modernization of the nuclear reactor in Arak. Western supporters of the deal view such endeavors as welcome “webs of interdependence” that will produce a moderate Iran that hopefully leaves its anti-Western, anti-Israeli hatreds behind. For the Iranian regime, however, they would likely have the opposite impact. By creating vested interests in preserving the deal, they would expand the number of persons and institutions opposed to either renewing economic sanctions or a military strike in the event of Iranian violations.

The JCPOA institutionalizes a long-term, significant transfer of scientific and technological expertise from the E3/EU +3 countries to Iran. In the section “Nuclear. A. Enrichment, Enrichment R & D, Stockpile,” point six states: “Iran will convert the Fordow facility into a nuclear physics and technology centre. International collaboration including in the form of scientific joint partnerships will be established in agreed areas of research.” It envisages American, British, French, German, and Russian, Chinese and perhaps other scientists and engineers working with their Iranian counterparts. Each of the E3/EU +3 countries has scientists who know how to manufacture nuclear weapons. Even without stealing of secrets or espionage activities at such a center, the JCPOA itself suggests a significant transfer of knowledge to Iran.

But it is also very likely become a target of Iranian espionage activities. Let us assume that the vast majority of such scientists and engineers would resist such temptations; can we be confident that the Russians, who come from a country where anti-Westernism is state doctrine; the Chinese, who compete with the United States on every other level; and some among the British, French and Germans, whose universities have their fair share of anti-Americanism and antagonism to Israel, will be similarly immune? A research center is a place where scholars collaborate and learn from one another. If this one functions as it is supposed to, the Iranians will likely learn a great deal they might otherwise not have learned or learned so soon.

Section “B. Arak, Heavy Water Reprocessing” indicates still more opportunities for knowledge transfer from the E3/EU + 3 to Iran. “Iran will redesign and rebuild a modernized heavy water research reactor in Arak [one of Iran’s existing nuclear facilities] based on an agreed conceptual design, using fuel enriched up to 3.67% in a form of an international partnership which will certify the final design. The reactor will support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production for medical and industrial purposes” but “the redesigned and rebuilt Arak reactor will not produce weapons grade plutonium.” The international partnership involved in this project “will include participating E3/EU +3” parties, Iran and such other countries as may be mutually determined.”

Might the other countries include North Korea, Pakistan or perhaps Venezuela, which has close relations with Iran? The ARAK project, like the envisaged research center at Fordow, could also become a funnel for proliferation of knowledge about nuclear science and technology not only to Iran but to still more countries with whom Iran (but not the E3/EU) is on friendly terms. That is, it could facilitate proliferation of knowledge about nuclear matters around the world and undermine non-proliferation efforts. The more scientists and engineers from different countries there are at such research centers in Iran, the more such opportunities would appear to grow.

“Annex I-Nuclear Related Matters” elaborates on the modernization of the Arak heavy water research reactor. “Iran will take the leadership role as the owner and as the project manager for overall implementation of the Arak modernization project.” It would do so along with E3/EU +3 countries. A Working Group of these participants is to be “established to facilitate the redesigning and rebuilding of the reactor. An international partnership composed of Iran and the Working Group would implement the Arak modernization project.” This project would entail very significant economic opportunities for the nuclear industries of the E3/EU + 3 countries.

As the project continued, businesses working on it would deepen their interest in its successful completion. They too could become a set of multi-national pressure groups likely to give Iran the benefit of the doubt if and when disputes arose. Those pressure groups would exist not only in Russia and China but also among our allies, Britain, France and Germany. In Arak as at the proposed Fordow center, Iran stands to learn an enormous amount from the now more scientifically and technologically advanced P5 +1 country.

Fifth, the way in which the agreement restrains American initiative is evident in the agreement’s sections on dispute resolution. The JCPOA, under “Transparency Related to Enrichment” (p. 43, paragraph 77) addresses IAEA concerns about “undeclared nuclear materials and activities or activities inconsistent with the JCPOA at the location in question.” That is, it concerns Iranian efforts to circumvent the agreement with work at secret facilities separate from Natanz, Fordow and Arak. Paragraph (78) indicates that “in the absence of agreement” between Iran and the Joint Commission of the JCPOA (the E3/EU +3 and the IAEA) “the members of the Joint Commission, by consensus or by a vote of 5 or more of its 8 members, would advise on the necessary means to resolve the IAEA’s concerns.” A dispute resolution process lasting up to 24 days is established.

Critics of the agreement point out that a great deal can be hidden in 24 days, enough to transform firm evidence into ambiguities and grey areas that then become subject to interpretation. The stipulation that only five of the eight members of the JCPOA’s Joint Commission would be needed to advice in such matters was apparently inserted to prevent a coalition of Russia, China and Iran from preventing enforcement measures from being implemented. Yet, as indicated above, the JCPOA “partnerships,” the research center at Fordow, and the modernization project at ARAK will strengthen the determination of those interest groups and political leaders in Britain, France and Germany who would oppose renewed sanctions and even more so an American military strike, even in the event of Iranian violations.

The result of this growing web of persons and institutions that the agreement creates is that if the United States concluded that Iran had violated the agreement, it could find itself outvoted not only by Russia, China and Iran but also by some of our European allies. At that point, enforcement could mean loss of billions of pounds or euros or destruction of entire projects in the event of an American military campaign from the air. Faced with opposition from our European allies, the President of the United States could be in the position of choosing to enforce the agreement through military action in the face of opposition from four or more of the E#/EU +3 signers. The “partnerships” and” cooperation” built into the agreement could very well serve as a deterrent against American action.

The presence of scientists and engineers United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the International Atomic Energy Agency at Fordow and Arak could limit American initiative in another grim manner. In the event that the United States concluded that Iran had been cheating and was close to building a nuclear bomb, the President of the United States would now be faced with a hostage situation on a potentially far larger scale than that of the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979. The well-placed and well connected scientists and engineers of five major powers could now become human shields whose lives would clearly be at risk in the event of a possible American military strike. Or perhaps they would become hostages or be arrested and charged with espionage if there were a “snap-back” to economic sanctions.

An American President could, of course, decide to strike anyway, in which case the scientists and engineers from the E3/EU +3 countries would most likely be killed by the Iranians in retaliation or in the strike. Or, as Serbia did during UN intervention in the Balkans Wars in the 1990s, perhaps they would be visibly held hostage in proximity to nuclear installations, their plight broadcast in global media and social media. For Iran, the research center at Fordow and the modernization project at Arak would not only be a source of valuable scientific and technological knowledge. They would also constitute an insurance policy against an American military strike.

The eighty some pages that deal with the lifting of sanctions are an eye opener. Few readers are probably aware of just how many firms and individuals have been affected by the laboriously constructed sanctions regime. The list is too long to discuss here, but it defies common sense to believe that there will be a “snap back” of sanctions against the multiple companies, both large multi-national corporations and small and medium-sized specialized firms from many different countries, at a time when they are profiting from ongoing economic activity in Iran.

Once the sanctions are lifted, a gold rush to Iran will take place. Profits and the promise of jobs in stressed European and Russian economies will create powerful interest groups and popular sentiment against doing anything to upset the status quo. Enforcement of the agreement could be described by politicians as a threat to both peace and prosperity.
This agreement with Iran was the best the United States could attain once the Iranians concluded that an American military strike was not at all likely, and that carefully constructed economic sanctions could be dismantled by making some short-term concessions that President Obama could use to gain support for the deal in Congress.

It is an excellent deal for Iran, one that insures that it will become a nuclear-threshold state in fifteen years and makes it likely it will achieve that goal much sooner. It is a deal that creates interests and institutions that will serve to deter the United States from acting and will protect Iran in the event that the latter violates its terms. The enforcement mechanisms of this agreement lack credibility. When the credible use of power in the form of increased economic sanctions or threat of force was and is absent, diplomacy alone cannot bend an adversary to our will. In this case it will not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state

The Iran agreement has not materialized primarily because the Iranians are more clever negotiators than the E3/EU +3 or because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are naïve. It has come to pass because Obama and others especially in Europe have willingly and deliberately created a diplomatic structure that restrains the use of American power by embedding it in a web of multilateral institutions and proliferating interests in other countries. Should this or a future President of the United States conclude that intensified economic sanctions or a military strike from the air are the only ways to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he/she will have to do so in the face of a coalition pleading for inaction composed of both our adversaries and, most probably, our allies as well. It would be a coalition fostered by the very terms this agreement.

The most likely outcomes of the Iran agreement are nuclear proliferation, more rapid spread of knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons around the world, American inaction in the face of Iranian violations and then, sooner rather than later, an Iran with nuclear weapons. From Iran’s point of view, it is an excellent agreement. Diplomacy must exist in tandem with power. It should not be a form of deterring ourselves from protecting our vital national interest. The Iran deal, the JCPOA of July 14, 2015 is not only a mistake of historic proportions for the United States. It is a self-inflicted wound rooted in decades of efforts to restrain the exercise of American power in world politics. The US Congress should reject it.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.
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