RAMESH THAKUR. The nuclear deal with Iran was a triumph of global diplomacy, not a success of US sanctions

Feb 23, 2017

The deal (with Iran) is worth defending for three reasons: it is a good accommodation of each side’s bottom lines; sanctions may not have been as decisive as the hawks seem to believe in explaining Iran’s signature; and unilateral US sanctions will prove even less effectual. 

In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, then-President Barack Obama memorably used the phrase the Washington Playbook to refer to the deeply internalised instinct of the US policy elite to respond to any foreign policy crisis by military means. If the initial light strikes failed to produce the desired effect, it must be followed by Washington doubling down and hitting progressively harder until the enemy de jour capitulates to US demands. This is confirmation of the saying often attributed to Mark Twain, to someone with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Several analysts, including most recently Tony Kevin, have recently debated in these pages whether, in effect, the dominant US policy elite is bent on sabotaging President Donald Trump’s valiant but struggling efforts to reset Russia–US relations towards a more peaceful and harmonious trajectory whose beneficial effects would be felt by the whole world.

A second area where the reflexive hawkish elite might succeed in scuppering an important Obama legacy, not the least because here their policy preferences coincide with Trump’s own instincts, is the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in Vienna on 14 July 2015 may be the most significant agreement on Middle Eastern affairs since the Oslo Accords of 1993. The deal was endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2231 (20 July 2015). Should the anti-Iran factions succeed in sabotaging the deal, the baleful effects would be felt by the whole world.

Trump has no previous diplomatic experience but he is a consummate deal maker and, as such, should be able to appreciate the merits of the JCPOA, provided someone other than Israel and its one-eyed neocon backers explains it to him. The deal is worth defending for three reasons: it is a good accommodation of each side’s bottom lines; sanctions may not have been as decisive as the hawks seem to believe in explaining Iran’s signature; and unilateral US sanctions will prove even less effectual.

Diplomatic deal making

The JCPOA was not a perfect deal for the West as it did not roll back Iran’s nuclear programme nor end all its enrichment. It was not the best possible deal for Iran because sanctions will be phased out only gradually over five to eight years, and can be restored rapidly if the agreements are violated; and because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have more intrusive access than to any other country that has not been defeated in war.

But it was a good deal because it was acceptable to all parties – the essence of diplomatic negotiations. The P5+1 (China, France, Russia, UK, US, plus Germany) were guided by three sets of considerations: to deter, dissuade and delay nuclear weaponisation by Iran; to detect any efforts at nuclear breakout by Iran; and if Iran is caught cheating, to have sufficient time to coax and/or coerce it back into the non-nuclear box. That has been achieved through a reasonably robust transparency, inspections and consequences regime on Iran’s nuclear program.

Almost two-thirds of its installed centrifuges will be removed and stored under IAEA-monitored international supervision, leaving Iran with just over 6,000 and 5,000 installed and operational centrifuges, respectively – down from the 19,000 pre-JCPOA total. Its stock of enriched uranium will be cut by 98 per cent to just 300kg.

The agreement will halt and reverse Iran’s weapons-sensitive nuclear program over the ten years, with parts of the agreement extending even longer:

  • Iran’s plutonium pathway to the bomb will be closed down completely and the highly enriched uranium (HEU) pathway will be severely curtailed. Iran will not enrich uranium to above 3.67 per cent (well below weapons-grade), nor build any new enrichment facilities or proliferation-sensitive heavy water reactors.
  • The IAEA will have a broader and deeper inspections regime with enhanced access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, uranium mines and the supply chain that supports its nuclear program. In December 2015 the IAEA submitted a report with three key findings:
    • Iran had implemented all its commitments on the agreed schedule;
    • ‘a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 … and some activities took place after 2003’. However, ‘these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities’ and there are ‘no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009’; and
    • the IAEA ‘found no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material in connection with the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme’.
  • As a result, over the next decade Iran’s ‘breakout’ time (the time needed to acquire enough fissile material for one weapon) will be extended from the current two to three months – even though sanctions since 2003 have hurt, Iran has steadily shrunk the breakout time over that period – to at least one year. Importantly, even after all elements of the deal expire in 10-15 years and Iran resumes some enrichment activities, its permanent NPT obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons will remain in place.

In return, Iran got the promise of a phased lifting of the approximately US$100 billion worth of international sanctions, an acknowledgment of its ‘inalienable’ right to an enrichment programme, and a sunset clause on the restrictions on its nuclear program and research. Even since the Lausanne agreement of 2 April 2015, while Washington talked of sanctions being suspended with ‘snapback’ provisions, Tehran used words like ‘annulled’ and ‘irrevocable’. Tehran’s red line was to retain a latent weapon capability as a hedge against an uncertain future security environment within an inspections regime of its nuclear facilities, materials and activities. Iran has accepted that sanctions can be restored in 65 days if it violates the deal.

The predictable nattering nabobs of negativism notwithstanding, the world hopefully gained a 15-year respite from the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb and of Iran being bombed. The agenda for the next ten-fifteen years is to ensure faithful implementation of the deal and change Iran’s security incentives structure in that period such that Tehran – whoever or whichever regime is in power – no longer finds nuclear weaponisation an attractive option.

The success of sanctions has been much exaggerated

Sanctions played some role in getting to this outcome, but not a decisive one. No US president has had the space in Washington’s toxic politics to enter into any dialogue with Iran’s Islamic regime. If the inflated rhetoric of the US presidential primaries is to be believed, instead of lifting sanctions, some of the candidates would have tightened the screws. The most likely result would have been a swift unravelling of the international coalition whose combined sanctions had proven quite punishing. Besides, if Tehran became convinced that sanctions would never be lifted, why would they cooperate? The hardliners’ stance would have been vindicated that any talks with Americans amounted to drinking from a poisoned chalice.

On 4 May 2003 Iran had offered Washington a ‘grand bargain’ via Tim Guldimann, Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran, as an intermediary: full cooperation on disarmament and its nuclear program, end of support to Palestinian groups, acknowledgment of Israel in return for recognition of its legitimate security interests, right to enrichment, full access to peaceful nuclear technology and lifting of sanctions. Washington, convinced the regime in Tehran was on the point of collapse, chided the ambassador instead of testing the offer.

To repeat: at that point in time, Iran was not spinning centrifuges and not enriching uranium. Its mortal enemy Saddam Hussein had been taken out by the Bush administration, the US was at the peak of its power and Iran had seen how an Iraqi army it had failed to defeat in eight years had been routed by the US in three weeks. It seems beyond perverse to claim that the policy of sanctions for the following decade was a great success in getting the same deal with Iran’s nuclear capability left intact at a considerably more advanced level and a functioning nuclear program. The cavalier US rejection of Iran’s serious offer strengthened the position of hardliners in Tehran who argued that power was the only language Americans understood.

Consistent with the general pattern of sanctions being ineffectual, Iran’s number of centrifuges increased from 164 in 2003 to 19,000 in 2013, the stockpile of low enriched uranium grew from 100kg to over 8,000kg and its uranium enrichment increased from 5 percent to just below 20 percent. Cumulatively, these advances closed the gap required to produce enough HEU for one nuclear bomb from several years to between one and two months – notwithstanding the sanctions, assassination of some nuclear scientists and cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Perversely, according to senior former US officials and analysts, limiting the policy toolkit solely to the pressure of sanctions may have delayed the search for a mutually acceptable deal. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a high-ranking former member of Iran’s political elite, noted that ‘the fact the unilateral US sanctions are not readily reversible exacerbates Iran’s scepticism about Washington’s real intentions behind sanctions and removes any incentives for cooperation with the West’.

The best time for ending a conflict is when it creates a mutually ‘hurting stalemate’: both sides realise they are not going to win the war but are paying high costs while the conflict continues. A combination of UN, US and EU sanctions regimes is potentially more effective than UN or unilateral sanctions alone. The combined tough sanctions had badly crippled Iran’s economy and damaged its international standing.

But America too paid a heavy military, financial and reputational price for its addiction to bombing and invading Muslim countries. As Washington geared up for yet another war of choice in August 2013 in Syria, the warmongering policy elite and commentariat was shocked into sobriety by the collapse of domestic, Congressional and global support.

Looking back, three factors were critical in breaking the frozen impasse. First was the election of Hassan Rouhani to succeed the flaky and incendiary Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. The West simply did not trust Ahmadinejad’s intentions, ability to reach an agreement and the integrity to implement it. Second, when military strikes came seriously on the agenda, the Western policy and expert community quickly realised that short-term satisfaction would be followed by the grim determination of a united Iran to pursue the nuclear weapons option, whatever the cost and free of outside inspectors. And third, the realisation sank in that during the decade of toughening sanctions, Iran had been able to absorb the punishment and make major advances in its nuclear weapons capability with substantially more facilities, reactors, centrifuges, scientists and R&D activities. Consequently the West’s red line was amended from no capability and no centrifuges, to no bomb.

The nuclear deal was not the result of Tehran’s capitulation, but of the election of a new president keen to explore a rapprochement with the West and the shift in the US red line, over strident Israeli objections, from ‘no enrichment’ to ‘no bomb’. Through the decade of UN and Western sanctions, Teheran had managed to expand, deepen and entrench its capability through acquisition, stockpiling and building of nuclear materials, skills and facilities. The narrower the gap between capability and breakout time to the bomb, however, the closer Iran came to being bombed. Others (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey) would race to their own bombs if they concluded Iran stood on the threshold of nuclear weapons.

Thus Iran was close to the inflection point in the dynamic and delicate regional balance of its interests vis-à-vis Sunni and Arab rivals. Moreover, Washington had graciously overthrown Tehran’s two most troublesome neighbours in Afghanistan and Iraq where the US expended the most blood and treasure over a lost decade of futile nation-building, but the biggest strategic victor was Iran.

Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003 brought a halt to Iran’s nuclear weapons program but not the expansion of capabilities. Thanks to Western strategic myopia, Iran was able to expand its regional influence dramatically without nuclear weapons. With a large population, resources and conventional military power and as the font of Shia normative authority, Iran has emerged as the regional powerhouse.

Sanctions can be a useful policy tool, but only as part of a coherent strategy that includes diplomacy, not a standalone policy that is a substitute for diplomacy.

This draws extensively on material from Ramesh Thakur, The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Ramesh Thakur, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.

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