Last month’s nuclear deal with Iran has set off a cacophony of pro and con acrimony pitting public officials, academic experts and pundits against one another. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the interim accord a “historic mistake.” The Wall Street Journal headlined columnist Bret Stephens’ commentary that Geneva was “Worse Than Munich.” Proponents took quite a different view. Speaking to the country the evening of the deal, President Barack Obama declared “diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure — a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.” Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the accord “realistic” and “practical.”
The divide is no sanctimonious dust-up, but a genuine difference of opinion over the best strategy to halt Iran’s suspect nuclear program. The president’s stance — the hope that good-faith negotiation, however difficult, coupled with the continued application of the most onerous sanctions can resolve the issue — butts against the argument that negotiations and minimal sanctions relief simply oxygenates a regime on its last legs and riddled by economic and political dysfunction. In this latter view, now is not the time to sit with the Iranians. As famed human rights activist Natan Sharansky put it in the Wall Street Journal, now is the time to be firm and resolute. Both attributes, he argues, brought down the Soviet Union and can bring down Iran as well.
However, history finds that both positions don’t quite compute. The fact remains, all courses of action mark a bet. Contrary to Sharansky’s portrait, Washington’s effort to bring down the Soviet Union marked a mixture of engagement and isolation. Even as Moscow’s union began to crack, the United States kept the lines of communication open. In the end, talking did not prevent collapse.
But then there remains the other talk history. Here is where North Korea becomes the Iran-like poster child Netanyahu repeatedly reminds the international community about. And, indeed, the story is unsettling. In 1994, Washington and Pyongyang entered into an understanding known as the Agreed Framework. Under the accord, North Korea consented to freeze nuclear operations and eventually dismantle the suspect Yongbyong nuclear reactor. In return, the United States assisted in the provision of heating oil for North Korea, while assembling an international consortium to build two nuclear power plants. Then, in 2005, Pyongyang agreed to go further and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A year later, it exploded its first nuclear device.
This rather poor precedent for diplomatic success has multiple antecedents. Israel proved to be the first. During years of construction, the Israeli government represented to Washington that it intended the Dimona reactor to be a civil nuclear research enterprise. President John Kennedy didn’t buy it and committed himself to stop it. Correspondence between the young president and the wily David Ben-Gurion became testy, only to fall away with the assassination of the American leader.
In South Asia, the United States went beyond talk to stop two nuclear programs by applying economic and military sanctions against both India and Pakistan, only to find that it had to shelve the effort against Islamabad as a greater priority — Pakistan’s importance in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan — took precedence. For India, U.S. sanctions proved more a nuisance and were entirely lifted during the George W. Bush administration.
Cases where diplomacy proved more effective — Taiwan and South Korea toyed with the nuclear weapons option — reflected the heavy reliance each placed on the American security blanket. Washington’s clear message: Alliances will be in jeopardy if allies proliferate.
Clearly, Iran is no South Korea or Taiwan, but neither is it North Korea. As Wendy Sherman, Washington’s lead Iran negotiator, put it, Iran is “a different time, different culture, a different system.” The result: Where North Korea sees isolation necessary for regime survival, Iran sees trouble. Evidently the goods of the good life attract many Iranians, and the leadership sees them as necessary for regime survival. But the good life is not sustainable if oil exports, accounting for three-quarters of the country’s total, shrink under the pressure of sanctions from 2.3 million barrels a day to 1 million barrels. Nor is there a good life for many with inflation running at 50 percent and unemployment at 25 percent. While international sanctions are not the sole cause of Iran’s economic malaise, they evidently have been onerous enough to bring Iran to the bargaining table to sign on to the Geneva Accord.
It is worth noting what a change this is. Although the recent bargaining has drawn much attention, it was not a de novo but the culmination of a decade-long effort that commenced in earnest in 2003, when European negotiators attempted to talk Iran out of enrichment. While there remains debate about possible missed opportunities in these and later talks, the dragging of time the negotiations allowed permitted Iran — like North Korea — to expand its nuclear venture dramatically. The question today is whether the costs of this effort have now come home to roost to force Iran to curtail its nuclear activities.
Implementation of the interim agreement will be the first test. True, it does not eliminate Iran’s weapons breakout capacity, but it does curtail the known enterprise. Significant is the rollback of Tehran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, something the international community has been striving to achieve for years. Iran also will cap its low-enrichment stocks and limit operation of its 19,000 centrifuges to the 10,000 operating today. While not ideal — ideal would be the cessation of all enrichment mandated by the Security Council — it is better than the alternative, continued unabated operations.
Arguably less impressive is Iran’s commitment not to commission the Arak reactor during the next six months, an objective it was not likely to fulfill in any event, although the agreement to halt production, testing or transfer of fuel or installation of reactor components will slow the plant’s completion.
Finally, the interim agreement expands the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) verification, allowing daily visits to enrichment sites. But here the news looks better on paper than it actually is. The IAEA already monitors Fordow and Natanz with cameras and periodic visits. However, “managed access” to centrifuge production and storage sites mark a first, giving international inspectors a far better overview of Iran’s future centrifuge capacity. Other concessions granted IAEA in separate negotiations — allowance to visit a uranium mine, heavy water production plant, access to information on all research reactors, plans for additional enrichment plants and laser enrichment — still do not get to the core of the nuclear watchdog’s effort to unravel what Iran is up to.
So what does Iran get out of this? The benefits seem rather modest — a waiver in trade of petro chemical, gold and precious metal, automobile and civil airline parts in addition to the repatriation of some $7 billion held abroad that Tehran may attempt to leverage, still a relatively small sum considering the country’s economic needs.
As we look forward, Iran’s compliance with the spirit and letter of Geneva’s interim accord will be a test. If Tehran fails the test, the more ambitious permanent agreement will never advance to signature. But even fidelity offers no guarantee, as U.S. and allied demands in the next round of talks reportedly will be much tougher: Closure of the heavily bunkered Fordow enrichment plant and dramatic reductions of operations at Natanz, allowing it just to produce enough low-enriched uranium to meet the country’s minimal civil nuclear needs. Dismantlement or conversion of the Arak nuclear plant to a far less threatening light water reactor. Granting the IAEA unfettered access to the totality of Iran’s nuclear activities.
Should these talks fail, waiting in the wings will be the Sharansky template to isolate Iran further. But it, too, promises no certainties of anything. Still, it may force the mullahs to make a difficult choice: One, accept the costs of economic sanctions, believing the country will adapt if it believes that maintaining a nuclear weapons breakout capability best assures national survival. The other, bend as little as necessary to P5+1 demands, hoping that tension relaxation will be sufficient to support the regime’s tottering economic foundation without undermining the hostility to the West and Israel the regime needs to justify its rule.
In the interim, the next round of negotiations will have to play out.
Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst in the Department of State, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. His academic appointments included positions at Princeton and UCLA. The author of three books on international politics and editor of three others, Ramberg is best known for what many believe is the classic treatment of the consequences of military strikes on nuclear installations, “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy” (University of California Press).