One must admit that the nuclear deal finally thrashed out in Vienna between Iran and the powers earlier this week is fundamentally different from the package we were led to expect by all the parties’ public statements, as well as their interim agreements.
It is even utterly different from the parameters for the agreement, which were laid out both in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) (the interim agreement made in Geneva on November 2013) and in the Parameters for the deal (concluded in Lausanne, March 2015). The outcome is an agreement that is simultaneously good, bad and ugly. Its bottom line is a strategic gamble, which to Barack Obama’s United States seems calculated. Israel is justifiably far from persuaded that this indeed is the case.
So what has changed? On the good tally are the restrictions Iran has agreed to adhere to. For a period of no less than 15 years Iran has undertaken not to enrich uranium beyond a low level, to eliminate or convert its significant stockpile of higher enriched uranium and to refrain from setting up any new enrichment facility, nor produce new centrifuges. Iran will also go down to a sole active uranium enrichment facility.
Iran has also undertaken to redesign the Arak reactor so that it can no longer produce significant quantity of plutonium, and for the same duration refrain from setting up additional heavy water reactors and separating irradiated fuel.
No less positive and significant is the surprising addition to the agreement of a sweeping ban on Iran’s engagement in activities, including at the research and development level, that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device. This commitment will remain in force in perpetuity. In other words, not only has Iran explicitly undertaken not to seek or acquire nuclear weapons under any circumstances, it has also formally forsaken (albeit on the fuel cycle side for only 15 years) the option of proceeding along the two paths that must come together in order to yield a nuclear weapons capability.
The major change for the worse in the agreement lies in the sweeping and airtight commitment made to Iran to swiftly remove (within a mere few months) all the nuclear related sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the European Union and the United States (which are within the discretionary powers of the administration’s) even in the face of Congressional objections. Iran has also been promised that all of the sanctions on its missile activity will be removed within eight years and on conventional weapon trade already within five years. Equally significant is the commitment to convert forthwith of all the preceding UN Security Council and the International Atomic Agency imposing on Iran demands and prohibitions and sanctions into a mutual and reciprocal arrangement. Iran has thereby been given a formal standing to hold back from delivering on its side of the deal if its partners to the deal are not living up to their obligations to Iran.
The clauses restricting Iran’s research and development and acquisition of advanced centrifuges are not entirely encouraging either. Even in the absence of a genuine peaceful rationale Iran will be permitted to continue (albeit at a modest scale for the first eight and a half years) to develop and test newer and much more efficient centrifuge models. These will make it technically possible for Iran to rapidly and dramatically scale up its enrichment effort if it breaks out of the agreement or upon its expiration.
The ugly side of the deal pertains to the agreed upon mechanisms for verifying the implementation of Iran’s commitments and the re-imposition of sanctions should Iran violate the agreement. These lay out a very complex, slow, and uncertain mechanism, which would nominally allow for inspecting every facility, but at a considerable delay and only after overcoming numerous procedural (and political) hurdles en route. The clauses in the agreement pertaining to the re-imposition of sanctions in case of Iranian violations are nominally appealing but in practice equally difficult to apply.
In both cases we are dealing with a mechanism enabling Iran (with the support of its prospective allies) to delay and impede the application of verification measures and sanctions re-imposition provisions. Consequently, Iranian encroachment on and less than blatant violations of the agreement will be excruciatingly difficult for the IAEA to catch and document even if it does, will hardly result in any severe penalty on Iran. Furthermore unilateral steps that might have been contemplated in response to Iranian pursuit of a weapons capability or even encroachment and violations on the earlier agreements now become illegitimate unless sanctioned by this complex arbitration mechanism.
What all this boils down to is a real surprise at the nature and magnitude of the US gamble. The US has come out squarely to endorse a deal that tries to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons predominantly relying on positive inducements to get Iran to comply with its new formal commitments. These incentives include rapid normalization of Iran’s status, lots of money and later on provision of conventional weapons and nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Iran’s track record to date as well as its regime’s character make this bet into a huge gamble, even if (as the US administration hopes) the agreement ends up bolstering the more moderate faction in the Iranian leadership.
So how does Israel view this outcome ? Israel is certainly heartened that Iran will not come into possession of nuclear weapons any time soon. At the same time it is greatly concerned, justifiably so, over the agreement’s long-term repercussions, both in the nuclear domain and on Iran’s regional behavior. Yet Israel harbors few illusions that much good will come out of attempting to undermine the agreement. This assessment undergirds Israel’s security cabinet’s decision earlier in the week emphasizing that that Israel is no party to the agreement and is therefore not bound by it. Israel is thus determined to preserve and strengthen its deterrence and ability to act independently against Iran should circumstances requiring so arise. Ultimately, though, it is clearly preferable to spare Israel, if at all possible, the need to take independent action against Iran.
Hence, it is supremely important to get the United States, France and Germany to make complementary commitments to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, contain and diminish the risk inherent in the agreement and strengthen Israel’s capacity to respond to those threats posed by Iran’s that the agreement might accentuate. An effort to secure these commitments must be made soon, employing bilateral agreements, parliamentary legislation and resolutions by the UN Security Council and the International Agency for Atomic Energy.