Let’s face it: the Iran deal is far from perfect. Even though it significantly reduces the likelihood of an Iranian bomb, it doesn’t preclude this possibility altogether. In fact, if Iran cheats, in time it could join the nuclear club. So, given the probably devastating consequences of this action, it may be worth assessing the arguments of the critics. Are they just opposing the best possible solution to an enduring problem, or are they actually onto something? Let’s play the role of the devil’s advocate: hearing them out could actually give us some insights on the implications or undertones of the negotiated agreement.
First of all, there can be no doubt that the Joint Plan of Action (JPoA) does a fairly good job in putting out of use thousands of centrifuges and cutting down the stockpile of enriched uranium by approximately 97%. But Iran could easily get away with other violations of the agreement regarding, for example, weapons design. Derek Harvey of the Global Initiative has been very vocal in underlining the difficulties of defining on paper which types of warheads are specifically designed for a nuclear weapon. He has also convincingly pointed out that the sole purpose of an ICBM is to inflict a nuclear strike. Nevertheless, supporters of the deal have made the exact opposite claim regarding weapons. For example, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies has observed that Iran has agreed to commitments, which are not even binding in the NPT: under the JPoA, Iran will not engage in neutron initiator development and multi-point explosive detonation. These seemingly technical aspects represent, according to Fitzpatrick, an important breakthrough for the non-proliferation regime, since the IAEA has never been authorized to verify “nuclear weaponization work that does not involve nuclear materials”. The complexity of the topic makes it hard to ascertain who has the upper hand in this discussion.
Luckily, Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby of the Hudson Institute have put forward a counter-argument, which is certainly easier to grasp. They have disputed that we should not take for granted one of the most substantial aspects of the deal: the possibility of inspecting Iranian nuclear sites within 24 days. These scholars have highlighted that Iran could liberally interpret the text of the JPoA in a way to block access to the IAEA for three months, if not more. One could, perhaps rightfully, contend that their point of view is based on prejudices and mistrust towards the Iranian leadership. But what explanation can be offered to the delisting of 13 generals and the banks that tried to help them acquire illicit materials for a nuclear weapon? Opponents of the deal would bring up the balance of power, but more on that in a minute.
Let’s continue to focus on the topical point of inspections. As a result of a confidential agreement between Iran and the IAEA, Tehran’s inspectors will collect samples under video surveillance, and then hand them over to international experts. IAEA’s Director General, Yukiya Amano, has assured that this procedure respects strict standards. However, he has also stated that IAEA probes could be hampered by “renovation work” to buildings where illicit nuclear experiments may have been conducted in the past. It is not surprising that Olli Heinonen, the IAEA’s former Deputy Director-General for Safeguards, has underlined the peculiarity of allowing self-inspection to a country suspected to have had a nuclear weapons program. For this reason, he has joined David Albright and others from the Institute for Science and International Security in claiming that this procedure ultimately undermines the credibility of the IAEA. Albright fears that, aside from giving an advantage to Iran, creating such a precedent will “come back to haunt us”.
Let’s move to the interesting debate on whether or not sanctions should be spelled out. Critics of the deal believe that Iran will not abide by the agreement if the US government does not clearly state that it will resort to military action in case of violation. Consequently, they suggest to immediately start discussing the terms of a collective response with the other negotiating partners. However, JPoA supporters have a point when they state that it could be counterproductive to clearly define “what should be done”. In this case, uncertainty might prove to be a greater deterrent than clarity. Unsurprisingly, this divergence of opinions increases as one digs deeper, and sanctions resurface when tackling Iranian support of terrorist groups. The differences here are about proportions: the Obama administration declares that lifting sanctions will not change Iran’s attitude towards these groups, because Tehran just doesn’t spend that much on financing “mischief in the region”. The counter-argument is that the flow of money is bound to significantly increase, since Iran already spends billions to support its proxies. However, stating that Iran’s behavior is not going to change also shows the independence of Iran’s agenda from its nuclear ambitions.
Let’s turn now to the possible geopolitical implications of the JPoA by focusing on three aspects. Firstly, (non)proliferation. Harvey of the Global Initiative fears that the Iranian nuclear program will become qualitatively more sophisticated after the expiration of the sunset clause, thus leading to an inevitable breakout. How do you solve this problem? Critics have come up with arguable solutions: Albright would want the US to have a say in commercial agreements between Iran and other nations. He has suggested, for example, that countries providing nuclear fuel to Iran should do so for the whole lifetime of a reactor in order to undermine Iran’s claims for enriched uranium. But which countries could the US influence to follow this course of action? Probably none. This concern, however, could be uncalled for, or at least that’s the opinion of Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House. In his view, Iran might just be throwing nuclear dust in the West’s eyes by following “a pattern for dictatorships in the Middle East”: worrying the international community with WMD proliferation has become almost a cliché in the region. Still, it often proves to be a successful way of getting carte blanche on other issues. That leads us the second geopolitical development, Saudi-Israeli relations. In the wake of the Iran deal, these two countries started to coordinate their military strategies and devise policies counter to their traditional pro-Western alliance. As journalist Eli Lake has observed, paradoxically, reaching out to Iran may lead to an unexpected and seemingly impossible diplomatic result: the creation of a Saudi-Israeli alliance. Last but not least, our attention should be directed to US-Iran relations. It has been argued that both parties ultimately want to end Tehran’s isolation by “converting Iran from foe to friend”. For the US administration, the contribution of this newfound frenemy would be paramount in the fight against ISIS — a bigger priority for Washington than stopping Tehran’s nuclear program, according to Michael Doran of Hudson. But researchers like Riccardo Alcaro of the Istituto Affari Internazionali are generally skeptical that Iran will adopt a cooperative strategy. Therefore, they suggest that progressively incremental engagement should be sided with continued pressure, since “the nuclear deal could make Iran more aggressive”.
In conclusion, it would seem as though many of the critics’ arguments are grounded. However, while these assessments show us serious shortcomings in the JPoA, they also reveal something different. Through these misgivings, we can see that certain stakeholders are not capable of accepting the status quo. And their proposals to change it are often not realistic to say the least. Peter Beinart at the Atlantic has put it best, by saying that the critics find the Iran deal infuriating inasmuch as “it codifies the limits of American power”. It is far too easy to claim – as many do – that time will ultimately prove who was wrong and who was right. “A decade in the Middle East is an eternity”, as journalist Barak Ravid has argued. The decisions that will be made in the upcoming months and years will ultimately determine the fate of Tehran’s nuclear program. The responsibility of an Iranian bomb cannot lie solely on the shoulders of Obama or of Tehran’s future leaders. Especially if certain devils end up in the White House.