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Neither Historic nor a Historic Mistake

Neither Historic nor a Historic Mistake

The November 23rd nuclear agreement between Iran and six great powers has already been called "historic" and a "historic mistake" "worse than Munich." In reality, both descriptions are overwrought.

The six-month interim deal is simply a standstill agreement, generally providing that neither party will be further disadvantaged while a broader settlement is negotiated. Whether or not such an accord can be completed and enforced remains in doubt. Already the two sides are sparring over what the interim deal means.

The White House case for the agreement notes that it: halts production of uranium enriched above 5 percent and requires that existing stocks be diluted or turned to oxide form; halts installation of new centrifuge capabilities; freezes stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium (unless converted to oxide); freezes construction of the Arak heavy water reactor; and affords the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) better access and more information. These provisions generally slow progress on declared civil nuclear activities, and in the case of the uranium enriched to near 20 percent, impose a modest rollback.

In return, the U.S. administration claims that Iran will receive only "limited, temporary, reversible" relief from sanctions, amounting to about $7 billion, while broader sanctions will remain in place, with over $100 billion in funds frozen, and restrictions on oil sales continuing to cost Tehran $4 billion per month.

Why, then, has the deal evoked such opposition in the United States, with even influential Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer criticizing it?

First, the deal does not halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program, despite U.N. Security Council and IAEA Board of Governors resolutions requiring Tehran to suspend this work. More importantly, this likely presages a more permanent agreement allowing Iran to enrich uranium. Why is that problematic? An overt Iranian enrichment program will make it more difficult to monitor for a secret weapons program. Imports, manufacturing capability, the work of technicians could all be ascribed to the licit program, but instead might well be diverted to a covert capability. Is it likely that Iran would develop a clandestine enrichment facility? There has hardly been a time over the last 15 years that Iran was not doing so.

Second, the deal does nothing to affect military activities. Iran’s missile programs will continue unabated. Tehran still has not satisfied the IAEA’s specific and detailed concerns about "possible military dimensions" to Iran’s nuclear programs.

Third, there is real concern that once any sanctions are lifted, they will be impossible to reinstate, and that oil thirsty China, India, and Korea will seek more trade. Once efforts to isolate Iran are reversed, the momentum could be impossible to stop. For example, even the hope of a deal lifted prospects for Iran’s tourism industry.

How should these concerns be resolved? A key test will be whether or not Tehran resolves the IAEA’s concerns about "possible military dimensions" to the Iranian nuclear program. Those concerns are based on specific, credible information from multiple sources about activities that could only logically be explained by a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, some of the information points to a covert uranium processing capability, which would be a means to evade IAEA safeguards. If the IAEA is afforded proper access to people, sites, and documents, it can determine the nature and extent of the activities and, if necessary, root them out. This would be a strong indication that Iran has made a strategic decision not to pursue nuclear weapons.

If, on the other hand, Tehran is grudging and disingenuous in addressing the IAEA’s concerns, compliance with any broader nuclear settlement will likely also be incomplete. We would then know that Tehran would rather protect its nuclear weapons options than to live under a lasting agreement. Sanctions should not only be re-imposed, but also strengthened. The six months provided under the interim agreement is more than enough time to test Tehran’s sincerity in addressing these issues, even if an ultimate resolution will likely take longer.

If these issues remain unresolved in six months, some will say, "Why let problems from the past prevent progress today? Let’s look forward, not back." It is, however, only by understanding the Iranians’s past actions that we can have confidence in their future ones.

The administration maintains that, "The set of understandings also includes an acknowledgment by Iran that it must address all United Nations Security Council resolutions — which Iran has long claimed are illegal — as well as past and present issues with Iran’s nuclear program that have been identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, including Iran’s activities at Parchin."

In evaluating any final nuclear deal six months from now, Iran must be held to this standard, otherwise we would indeed be making a "historic mistake."