Shadow Government

An Incomplete Framework

What's most troubling about the nuclear framework deal with Iran: what it leaves unsaid.

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Last Thursday, the Obama administration announced a framework nuclear agreement with Iran that is both more detailed and restrictive than what had been foreshadowed by leaks or feared by critics. If such an accord were implemented, it would earn Secretary of State John Kerry and his team substantial credit. Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns offered the most succinct and persuasive defense of the deal, noting that “[w]ith more eyes on less material in fewer places, and clarity about the harsh costs of cheating, we would be well positioned to deter and prevent Iranian breakout.”

But is this agreement strong enough to block Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons? Or is it illusory? The answer may be that we do not yet know.

First, the U.S. and Iranian “fact sheets” on the contents of the agreement are inconsistent. Iranian negotiator Javad Zarif criticized the U.S. effort, tweeting, “The solutions are good for all, as they stand. There is no need to spin using ‘fact sheets’ so early on.” Nevertheless, Iran soon released its own document, citing a time frame of only 10 years for the restrictions on the numbers and capabilities of Iran’s centrifuge enrichment program, and noting that “all of the sanctions will be immediately removed after reaching a comprehensive agreement.” But it failed to mention the need to resolve the “possible military dimensions” of the Iranian nuclear program identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

By contrast, the U.S. fact sheet speaks of a duration of “at least 15 years” for limits on Iranian enrichment, sanctions relief keyed to Iranian performance, and the need for Tehran to “implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program” — 12 sets of activities identified by the IAEA, ranging from covert nuclear material procurement, to secret development work on nuclear explosive devices and warheads.

Second, the specific limits focus on declared facilities, but leave unspecified measures to prevent Iran from using undeclared facilities to advance a nuclear weapons program. Most experts believe that if Tehran gains nuclear weapons, it will do so by sneaking out of its Nonproliferation Treaty obligations covertly, not by breaking out of them openly. After all, Iran has failed on numerous occasions over an extended period of time to meet its safeguards obligations to disclose nuclear activities. The limits on Iran’s enrichment activities, however, impact only its declared sites.

The most effective way to ensure that Iran is not pursuing clandestine means to acquire nuclear weapons is to understand fully the PMDs of Iran’s nuclear program. Without an accounting of who did what work where and when, there will be no baseline on which to predicate verification efforts for a future agreement. In short, without an understanding of past nuclear weapons-related efforts, it will be impossible to ensure that they have halted and will not recur in the future.

The framework agreement, however, says only that Iran will implement agreed measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the PMDs. Yet the IAEA reports that Iran has provided information on just one of its 12 areas of concern, and even that proffer is incomplete. If Iran is unwilling to cooperate with the IAEA now — when sanctions remain largely in place — why will it be more willing to do so once sanctions are loosened further? The only solution offered by the framework agreement is unspecified “agreed measures.”

Unfortunately, this promise has already been broken. A White House fact sheet on the November 23, 2013 Joint Plan of Action claims: “The set of understandings also includes an acknowledgment by Iran that it must address all issue 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.”

So how much confidence can we have in the unspecified “agreed measures?”

Third, even Secretary Kerry and his colleagues acknowledge that the framework agreement is incomplete and that key issues remain unresolved. For example, precisely how will “snapback” provisions, designed to deter Iranian cheating, work? And what, exactly, will become of the low-enriched uranium to be removed from Iranian stocks? While incompleteness is, of course, remediable, it renders judgment of the effectiveness of the agreement impossible.

What, then, is a sensible response to the president’s demand for support of the emerging deal? The almost immediate bickering about the terms of the deal between Washington and Tehran should give rise to concern that there is no meeting of the minds. The absence of any progress regarding the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program should raise red flags about the verifiability of the agreement and Iran’s commitment to adhere to it. The incompleteness of the agreement makes unconditional support for it impossible. Thus, a prudent analyst would insist on seeing the final terms of the deal before being forced to support it, while expressing concern that certain minimum necessary standards have not yet been met. So far, we can neither trust nor verify.

Photo Credit: Jim Watson / Staff

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

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