By Paolo von Schirach
November 24, 2013
WASHINGTON – So, it looks as if we have a deal with Iran whereby this strange country governed since 1979 by Islamic religious authorities will stop enriching uranium, this way making it impossible for its leaders to build nuclear weapons. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in Geneva, this is still an interim agreement. In the next six months Iran will have to prove its good faith and show that it is implementing it, in full. Otherwise, Kerry warned, we go back to sanctions, in full force.
Skepticism is in order
This sounds alright, on the surface. America’s objective has been and is to prevent a nuclear armed Iran. This Geneva deal would indicate that the goal is within reach. And yet, allow me to be skeptical. If indeed a country has a program underway aimed at developing weapons grade plutonium, and then, under pressure, it is forced to give it up, this new orientation should come out clearly. Whatever the diplomatic language niceties and euphemisms chosen, there should be a clear and open understanding, shared by all parties, that there was a certain policy in place, (develop a technical capability that would allow later on the manufacturing of nuclear weapons), and now there is an entirely different one, (we give up nuclear weapons programs. Our nuclear program, just like similar ones adopted by other countries, is focused only on the development of alternative energy sources).
But this critical piece of the puzzle is missing. The Iranians claim that they never intended to develop nuclear weapons. And yet their behavior (consistently carried out for years and years) proved the opposite. Now they accepted restrictions on their nuclear program; but they claim that the same policy in place. This looks a bit too clever; and it is therefore disturbing.
Credible retaliations in case of any non compliance
I leave it to the non proliferation experts to judge the value of the technical restrictions imposed on Iran by this Geneva agreement. However, assuming as I do that the Iranians have never come clean and that they did not come clean in Geneva, there is ground to be suspicious.
This agreement has value only if it is entirely verifiable, (meaning unfettered access to any and all Iranian nuclear facilities, declared and undeclared), and if America and its allies will keep on permanent standby credible countermeasures in case of non compliance. Most critically, America has to be able to (credibly) convey to the other side that it would take only hours to revert to harsh sanctions, in case Tehran wants to test our political resolve by resorting to any type of non compliance.
And this where it gets tricky. If the Iranians accepted this deal calculating that, with this agreement in place, the Western front will lower its guard, then we have a serious problem. If the Iranians assumed that Western countries are eager to resume business as usual, that energy companies are lobbying to ease the sanctions so that they can go back to Tehran to buy Iranian oil, then we have a problem. Any indication or perception that the West needs this agreement more than the ayatollahs do spells disaster.
Is this only a political gamble?
Indeed, what if a year from now, after we have re-established warmer relations with Tehran largely on the basis of this Geneva deal, we discover some violations? Perhaps not egregious violations, but violations nonetheless? Who will have the stomach to say: “Stop everything. No more trade, no more oil. We are back to sanctions in full force.” Chances are that some leaders would say:” But this is only a minor violation. Let it be“. And may be a minor violation will be followed by another one.
Who has the political courage to go back to sanctions?
My point here is that, as it is safe to assume that Iran is not negotiating in good faith, any deal is valuable only to the extent that the ayatollahs truly believe that we are ready and willing to go back to crippling sanctions at any sign, however small, of non compliance. However, as Western countries lack the political will to engage in yet another major international confrontation, I suspect that the Iranians do not believe that we will act. They hope that their future violations will be explained away by timid Western leaders. And this may create a big problem, because American and European acquiescence would allow Iran to prepare for mischief, this time however under the cover of a treaty.