Like any other country, Iran can be trusted: to pursue its own interests, but no further. So the euphoria regarding the recent multi-nation agreement on Iran’s nuclear program should be stepped down. Many of the provisions seem to rely on Iran’s voluntary willingness to do things that are NOT in its own interest. That is not a good basis for an agreement.
Let us start with Iran’s interests. They definitely want improved relations with the West that will remove both sanctions and the threat of military action. They also insist on their right (valid under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. All that is fine.
However, Iran is also interested in having the capability of matching Israel and acquiring the status of a ‘nuclear power.’ That is what Israel and the West finds unacceptable.
Is there a way to square the circle? Yes, if the agreement does not go too far. What Israel wants is a complete dismantling of all of Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium. That will prevent it from getting a nuclear capability; but it is also something that Iran will never accept, period. But as an intermediate measure, one can ask that Iran never enrich beyond the 3-5% level needed to peacefully generate nuclear power. Iran will counter that it needs at least a small amount of 20% enriched uranium to produce medical isotopes and has a right to this level of enrichment. The problem is that it is fairly easy and quick to go from 20% to the 99% enrichment needed for nuclear weapons if Iran maintains a large stock of working centrifuges.
So here is where the game begins. Iran wants to keep at least the capacity to move toward nuclear weapons capacity if it ever decides its national security requires it. Israel and the West want to deny Iran that capacity. There is no real way to meet both objectives.
So the only viable approach is one based on inspections. What Iran can be required to do is (1) eliminate nearly all of its 20% enriched uranium and leave what remains under tight international inspection so that it can be tracked and immediately detected if it moves any of this stockpile for further enrichment; (2) put most of its centrifuges in mothballs under international inspection so that the world would know immediately if any additional enrichment were undertaken; (3) leave Iran the capacity to enrich uranium to 3% in small batches only. (4) If Iran completes its planned heavy-water reactor that would also produce plutonium, that too must be under international inspection to make sure no plutonium is removed from the reactor except for disposal under international supervision.
IF, yes IF, Iran complied with all of these restrictions, then it would be impossible for Iran to produce nuclear weapons without expelling inspectors and putting the world on notice that it planned to pursue a nuclear weapons capacity. At that point, a military response could be planned if deemed necessary.
In return for complying with these restrictions, Iran would have its economic sanctions lifted. Iran would still retain the ability to enrich uranium, as is its right, and would still have the ability to go back to the status quo ante by expelling the inspectors, further enriching its uranium stockpiles, and facing in return sanctions and military threats.
So should Iran accept this deal and comply? Yes they should, because it puts off the threat of military attack, promises to lift the crippling sanctions, and in return Iran only gives up the ability to pursue high enrichment and weapons capacity until it decides it might be necessary to take the risks of returning to doing so.
Should the West accept this deal and lift sanctions? That depends entirely on whether they think Iran will act in good faith. IF Iran will accept and comply with the inspection regime, then it is a good deal. Among other things, the cooperation builds trust. And since Iran is no longer threatened by a hostile US-supported regime in Iraq, and will soon have the US out of Afghanistan as well, Iran may feel less anxious and less in need of having a nuclear option to defend itself against US hostile actions. At the same time, if the international inspections are effective, they will let Israel rest easy as Iran will not be capable of moving toward a nuclear weapons capacity without the advance notice of expelling the inspectors. So tensions may be reduced on both sides.
The real problem is whether Iran will really comply. After all, it does no good whatsoever if Iran admits inspectors, mothballs most of its known centrifuges, but then operates a secret facility where it continues to enrich uranium and stores high-enriched uranium for rapid deployment in a future nuclear weapon. So everything depends on whether the inspection regime is really complete, thorough, and voluntarily complied with by Iran.
In that sense, the initial agreement reached makes sense, in that the West is only agreeing to lift a few sanctions for six months, to test Iran’s willingness to comply. That way, if the West feels Iran is not being open, we go back to the status quo ante. But if the West thinks Iran is complying, the inspections and sanctions lifting can both be increased, step-by-step until all sanctions are lifted and a pervasive and rigorous inspection regime is in place.
Still, if Iran is determined to hide and cheat, it would be hard to stop them, as Iran is a big country with mountains and diverse hiding places. Inspectors would have to be free to go anywhere, anytime, with any equipment, using satellite monitoring to track any suspicious movements of trucks or equipment and being free to descend on any site with complete access. How willing Iran is to submit to this kind of somewhat humiliating inspection should determine how far the West goes in lifting sanctions.
So far, the signs are not good. Iran is already insisting on a somewhat different reading of the agreement than is the US, which sees it as having stronger wording on Iran’s complete cessation of enrichment.
Still, the value to Iran of ending sanctions and improving relations is so great, it is probably worth continuing to wrangle and press for progress on these agreements. The alternative is a war that no one really wants (except perhaps Israel), and which could have unforeseen consequences.
So what one really has to hope for is that Iran’s interest in removing sanctions and having better relations with other nations becomes stronger over time, eventually much stronger than its perceived need to have a nuclear weapons capacity. When that happens, it may be possible to trust Iran’s own interests to enforce its compliance with strict agreements. But until then, while Iran’s true interests remain in doubt, it is best to take small steps, expect little, but vigorously pursue the most rigorous inspections and clearest mutual understanding of what is expected, in the hope that limiting and slowing Iran’s progress toward nuclear capacity IS attainable.
The Obama administration’s problems so far have often come from promising much but delivering little. Yet when acting decisively and seeking results without promises — as in the strike against Osama bin Laden — Obama has had great success. In dealing with Iran, the right approach is certainly not to promise much. But if the West sticks to seeking results and being determined, eventually they may achieve the outcome they seek.