I have long advocated that Iran and the P5+1 negotiators reach a deal that will assure everyone that if Iran launches an effort to weaponize its nuclear materials, they will be detected in time for other nations to launch a pre-emptive strike to stop them. Such a deal would pave the way for a full partnership between the U.S. and Iran in the vital task of destroying ISIS — a task in which there is already covert coordination underway.
Crafting a deal that allows adequate detection time is not an impossible task. Inspections only need to be sufficient to detect (1) any construction and equipment activities that could indicate efforts to construct additional nuclear enrichment capacity; this is how the world gained knowledge of the Natanz and Fordow plants; and (2) any uranium enriched to concentrations above the 3 to 5% needed for civilian power purposes.
If inspections detect either of these, sanctions should automatically be reimposed; with the sanctions then only being lifted if Iran complies with expanded inspections to show these initial detections were erroneous, or if Iran destroys any materials detected in the expanded inspections. If Iran would not comply with such expanded inspections, that could trigger cyber or or weapons attacks to disable Iran’s capacity.
In other words, the risks of not complying should fall heavily on Iran.
You may ask — why would Iran agree to such a deal? The answer is because Iran is not a single entity. There are aggressive and paranoid powers in Iran, including leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, who will never trust the world and want a nuclear weapon to ensure their survival and gain the prestige of being a nuclear weapons state. In their eyes, if Pakistan and North Korea can get away with this, why not Iran? But there are also powers in Iran — including, I believe, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif — who see nuclear weapons as a costly distraction, something that would reduce Iran’s influence in the world and trigger new threats to its security. Better to gain experience with a low level of nuclear technology, get sanctions removed, and rebuild Iran’s economy and its regional influence in more conventional ways.
In the contest between radicals and pragmatists that has driven Iran’s politics for the last two decades, a real deal that blocks Iran’s path towards weapons would be a great asset for the pragmatists, helping them keep the radicals in check. It would also be a great deal for the Iranian people, reducing the impact of sanctions and cutting wasteful spending on the pursuit of nuclear weapons that simply invites further isolation and possible attacks.
Would the Supreme Leader assent to such a deal? It is hard to say, but not impossible. Ayatollah Khamenei cares most about staying in power, and has shifted his support back and forth between radicals and pragmatists as best suited that goal. If the Ayatollah believed that a deal would result in significant economic gains for most of Iran’s people, and could help bolster Iran’s influence in the region, he might well support it, despite opposition from his radical flank.
Unfortunately, such a deal is NOT what seems to be on offer. It is obviously speculation based on leaks, but word has escaped that the agreement would have a sunset clause, so that after 10 years the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities would be phased out and eventually expire.
It is hard to find the words to describe such a concept — insane? Foolhardy? Out of touch with reality? Desperation speaking? It seems that Secretary Kerry is so desperate to get a deal – any deal – that would bring Iran into an agreement to fight ISIS and drop sanctions that he would consider even a terrible deal that would be bad for everyone!
A sunset clause would of course please the radicals and pragmatists: pragmatists would get a decade of relief from sanctions; radicals would get a decade to get everything in place — the technology, the missiles, the stockpile of near enriched materials — to leap quickly to fashion multiple weapons as soon as the 10-year deadline expires.
Of course, advocates will tell you that 10 years is a long time and the regime in Iran might change. Of course: and Israel and Palestine might live to learn happily ever after together in that time as well! But that is no basis for intelligent policy. The regime in Iran has continued virtually unchanged in its domestic and foreign policies for 36 years. The only sensible basis for a deal is to assume the Iranian regime ten years hence will be essentially the same in its outlook and aims as the regime we are dealing with today. And of course, given the prospect of a long-term conflict with ISIS and continued Sunni-Shi’a battles in the future, there is probably an even better chance that the Iranian regime in 10 years will be worse than today’s — more paranoid, more defensive, and more at conflict with its neighbors.
If anyone should be desperate for a deal it should be Iran. Oil prices have collapsed, sanctions have hit hard at its economy, and ISIS is threatening its allies and is too near for comfort to its own borders. Now is the time to extract a good deal, one that will give leverage to pragmatists, weaken radicals, and ensure that Iran will have a near-impossible time developing a nuclear weapon without early detection of those efforts.
Such a deal would in fact be good for Iran’s people as well, making it possible for them to resume normal economic life and reducing tensions with its neighbors.
Most of the terms of the deal being discussed are reasonable, but the sunset clause should be a deal-breaker for the P5+1. Iran should be told that there is no reason to expect it would be any wiser for them to advance their nuclear weapons capacity 10 years from now than today. The goal should be an agreement that lets Iran develop a limited civilian nuclear capacity under vigorous international inspections, and that should be all that Iran ever needs (and is in fact all that Rouhani and Zarif claim it ever wanted).
So by all means, let us have a deal, but a deal that lasts. A deal with a ten-year expiration date is worse than no deal at all.