Breaking Good

Gamechanger: Inside the Historic Iran Nuclear Deal

Once again the Obama administration pulls the United States away from the path to war, but that’s not the same as peace.

Forget “apocalypse now” for now. The diplomatic agreement Iran reached in the wee hours of Sunday morning with the United States, Britain, Russia, China, Germany and France (yes, even reluctant France) stops Tehran’s rush toward the potential production of nuclear weapons. It makes it difficult—if not impossible—for Israel to start a war to try to eliminate that threat, and in return, it offers only very modest relief from the draconian sanctions crippling the Iranian economy.

If Americans are paying attention, they should be happy. Hell, they should break out the bubbly! A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week described a deal with Iran precisely like the one just agreed, and more than twice as many people (64 percent) supported it as opposed it (30 percent), even though two-thirds said they were “not confident” an agreement would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

But if Secretary of State John Kerry’s tone of triumph was a little muted in the dark hours before dawn Sunday morning, it was because he knew we have a long way to go in the world’s most treacherous regions with some of the world’s most treacherous powers before we see genuinely positive results from this diplomatic initiative.

"If this first step leads to what is our ultimate goal—which is a comprehensive agreement—that will make the world safer,” Kerry told the bleary-eyed press corps.

The revelations that secret U.S.-Iran negotiations over many months preceded this deal, according to the Associated Press, and quiet easing of some sanctions already had taken place, as reported by Eli Lake in The Daily Beast, will not reassure Israel and Saudi Arabia. The two nations have been, for many decades, America’s closest and most vital allies in the Middle East, and they weren’t consulted about the secret talks—which is to say, they weren’t trusted.

Now that this deal is out in the open, it’s clear the devil is not only in the details. Indeed, it’s precisely the big picture that has America’s old friends most worried. A genuine rapprochement with Tehran, after almost 35 years of bitter hostility between the mullahs and the United States, which they like to call the Great Satan, could lead to a sea change in the strategic calculations of every country in the Middle East.

If Iran has the expertise and infrastructure to build nuclear weapons—even if it chooses not to do so—and at the same time it comes in from the cold, joining the community of nations (and the World Trade Organization) on equal terms with the ability to exploit fully its huge oil and gas reserves, then it becomes not only a regional player, but a regional superpower.

That door is now opening. And does that make the world safer? There are certainly many reasons for Americans, Europeans and others to distrust a country that has played ruthlessly—and often with great success—on the shadowy battlefields of terror and counter-terror. Iran created and sustains Hezbollah. It is, along with Russia, the key ally of the savage Assad regime in Syria.

But the Obama administration has conceded a crucial point that the neocons of the George W. Bush administration and the hawks in Israel never wanted to admit: Iran’s leaders are not insane, and least of all Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the current president, Hassan Rouhani, elected last summer.

During the eight years the beetle-browed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president, his affiliation with religious currents that believed in an approaching apocalypse fueled fears he might try to bring it on. But, if that ever was his inclination, wiser men—like Khamenei —prevailed. (It should be noted that in Israel many hardliners get backing from some American Christians who want to precipitate the Second Coming. Fortunately there, too, the leaders are wiser than the wild-eyed zealots among their supporters.)

The number one priority of the mullahs throughout their reign has been the preservation of their theocratic rule, and the Obama administration decided to deal with them on that basis. The White House has reassured them privately and publicly that “regime change” is not its goal, although that might be the result if the nuclear issue led to war. The mullahs have no reason to want that. And neither does Washington.

The negotiations now underway—this agreement is really only the climax of the first chapter—are based on the idea that if the Iranian regime is not insane, it will not start a nuclear war for the hell of it. If Tehran wants to thrive, it will quit playing games with the nuclear issue and quit waltzing up to the brink where it could “break out” of its treaty obligations and rush to build a bomb, or present the West with a secretly constructed arsenal as a fait accompli.

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Until Washington and the other parties to the Geneva negotiations are satisfied that “breakout” is virtually impossible, Iran will not get any very substantial relief from sanctions.

President Obama, in a statement, said the accords reached in Geneva “cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb. Meanwhile, this first step will create time and space over the next six months for more negotiations to fully address our comprehensive concerns about the Iranian program. And because of this agreement, Iran cannot use negotiations as cover to advance its program.”

What’s the alternative? Many members of Congress, encouraged by the arguments of the Israeli and Saudi governments, claim that imposing ever harsher sanctions could force Iran to give up virtually all of its nuclear program and, they hope, eventually might bring down the regime altogether.

But it is just as likely that if Iran feels it can get no solid assurances for regime survival through the negotiating process, it will decide the best guarantee that it has against attack is nuclear deterrence.

At least since the second term of George W. Bush, the key policymakers in Washington have understood that if Israel started a preemptive war with Iran, the United States would be sucked in—and probably would have to try to finish it. One of Washington’s old wise men, Zbigniew Brzezinski, summed up the situation with a rhetorical tweet at the beginning of the month: “Do our Middle East ‘allies’ really have our best interests at heart when they clamor for us to go to war for them?” Even the bellicose Bush didn’t think so.

But the alternatives to war were incoherent under an American administration that really did not put much faith in diplomacy.

For years, Bush’s envoys tried to avoid talking to the Iranians at all about the nuclear program, leaving negotiations to the Europeans. They got a freeze on Iran’s enrichment activities back in 2004 (before Ahmadinejad was president, and when Rouhani was the chief negotiator), but the Iranians didn’t feel they had any guarantees against regime change.

Then Ahmadinejad got elected—and the Iranians started to do almost all the things the Americans and Israelis feared they would do. But, most importantly, they did so within the letter—if not the spirit—of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which they are a signatory.

Previously, Iran had acquired secretly some primitive centrifuges for nuclear enrichment from the renegade network associated with the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. After that clandestine program was discovered, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, declared Iran in “material breach” of its treaty obligations. Since then, Tehran has abided by the treaty’s terms, even if it has argued over every one of its commas. And to try to avoid compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring it to stop enrichment, it has invoked the “rights” to peaceful nuclear development assured it by the NPT.

The Obama administration, putting its faith in diplomacy backed by force (rather than preceded by it), managed to hammer together an international coalition that imposed devastating sanctions on Iran. But Tehran continued its enrichment work and, as of last week, was within months, if not weeks, of the theoretical ability to fuel one atomic weapon.

One of the key stumbling blocks in Geneva over the last few days—a point that will continue to be debated very hotly—was Iran’s insistence that the West recognize it’s “right to enrich uranium” under the NPT. The U.S. refused to include that phrase. The final wording appears to be ambiguous enough so that both sides claimed they won.

According to Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council staffer who has been a harsh critic of Washington’s hard-line policies, there are only four countries in the world that do not recognize this right: Israel, the U.S., Britain, and France. Three of them were at the table in Geneva.

For Israel the question is essentially and literally existential. Netanyahu sees Iran’s “right to enrich” as a direct threat to Israel’s “right to exist,” which Iran is very, very far from conceding. Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei, just last week, described the country as a “rabid dog.” It’s no wonder Netanyahu called Geneva “a bad deal.”

The more concrete question concerns just how much uranium Iran enriches—to what degree of purity. Under Sunday’s agreement, Iran’s most problematic stockpiles are supposed to be converted into something more benign, and Tehran is supposed to hold off on sensitive activities at its Arak heavy water reactor, which is not yet in operation but could produce plutonium that can be converted to use in bombs.

“We approach these negotiations with a basic understanding,” said Obama. “Iran, like any nation, should be able to access peaceful nuclear energy. But because of its record of violating its obligations, Iran must accept strict limitations on its nuclear program that make it impossible to develop a nuclear weapon. In these negotiations, nothing will be agreed to unless everything is agreed to. The burden is on Iran to prove to the world that its nuclear program will be exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

There may yet be a war intended to bomb Iran back to the pre-nuclear age, and maybe even to try to change the regime. But it’s ever less likely that the United States will fight it. As the polls show, Americans don’t see why they should, and if this negotiating process moves forward, there’s no reason they ought to.