I’m cautiously optimistic about the Iran deal. The high points are that Iran reduces its uranium stockpile by 98%, cuts its number of centrifuges for enrichment by 70% (and gets rid of its newer, more advanced ones), agrees to enrich only to a level that can be used for power production but not for weapons production, and most important sets up a robust inspection regime.

All that is is good, but there are some points that make some people unhappy.

It does allow Iran to keep its nuclear program. Sorry my imperialist friends, but even Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy. They want to sell their oil for cash, particularly as (or if) oil prices increase, rather than burn it all themselves. Nuclear energy is a staightforward business proposition for them.

It only lasts for 10-15 years. This is how negotiations work; you take what you can get, and then you keep talking after you get it. Sometimes all you can do is buy time, and a 10-15 year window is better than the 1 year window we have right right now. That gives us another decade to keep trying to talk them out of developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, their leadership is aging and their large under-30 population is increasingly disaffected with their government. Time is on our side, not Rouhani’s or Khameni’s.

Will Iran actually allow inspections? That is the key. But while there’s reason to be skeptical of Iran, we can’t actually know how that works out until we get there. The agreement at least contains meaningful inspection protocols, so it’s too early to call it a failure. On paper, it appears to contain what critics demanded.

But don’t buy the Obama administration’s talk about sanctions “snapping back” if Iran doesn’t comply. The return of sanctions would not be automatic but would require a vote of the UN Security Council, where its chances of passage are slim. The reality is that almost nobody but the US wants sanctions on Iran even now. Not most of Europe, which wants to sell to Iran and purchase their oil; not Russia, which is Iran’s only reliable ally; and not China which is investing heavily in Iran and building a railroad to provide a quick route to Europe for Chinese goods. And for those keeping score, Russia and China have Security Council vetoes.

But deal or no deal, the effectiveness of the sanctions was dying out anyway. It’s time to accept that and move on.

Could we have gotten a better deal? It’s doubtful. Our real alternatives to this deal are the status quo or an invasion. Neither of those is as good as this deal.

Category: Statehouse

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16 Responses to Cautious Optimism about Iran Deal

  1. Pat says:

    My understanding is that the sanctions go back into place automatically if there is a dispute, and they can only be lifted by a vote of the security council, not the other way around.

    That is, the sanctions are not lifted, they are suspended pending the existence of no dispute. Once their is a dispute, they go back into place automatically and it takes a vote of the SC to lift them. So Russia or China can’t block sanctions.

    Page 20, part 37 of the dispute resolution section (http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/world/full-text-of-the-iran-nuclear-deal/1651/)

    That makes a pretty large difference, if I’m wrong and you’re correct.

    • jhanley says:

      As I noted to you in Facebook, you are right and I am wrong.

      However there is nothing truly automatic about sanctions. Member states will have to take positive action to reimpose them, and I don’t think there will be a lot of interest in that, particularly by Russia and China, unless Iran violates the agreement very egregiously and acts very threatening. The U.S. (and its lapdog the UK) could unilaterally impose sanctions, but I don’t think they’d be very effective.

  2. Michael Cain says:

    I haven’t waded through the document, but does it specify which fuel cycles and reactor technologies are acceptable for Iranian commercial power generation? Heavy water reactors (eg, Canadian CANDU systems) require no enrichment; most commercial light water reactors require enrichment to 3-5% U-235; reactors designed for very-long refueling cycles require much higher enrichment (some US Navy power reactors are initially loaded with weapons-grade uranium); thorium reactors require plutonium or highly-enriched uranium as a “starter”.

    Even forty years ago it was relatively clear that someday some of the developing economies would want to buy small modular reactors for baseload power generation. Carter, Reagan and Clinton shut down US reactor research, guaranteeing that when that day arrived the US would not be prepared to be the one doing the selling.

    • jhanley says:

      I’m not entirely sure yet. Here are a couple of items I’ve spotted.

      1. “For 10 years, Iran’s uranium isotope separation-related research and development or production activities will be exclusively based on gaseous centrifuge technology.”

      2. They’re going to rebuild their heavy water research reactor at Arak, but enrichment is limited to 3.67%.

      3. “Iran plans to keep pace with the trend of international technological advancement in relying on light water for its future power and research reactors with enhanced international cooperation, including assurance of supply of necessary fuel.
      There will be no additional heavy water reactors or accumulation of heavy water in Iran for 15 years. All excess heavy water will be made available for export to the international market.”

  3. greginak says:

    Strongly agree this is good deal. One really good point i read about the inspections was that we get more intrusive inspections in Iran then we ever had in our deals with the USSR. But those arms control deals were a good thing and have worked out well. At least the SALT deals haven’t hurt us yet. ( insert ominous music)

    More openness to Iran in general is a good thing. The Saudi’s need to know we aren’t dependent on them as out biggest ally in the region nor are we going to fight their battles in a Sunni/Shite holy war.

  4. One thing I’ve heard/read–through a point-counterpoint commentary on the PBS NewsHour and a recent column by Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic–is that this deal will result in Iran getting ca. $150 billion in assets that have heretofore been frozen and that Iran wouldn’t get if there had been no such deal. Is that correct? (It’s possible I’m misunderstanding those points, but that’s what it seems to me they’re saying.)

    • jhanley says:

      That’s my understanding. Part of the agreement to lift sanctions is to unfreeze those assets.

      Maybe they can loan them to Greece.

    • jhanley says:

      By the way, I may have left the impression that the sanctions get lifted right away. In fact there’s a process laid out in Annex V of the agreement that clarifies that Iran has to implement their end of the deal and only after that are the sanctions lifted.

      • Thanks for the answer. From what I heard on the Newshour, the assets could be unfrozen in as little as six months. And according to Goldberg, that would be a “windfall” for Iran to do all sorts of shenanigans…..which to me all seems a point against the deal.

        However….there’s too much I don’t know. I don’t quite understand whose assets are frozen when, for example, “Carter freezes Iranian assets in the US” and where the assets go when they’re unfrozen, or even what the assets are, and how we know they’re “Iranian.”

        I still think that the deal is probably on balance a good thing. But I’m speaking as a layperson with almost no knowledge or experiencein international relations.

        • Michael Drew says:

          To be clear: the assets being frozen is a primary impact of the sanctions and strictly of the sections – the “windfall” is not some additional thing above and beyond the sanctions being lifted (suspended).

          And the sanctions were in place, and had international support (the only thing that makes them effective), for one reason only: to change Iran’s incentives and behavior around its nuclear program – to get them to commit to verifiably abandoning (hopefully for good, but at least for some indeterminate period) any pursuit of nuclear weapons. This deal should be seen as profit taking from a successful investment in a stock whose value we now expect to level off or fall. The sanctions regime achieved its desired effect.

          The concern that Iran will now use the “windfall” it will get from agreeing to do what we wanted them to do in the nuclear realm (signaled by our imposition of sanctions whose lifting was conditioned on that) – use those funds for activities we strongly oppose – is very understandable. They will do that. But to use that as an argument against the deal (not something you are doing, Gabriel, but certainly something opponents are doing) is to show one;s cards that one never really bought into the real reason for the sanctions to begin with. The sanctions existed to change Iran’s behavior around nukes, so to say that their lifting should be conditioned on that and then also on the abandonment of support for terrorism is to twist the purpose of the sanctions, and betray the speaker as not actually committed to the nuclear issue per se. IF you want Iran to change their behavior around nukes and you impose sanctions in order to get that, then when you get that, you have to be willing to lit the sanctions, all other issues set aside. Otherwise you’ll never get the behavior change you want.

          And this latter is something that it has become clear to me is generally understood in all the debates about this. Even some of the deals proponents will tell you it’s likely in twenty years Iran will have weapons, and that, in any case, if they want them, they’ll move to get them, the only question will be can we strike quickly and accurately enough to prevent it (that’s why break-out time is so critical in all of this), or will a reaction to an Iran break-out have to take into account their actually having a bomb somewhere. The deal’s proponents will say that it’s very worth having that time come 10-15 years later than otherwise (and I agree), whereas opponents I think generally feel, Whats the difference when we strike: we’re going to have to strike anyway, so why lift sanctions?

          So then the question becomes, well, if opponents generally feel that the nuclear issue will be settled with force regardless (or are willing to hold out for a deal on nukes so comprehensive it’s essentially impossible, as is their state position, except not the “impossible” part), and aren’t interested in using sanctions to get a realistic nuclear deal, then what’s the point of sanctions anyway? And this is where you get back to the windfall. Sanctions deprive Iran of funds they can use to strengthen their projection of power out through their region (what we call “state-sponsored terrorism”). That behavior is probably of equal or greater, and certainly more immediate, concern to many people in the region and in the West as the nuclear program is. Why lift sanctions, they reason, when doing so gives tacit acceptance of this kind of power-projection (“terrorism”) – tables it to be addressed separately, in any case – and indeed provides funds that will be used to intensify it? And it’s a reasonable position.

          But it’s not about how good of a nuclear deal this is. That debate is actually about the sanctions per se almost as a policy aim rather than an instrument of behavior modification – should they be lifted all things considered, not just contingent on what the nuclear deal says exactly. After all, when you’re taking money away from an activity so that it can;t be done, as we do with terrorist organizations all over the world, you don;t do it to get them to change their behavior – not really. I suppose in theory we hope Al Qaeda gives up terrorism, but we don;t freeze their funds in that hope, we freeze their funds so they can’t use

          And here’s the thing: Iran’s never going to stop using irregular forces to project power through its region (“funding terrorists”). That’s too crucial a tool in its arsenal. Look how hard they;re fighting for nukes, and they don’t even have those yet!

          So the debate about the windfall is not really about whether Iran should have the sanctions lifted because it agreed to a sufficiently good nuclear deal. It’s about whether to (really it’s about arguing against) giving up sanctions as a tool for fighting Iran;s power in the region, as a first-order geopolitical tool (i.e. not to try to change behavior, but simply as a way to limit capacity) in the fight for power in the region – just the way we use the same tool to fight drug trafficking networks and terrorist organizations. It’s an argument for sanctions essentially for sanctions’ sake.

          That’s how far we are from the arguments of opponents of the deal who express greatest concern over the “windfall” Iran will get, and how it will be used to sow “mischief” in the region actually being about how good the nuclear deal itself is. They are so far beyond taking deals like that seriously. They know how they will deal with the Iranian nuclear question when the time comes. They are 100% concerned with what is being given up here. There is nothing that could be coming back that would make up for it. Not even, I don’t think, Iran agreeing to permanently give up any right to enrich flour, to say nothing of uranium, with the most thorough inspection regime conceivable. For them, that doesn’t give them anything they don’t think they already have via force (perhaps repeatedly applied decade after decade as necessary). Whereas this deal has them gee up something they want as a first-order policy tool in containing Iran;s conventional power projection in the region.

          Sorry to ramble: it’s a point I’ve been wanting to make somewhere, and your raising the windfall provided an exactly on-point opportunity.

        • I’ll confess I didn’t read your whole comment, but this is where I’m not/wasn’t sure:

          And the sanctions were in place, and had international support (the only thing that makes them effective), for one reason only: to change Iran’s incentives and behavior around its nuclear program – to get them to commit to verifiably abandoning (hopefully for good, but at least for some indeterminate period) any pursuit of nuclear weapons.

          Are the soon to be unfrozen assets only those that were frozen in the wake of Iran’s relatviely recent nuclear ventures, or are they the ones frozen from ca. 1979/1980 at the time of the revolution. If the former, then I’m not nearly as concerned about the unfreezing. If the latter, then my concern remains.

        • Michael Drew says:

          I believe it’s the latter, as what’s going to happen is only the lifting of sanctions imposed in the 2006-present time period. Assets frozen in 1979 weren’t frozen pursuant to sanctions imposed because of the nuclear program, and so won;t be part of this release of funds. I believe.

        • Michael Drew says:

          …Sorry, I mean the former.

        • Well, if that’s the case, then I’m much more well-disposed to the deal.

          Also–and this isn’t a claim you made but it’s something I think can be inferred from my comments above–I don’t oppose an eventual normalization of US relations with Iran or the eventual unfreezing of the 1979 assets. I’m too ignorant of the in’s and out’s, but it does seem to me that normalization could be in the better interests of the US, Iran, and the region, provided certain things are true or certain conditions are meant.

  5. Michael Drew says:

    Wish I could tag @gabriel-conroy, because here are some straight answers to our burning questions:


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