"IRAN : The New Deal" by Jessica T. Mathews (NYRB)


[ Brian Snyder/ReutersUS Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Lausanne, Switzerland, March 2015]


During the months of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, opponents of a deal have loudly anticipated failure, either because a deal wouldn’t be reached, wouldn’t be good enough, or wouldn’t be upheld by Tehran. Charging that the impending deadline made the US too eager to reach a deal, House Speaker John Boehner unaccountably made the pressure worse by announcing that if a deal wasn’t struck soon, Congress would immediately impose new sanctions on Iran—an act that would preemptively destroy any hope of a final agreement.

Republican presidential candidates one-upped each other in expressing disapproval of the negotiations. Scott Walker promised to revoke the deal on “day one” in the White House. Ted Cruz said that anyone who doesn’t reject the deal “isn’t fit to be president.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker promoted an early vote on a bill that ostensibly would give Congress a voice on the acceptability of the deal but was actually laced with poison pills that could destroy the negotiating process. So while most Americans hoped for an agreement, Congress geared up to restart a ferocious debate on a question of paramount national security about an agreement that did not yet exist.

The deal finally reached on April 2 was a surprise. While the announcement referred only to “parameters,” summarized in individual press releases by each participant country, taken together, the elements that were made public are stronger than outsiders (and, reportedly, some insiders) expected. Iran agrees to cut the number of its centrifuges from about 19,000 to 6,100 (5,060 in operation). Rather than export its 10,000-kilogram stockpile of enriched uranium, Iran agrees to shrink it to 300 kilograms. As was expected, no facilities are to be destroyed, but the underground enrichment facility at Fordow, of particular concern because it is impervious to most bombing, will be converted to a research center.* No enrichment will take place there for at least fifteen years. The plutonium-producing reactor at Arak will be permanently reconfigured, and Iran has committed “indefinitely” not to reprocess spent fuel, the process that separates out the pure plutonium needed for a bomb. Various commitments last from ten to as long as twenty-five years.

While many details are missing, inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are to cover the entire supply chain of fissile material—from uranium mines to the mills where ore is processed, the facilities where it is chemically transformed before being enriched, and the manufacturing sites where centrifuge rotors are produced. A new mechanism will be created to track sensitive imports. The significance of such broad inspections is that if fully implemented, they would make it extremely hard for Iran to operate a secret weapons program.

In return, sanctions imposed by the US and its partners will be “suspended” once theIAEA certifies that Iran has, in the words of the US summary, “taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.” Since that would require a very long time and the language is notably vague, one has to suspect that the timing of sanctions relief—a key sticking point throughout—is still in question. Other important issues, such as inspections of the facilities where weapons-related work may have taken place, are not covered or are described so vaguely that they remain unclear.

The use of parallel announcements by the negotiating countries without a jointly signed document invites later disagreements over what was actually decided. Even in the first few hours, disputes surfaced over whether Iran has or hasn’t agreed to the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which provides, among other things, for delivery of more information to the IAEA and greater rights of access for its inspectors—an essential element of a verifiable agreement. One has to conclude that the negotiations still to come before the June 30 deadline will not just be about filling in the technical details and drafting airtight language—a huge task in itself—but in resolving several, and particularly divisive, issues that could not be agreed on at Lausanne. All that said, when we remember where this process began nearly two years ago and the years of failed attempts that preceded it, President Obama was within his rights in calling what has been achieved so far a “historic understanding.” In a long conversation with The New York Times three days later (April 5) elaborating on the pros and cons of a deal, he was again right in saying that even if Iran is “implacably” as bad as its greatest critics believe, this deal “would still be the best option” for US and Israeli security.


The US and Iran must each now sell the deal back home, a more than usually difficult task since so much is still to be negotiated. In Tehran, at Friday prayers the day after the announcement, clerics who speak for the Supreme Leader voiced cautious support for the deal. One could wish the same for Washington. Here the loudest critics, who may talk about fewer centrifuges, or a longer period before Iran could “break out” and produce sufficient uranium for a weapon, or their conviction that Iran will cheat, are actually hoping—though few will admit to it—for no deal.

Their reasons differ. Some want to inflict a crushing defeat on President Obama (include in this group the forty-seven senators who put a partisan victory over the nation’s security and, one must add, their self-respect in signing the infamous letter of Senator Tom Cotton, which warned Iranian leaders that an agreement with President Obama was likely to be quickly rejected by members of Congress or the next president). Others harbor a real fear: that any deal would be a first step toward ending thirty-five years of frozen hostility between the US and Iran, perhaps fundamentally shifting the power balance in the Middle East. In this category we can put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, AIPAC, the powerful, pro-Israel lobby group that follows his lead, and the government of Saudi Arabia, among others.

Between historic opportunity and disastrous mistake, what should Americans think? By definition, a negotiated agreement is imperfect. This one in particular entails risks, costs, extended vigilance, and a significant chance of future failure. Judging it begins and ends with clarity about what choices are truly before us. That has a simple answer: there are only two alternatives to a negotiated deal.

One is a return to the situation that prevailed for a decade before negotiations began and before an interim agreement was reached at the end of 2013. In the best case (in which Iran is seen to have been the cause of negotiating failure), punishing multilateral sanctions would continue. Iran’s leaders would respond as they have before, standing up to foreigners’ pressure by continuing their nuclear program—adding more advanced centrifuges, stockpiling enriched uranium, completing a reactor that produces plutonium, and taking Iran to the threshold of a nuclear weapon and perhaps beyond. There might continue to be some international inspectors on the ground, though with far less access than at present.

We know where this option leads, for it has been well tested. In 2003, the US rejected an Iranian proposal that would have capped its centrifuges at 3,000. By the time the current negotiations started a decade later, the standoff created by more sanctions and more centrifuges had resulted in costs of nearly $100 billion to Iran from sanctions and its production of 19,000 centrifuges. The lesson of sanctions—from Cuba to Russia and beyond—is that they can impose a cost on wrongdoing, but if the sanctioned country chooses to pay the price, sanctions cannot prevent it from continuing the sanctioned activities.

The second alternative is bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even supporters of this option do not believe that it would do more than delay Iran’s progress by more than two to four years. It would certainly unite all Iranians around the absolute necessity of having a nuclear deterrent. It would strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, radicalizing its politics and probably prolonging clerical rule. While the bombed facilities were being rebuilt, with more of them being put securely underground, there would be no inspectors or cameras. Outsiders would know far less than they do now about what is being built and where or how close Iran had come to producing a bomb. Soon another round of bombing would be necessary.

Is there a third alternative, namely a tougher deal that requires no enrichment in Iran and the destruction of its nuclear infrastructure? Prime Minister Netanyahu promised in his appearance before Congress that the US can get such a deal by “call[ing] their bluff.” Simply walk away from the table and “they’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.” If sanctions brought Iran to the table, this argument goes, more sanctions and more pressure will get us everything we want. It sounds reasonable, but it fails on closer inspection.

First, of course, the argument ignores the essence of negotiation—that neither side gets everything it wants. Also, although it is true that sanctions are imposing real pain on the Iranian economy, there are many in Iran’s power elite, especially in the Revolutionary Guard, who profit from the country’s isolation and would welcome continuing sanctions. Others oppose a deal for ideological reasons. The balance in Iranian politics that brought negotiators into serious talks for the first time was long in coming and remains precarious. If the US were to reverse course, abandoning negotiations in hopes of a winner-take-all outcome, Iran would follow suit.

Moreover, if other nations found America’s reasons for rejecting a deal unreasonable, support for multilateral sanctions would quickly erode. Soon we would be back to ineffective, unilateral sanctions.

The question, then, is whether proponents of this approach have diagnosed fundamental weaknesses in the deal that has been reached and genuinely believe that renewed negotiation could strengthen it, or whether they are counting on both sides walking away from the table and not returning. The fact that so many of them—emphatically including Netanyahu—trashed the deal before it existed and make demands they know to be nonnegotiable strongly suggests that the insistence that the US “negotiate a better deal” is phony. Its advocates should be pushed to describe exactly what they think could be extracted from Iran. The answers should be measured against reality, keeping in mind that Iran does not come to the table as a nation that has been defeated on the battlefield but as a country with enormous natural resources that has, over many years, reached near-nuclear status.

The argument for adding nonnuclear issues to the negotiations at this point—such as demanding that Iran must first agree to end support for terrorism—is equally untenable. The decision to limit the negotiations to Iran’s nuclear program was made, more than two years ago, for good reason. The number of grievances each side had against the other, and the decades-deep reservoir of distrust between them, meant that an all-encompassing agenda would reduce the already slim chances of success to near zero. Adding in the differing views of the P5+1 partners (China, France, Russia, the UK, the US, and Germany) only reinforces the conclusion. The goal posts cannot reasonably be moved now to include other aspects of Iranian policy, no matter how objectionable.


It is too soon to comment in detail about the elements of the agreement, especially about its all-important inspections, monitoring, and verification provisions, but two particularly vexing issues deserve attention.

Breakout time is often considered the measure of an acceptable agreement. It is not, as so often portrayed, the time required to build a bomb. It is defined only as the time needed to accumulate enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon, and it is an estimate, based on a number of assumptions. This accounts, in part, for differences in the numbers being quarreled about. The difference between the two to three months that Iran would need today and the twelve months that Iran would need under the agreement is highly significant. The difference between ten months and twelve months is meaningless.

More to the point is what comes next. After accumulating the fuel, a country has to make the actual weapon and then, presumably, test it. That, of course, means enough fuel for two weapons, not one. But the military value of a single nuclear weapon is close to zero. Indeed, if that weapon provokes a weaker adversary—Saudi Arabia, in Iran’s case—to acquire nuclear weapons of its own, the net result is not an asset but a tremendous liability.

For Iran to acquire a nuclear arsenal useful against Israel would require an enormous, highly visible, and easily detected effort over years. The only exception would be a choice to commit national suicide, for which a single bomb would suffice.

Breakout time is, in short, a useful measure but far from being the single important one. With appropriate restrictions on the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium and tight inspections and monitoring, far less than twelve months would actually be needed to detect and respond to an attempt by Iran to race for a weapon.

The second issue is the matter of when and to what degree Iran will reveal what it actually did in the past in pursuing a nuclear weapon. The IAEA has had a long list of questions about these activities that Iran has refused to answer for years. The US summary of the agreement says only that Iran “will implement an agreed set of measures” to address these concerns about past actions, suggesting that this issue, too, has not yet been agreed on.

Legitimate and highly emotional questions will be raised on this matter. My guess is that it will prove to be a continuing stumbling block for negotiations. To clear up the questions, Iran would have to admit to violating its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty it signed in 1970. Nations—all nations—hate to admit such error. Iran’s case will be even more difficult because of the fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader declaring nuclear weapons to be a violation of the principles of the Islamic Republic.

It may be necessary to work around the issue in some way, perhaps postponing the resolution for some years until public attention ebbs. Demands that Iran “come clean” are natural, but learning exactly what Iran did will have only modest technical value. Some calling for this information simply want to embarrass Tehran, or to pose a condition that will block an agreement. In the end, we may need to decide whether we care more about the future or the past. If so, this should be an easy call.


The most significant objection, not to this agreement but to any agreement, is the one that primarily fuels Israel’s efforts to prevent a deal. It is the fear that an agreement will lead to Iran rejoining the international community, to warming relations between Tehran and Washington, and to a change in the familiar alignment of nations in the Middle East. These are valid fears.

For most countries in the world, resolving the nuclear issue will mean that normal relations with Iran will soon follow. This was inevitable: Iran would not stay a pariah nation forever. And while more normal relations with the international community may or may not lead to less aggressive policies and less support for terrorism on Tehran’s part, continued outsider status is unlikely to change its behavior. With sanctions lifted, Iran will have much more money to spend—some of it for destructive purposes. That, too, is a price of an agreement.

On the other hand, the concern that the United States will return to the days of the Shah, closely aligning itself with Iran, is overblown. As the prospect of an agreement has neared, opponents have pushed this fear so far to the fore that they argue that the change they dread has already occurred. According to the Republican commentator Michael Gerson, “evidence for an evolving administration attitude toward Iran has been on display” in both Syria and Iraq. Republicans “sense a major shift in American policy—a desire to cozy up with Iran.” But the temporary convergence of American and Iranian interests in defeating ISIS in Iraq would exist whether nuclear talks were underway or not. Similarly, Washington’s prolonged indecision and its refusal to intervene militarily in Syria’s four-year-old conflict without a political solution in sight long predates the opening with Iran. The same is true for the burgeoning war in Yemen, where Washington chooses not to intervene militarily for compelling local reasons, not because Iran is backing the Houthi rebels.

It is impossible to predict whether a nuclear agreement will lead to better relations between the US and Iran in the near term. Hard-liners in both countries may respond by ratcheting up tensions on many other issues. Eventually, though, removing the absolute block to normal relations caused by Iran’s nuclear program would open the possibility of beginning to address the many other issues that divide Washington and Tehran. If that happens, it can only be to the good, but there is no reason to believe that the US will carelessly abandon its manifold objections to Iranian policies.

Nervousness on the part of the Sunni nations, particularly the Gulf States, is inevitable. Some of them can hardly decide whether they fear a nuclear deal more or less than a nuclear Iran. So far, the administration has shown care in addressing their concerns. The timing of the announcement that the US would resume arms sales to Egypt was not unrelated to the nuclear talks. And in announcing the deal, the president also announced an invitation to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States to meet at Camp David to discuss strengthening security cooperation.


The weeks ahead are of enormous consequence to US national security, not only with respect to Iran, but to our long-term ability to frame and execute a coherent foreign policy not determined solely by partisan motives. If Congress takes steps to reject the nuclear deal before it is completed, or if it undermines US negotiators by raising further doubts in Tehran that Washington will ever meet its commitments to lift sanctions, it will have done significant long-term damage to US power in ways that no amount of military strength can offset. The US ability to lead, to shape international relations, and to influence other countries’ decisions depends on its stature. A country that follows one policy through several presidencies with bipartisan support and then suddenly reverses course midstream will be diminished. A country that cannot speak abroad with a single voice will not command the respect the US expects and needs.

If a final deal can ultimately be negotiated, Congress will have a major part to play when it must decide whether Iran’s behavior merits lifting legislative sanctions. Long before that, Congress should have a full opportunity to assess the agreement, which can only be done after negotiations are completed. Chairman Corker should underline the leadership position he took in not signing the Cotton letter by postponing a vote on this bill until early July and adjusting its language accordingly. Later, Congress’s oversight of the deal’s implementation should be robust. Optimally, a special body can be created to receive frequent, highly classified briefings and to travel to Iran to judge for itself whether the agreement’s terms are being fully met.

Those who worry that a deal with Iran will entail some risk should remember that preventing nuclear proliferation almost never happens in a single leap. Countries change direction slowly. International rules and norms are built up brick by brick over years. Technical capacities to monitor and political expectations are gradually but steadily strengthened. The agreement with Iran, if one is finally reached, will not be the end, but a beginning. It must be strong and carefully framed and minutely monitored, but it need not be watertight in order for it to ultimately open the way to a permanently nonnuclear Iran.

April 6, 2015

For more on both the activities that will be forbidden at Fordow and the scientific research that might take place there, see Jeremy Bernstein, “ A New Future for Iranian Physics?,” NYRblog, April 3, 2015. 



Mot clés : nucléaire - iran - USA

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