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Historic achievement or historic mistake: Is Iran getting away with murder?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) entered into by the P5+1 nations and Iran at Lausanne seemed better than almost anyone expected. Obama called it “an opportunity of a lifetime”. His supporters have been equally enthusiastic. Howard Adelman declares “To call this a major foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration is an understatement”. The headline to Fred Kaplan’s article in Slate was “Deal of a Lifetime”.

But Netanyahu and others claim that the deal would “pose a grave danger to the region and to the world and would threaten the very survival of Israel”. Their basic concerns are that Iran is committed to a militarised, nuclear program that the present framework leaves the nuclear infrastructure in place to be used when the opportunity is ripe. They fear it will boost the economic strength and regional reputation of Iran and will provide ample opportunity for the Iranian leadership to exploit tensions within the Western alliance and between Israel and its patrons. In their view an erratic rogue state with genocidal intentions towards Israel (and the West more generally) will have been allowed to slip the leash with incalculable consequences.

The terms of the JCPOA, at first glance, are impressively tough. From 19 000 current centrifuges only about 6000 will be allowed and these will be of the older variety (somewhat less impressive when one considers that at the start of international negotiations 12 years ago Iran had only 100 centrifuges). Uranium will be enriched to 3.7 % (not 5%) and the stockpiles must be reduced from 10 000 kg to 3 000 kg. The secretive Fordo facility will be converted to peaceful uses only, mainly research and development, and Iran will be compelled to redesign and rebuild the reactor at Arak which will no longer produce plutonium. Some material will be shipped out of the country and centrifuges and facilities will be mothballed and subject to intrusive IAEA inspection. The IAEA inspections will monitor procurement pathways and sanctions will only be lifted after the IAEA has verified compliance. Sanctions will, theoretically, automatically “snap back” into place following any transgressions by Iran. All restrictions are in place for at least 10 years and some will be in force for up to 25 years, and even longer. The deal is designed to ensure at least a 1 year break-out time – enough, so the claim goes, to permit effective preventative action.

Surely this, and more, should be enough to allay the anxieties of even the most suspicious and vulnerable states. If that is the case, what motives could underlie all the blowback this agreement has elicited? At the most fundamental level the two sides represent two opposed paradigmatic views of the world.

On the one, the Obama side, we have the expansive, leftwing view of world history whereas the other side, the rightwing, Netanyahu camp, represents the cautious, “realist” view of political reality. The first believes the world is basically predictable and the risks manageable while the other sees the world as unpredictable and believes that seriously adverse outcomes are generally underestimated. The Obama side is more willing to take on board moral responsibility for conflict and tends to perceive the “enemy” as motivated by the same basic motives and goals as themselves. The Netanyahu view on the other hand, sees enemies motivated by evil and hostile designs which require a correspondingly forceful response to serve as a deterrence. Where the left sees opportunity and the right sees a trap. The first fears war and the other fears appeasement. Obama wishes to rewrite the terms of American diplomacy; Netanyahu believes that the basics never change.

Such foundational orientations may be partly wired into brain hardware and software according to recent research. They may reflect genetic differences between individuals but are almost certainly also a product of experience, culture and context, and these differ markedly between the two protagonists.

Of course no experienced politician is simply a robot acting in accordance with their underlying paradigm. Obama by now has, doubtless, lost many illusions with which he entered the White House. He has admitted that Iran is a seriously bad actor in the Middle East. Its history of openly genocidal anti-Zionism and virulent anti-Semitism, its promotion of innumerable proxy conflicts across the region, its sponsorship of terrorism, its dismal record of human rights, its brutal suppression of internal dissent and corruption, its prolonged and secretive militarisation of its nuclear program, its hegemonic ambitions and dreams of a global Caliphate are all too well documented to be brushed aside. All this is made more unpredictable by the fragmented and factionalised nature of governance and society within Iran, exacerbated by the immunity of the Revolutionary Guard and its various arms to Parliamentary control. Furthermore, the entire region is engulfed in anarchic sectarian violence with wholly unpredictable outcomes other than the fact that it is likely to get worse before getting better.

These political realities together with intense internal and external political scrutiny have kept Obama on a relatively tight rein in his dealings with Iran. But given his basic orientation his over-riding commitment to “engagement”, as articulated in his interview with Thomas Friedman, comes as no surprise. His position is  summarised in the interview: “Obama said…that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests…far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.”

That in a nutshell is precisely the problem critics have with the agreement. Basically, Obama was set on getting a deal – maybe the best possible under the circumstances – but a deal was his bottom line. Given this starting position, it is not surprising that Iran was able to emerge jubilant from the negotiations in Lausanne. As pointed out by Gerecht and Dubowitz, there is something suspicious when Obama and the Iranian foreign minister both declare the framework agreement an “historic achievement”.

The first and most obvious point is that while the USA may be confident it can ride out adverse outcomes, the same does not apply to Israel. The two countries differ fundamentally in terms of history, location, size and power in all its forms. They exist in different risk universes: for Israel a rampant, economically and militarily strong Iran emboldened to pursue its regional ambitions is a direct, existential threat and, to a lesser extent, this applies to many of Israel’s neighbours in the region. For the USA it is a nuisance.

Secondly, Israelis and America’s allies have little faith that the USA, especially under Obama or perhaps any foreseeable Democratic dispensation, will protect its interests when push comes to shove. For most Israelis the manifest eagerness of the USA to enter into an agreement with Iran, especially with Iran reeling from the effect of sanctions, is incomprehensible. They are acutely conscious of the open hostility Obama has shown to Netanyahu in striking contrast to the understanding and courtesies he has showered on militant Islamic regimes. His references to having “Israel’s back” and his expressed affinity for Israel’s values and history ring hollow in the face of his actual behaviour in the turbulent world of global politics.

It is, therefore, worth looking deeper into this “historic achievement” in the light of the realist paradigm and, more specifically, from the Israeli point of view.

Item 1: Iran will cheat on or, at the very least, interpret the agreement differently where their interests dictate. Disagreements have already surfaced publicly before the final document is done and dusted. One relates to sanctions: Iran claims that sanctions will be lifted immediately following a comprehensive agreement in contra-distinction to the JCPOA from Lausanne which requires full compliance with all key provisions before lifting sanctions. There are differing interpretations of the restriction on centrifuge research at Fordo and, while the USA claims that surprise inspections are permitted, Iran claims this is only a temporary provision. Importantly, America expects Iran to export its vast excess of uranium whereas Iran offers to convert the material but keep it within the country. There does not seem to be a final agreement on the possible military dimensions of Iranian nuclear-related research on the table.

Unless these ambiguities are nailed down tight in the final agreement they will undoubtedly become significant points of contention in assessing whether Iran is complying with the final agreement. This in turn becomes key when discussing Iranian breakout capacity. But even more basically, why is Iran permitted to play these games?

At the start of the international negotiations the goal, repeatedly stated, was that Iran would not be permitted any form of nuclear military program. Insidiously, this has been watered down to a one year break-out time. Why? Is it because this is the most the Supreme Leadership would tolerate in order for Obama to get his historic foreign policy achievement?

Item 2: In consequence a massive credibility gap exists when it comes to enforcement. The first  source of concern, is that Obama is outsourcing implementation and verification to the UN Security Council, the same Council with Russia and China as members where US influence is limited. Almost unbelievably, this vital function is thus taken out of the hands of the USA, not to mention, Israel which is the primary target of a nuclear-armed Iran in order to ensure that Obama’s political opponents in the USA are unable to scupper his deal.

The “one-year breakout time” is a mirage. Should Iran seriously aim for nuclear weapons it can easily  blow sufficient smoke into the eyes of public opinion and the UN/IAEA alike, to delay an effective response till too late.  In any case, “snap-back” sanctions is simply a public relations term. Besides differing ideological considerations and national interests, Iran is far too valuable an economic partner for countries to jump eagerly back into sanction mode. It would be a relatively simple matter for Iran and its allies to paint Israeli intelligence, for instance, as a poisoned source and for an unwilling UN or West to ignore anything much less than an underground nuclear test. Even if the evidence of serious Iranian transgression became sufficiently compelling, sanctions may be too little, too late and, given the current climate in Obama’s USA and the West, the threat of military intervention is a paper tiger.

If logic alone is not sufficiently convincing, the history of Western failure to prevent the emergence of nuclear-armed rogue or unstable states would be sufficient to induce serious scepticism. The most egregious example is, of course, North Korea and listening to a confident, persuasive Clinton selling the North Korea deal to the world public is a sobering experience. But given the best-case scenario, that the inspections and verification regime are sufficient to deter Iran for a while, after 10 years they will be seriously attenuated as pointed out by the experienced ex-Deputy Head of the IAEA, Olli Heinenen. Obama himself has admitted that by 13 years the break-out time will be essentially zero.

There can be no doubt that the Lausanne document is far from fail-safe. It has clear and obvious flaws, but one thing still remains in its favour. It has not been signed into a binding agreement. There is time, therefore, to look at its clauses and missed opportunities in detail. Israel, to its credit, has responded with genuinely constructive suggestions and a number of pertinent questions, notably, “Why is the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in about a decade not linked to a change in Iran’s behavior?” The American response was dismissive. According to Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, the deal met American core objectives and walking away from it would compromise USA ability to rally world opinion.

Obama, by the huge investment of his personal prestige, has mortgaged his reputation to the agreement, a fact Iran will not hesitate to exploit. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, unless significantly more pressure is brought to bear on the Obama administration or Iran itself somehow manages to scupper the deal in the intervening period, an agreement very much along the lines of the present draft will be signed in June.

For those like Obama, far from the frontline and eager to rewrite the rules of international engagement in line with their view of the engagement paradigm, this represents an historic opportunity. For others, like the Israelis, located in the epicentre of a violent, anarchic and unforgiving region, the deal provides a dangerous enemy with a free pass to hatch more mischief.

The future will tell whether Obama emerges as modern prophet or yet another Western Chamberlain. Kissinger and Schultz, two former Secretaries of State, have quite brilliantly analysed the potential defects in the Obama doctrine as applied in the Middle East. They conclude “…the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region. Rather than enabling American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms. History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help themselves.

The next decade will be a litmus test of the limits and terms of Obama’s concept of “engagement”. Let us all hope that  that given the very real prospect of failure Israel does not have to bear the full brunt alone.

Mike Berger


10 responses to “Historic achievement or historic mistake: Is Iran getting away with murder?

  1. Victor Gordon April 11, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Great article Mike especially when coupled with the links you’ve provided. After reading it all no-one can claim to be hazy about the entire situation as well as all the alternatives. Well done and thank you


    • Mike Berger April 11, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      Thanks Victor. I actually had many more references than appeared in the post but, due to the mechanics of the system, only the first (and not necessarily the best) were shown. But that is not important.


  2. Jennifer April 10, 2015 at 10:17 am

    It has always been said that the US would abandon Israel if it was politically expedient. It seems that time has come..


  3. Malcolm Smith April 10, 2015 at 9:38 am

    Pity there wasn’t an Addendum to the Agreement which covers Iran’s long-range missiles which I think are of great danger to Israel. Their sale to neighbouring countries, as proxies for its diabolical approach to Israel’s very existence or direct use, are a more immediate danger than the nuclear capability. Look at the potential effect of the (inferior) rockets during the 50-day Gaza war; without Iron Dome they would have caused death and destruction


    • Mike Berger April 10, 2015 at 10:08 am

      Yes, clearly the issues go beyond nuclear. Israel has made a point of that but it is falling on deaf ears. I suspect that Obama’s hoping that if the shit does hit the fan, it will occur after his Presidency is over – see interview with Friedman.


  4. Bev Goldman April 10, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Just read this on the Daily Maverick – says it all, doesn’t it?
    “Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has demanded that sanctions be lifted with any nuclear deal. Flatly accusing western nations of possibly being “deceptive” in the formulation of the negotiations in the first place, the blunt remarks by Khamenei have gone over like a wet fart in an elevator. The United States, whom Khamenei also termed “devilish”, has insisted that sanctions be lifted gradually. Given Iran’s tradition of breaking any diplomatic agreements just months after being ratified, this is not unreasonable.”


  5. Charles Smith April 9, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    One of the keys is in this quote from the article: “America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks”.
    I think maybe if I were sitting 10,000 km. away I’d also be prepared to take some calculated risks on the lives of my friends sitting next door to Iran.
    Afraid it all sounds as if the leader of the “western world” is a small man, blinded by pre-programmed emotional attitudes, including a preparedness to take huge risks (at other people’s expense) in order to satisfy a personal whim – like leaving a legacy, even when logical rational thought would show that the chances of his gambles coming off as he imagines, are negligible. In which case the consequences for the world could be catastrophic.


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