If poor old Obama was looking to catch a break in the foreign policy arena after a prolonged bout of bad headlines on the domestic front, he’s been sadly outta luck.
The prestige of last Sunday’s big six-month agreement between the United States, the four other UN Security Council permanent members, Germany, and the government of Iran, initially touted as a key step towards Middle Eastern peace and nuclear disarmament, seems to be withering surprisingly quickly under the harsh gaze of scrutiny. Despite Secretary Kerry’s famous quip that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” a growing chorus of critics say there’s little evidence his government followed its own advice.
The essence of the Iranian nuclear crisis has always been straightforward. Virtually every single country that has ever developed nuclear energy has also had a nuclear weapons program at some time or another (compare, for example, this chart to this one). This is because the technology that produces nuclear energy — the enrichment of uranium gas through high-speed centrifuges — is of the so-called “dual use” variety; the gas can either be processed into radioactive rods to power turbines, or turned into the inner casing for the plutonium core of a nuclear bomb. The only difference is the degree of enrichment the uranium requires — around 3% is sufficient to make useful rods, bomb parts, however, requires an enrichment level closer to 90%.
Iran is currently enriching uranium. They don’t deny this. They do deny having any plans to build nukes and insist they’re only in it for the electricity, but considering we’re talking about the world’s fourth-largest oil-producing nation here, global skepticism abounds. In any case, even if we’re only marginally suspicious of the regime’s honesty, the only surefire way to guarantee Iran won’t follow in the footsteps of every uranium-enriching paranoid police-state before them is to either a) get them to cease all enriching whatsoever or b) never let them get close to enriching at that magical 90% level. The Obama deal seeks the latter.
Under the terms of compliance, for the next six months Iran is going to halt its most advanced enrichment programs, and dilute down to a lower level all 20% uranium they’ve so far produced (their most enriched to date). Enriching at a level of 5% or lower will be allowed to continue, but Iran’s overall enriched uranium stockpile shall not be “greater at the end of the six months than it is at the beginning.” In order to keep enriching, the country will be able to keep all of their 19,000 centrifuges, but to ensure their uranium output remains stable, they can’t build any more. UN inspectors will be dispatched to monitor compliance.
In exchange for all this, the west will not impose any new sanctions on Iran and remove a bunch of existing ones. The White House estimates this will pump around seven billion dollars into Iran’s strangled economy.
It’s a complicated deal, to be sure, but it’s the simplicity of its central concession — Iran gets to enrich uranium, and thus gets to remain in that elite club of nations forever on the brink of nuke capabilities — that has prompted skepticism from everyone from Saudi Arabia to Canada to Obama’s former arms control coordinator to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
And why not be skeptical? Even leaving aside the geopolitical concerns, from a strict negotiation perspective, this deal is far from an achievement. Has ever a more dramatic power imbalance between nations yielded more meagre results?
It’s hard to imagine an opponent in a weaker bargaining position than Iran. The international sanctions that have been levelled against the country since the resumption of its nuclear program in 2006 have been some of the toughest in human history, and the country has never been more ostracized and unpopular within the broader global community.
No first world nation trades with Iran anymore and they are completely cut out of international banking. Oil exports have declined by half, and their part-starved manufacturing sector has bottomed out. Unemployment is estimated at around 20% — a level comparable to nations in sub saharan Africa — and even Iranians with stable, government jobs often don’t get paid because the treasury is so low on cash. Their dollar is currently valued at one-250th of an American cent, or at least it would be if Iranian money changers had access to foreign currency. This Times article from September quoted western economists predicting the country’s complete economic collapse in “perhaps a matter of months.”
One imagines the prospect of total economic collapse should be enough to put a government — and a people – in a pragmatic mood. And indeed, Iran’s new pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, was in large part elected because of his promises to quickly resolve the nation’s financial mess, famously making an American-style promise of swift action within his “first 100 days.” If there was ever a time for the Obama administration and its allies to drive a hard bargain — which is to say, insist Iran abandon its nuclear program, period — this was it.
But the bargain that ended up being driven was not particularly hard, and the Iranian response has been particularly relieved. The mullahs knows they left the negotiating table with three big gets — unprecedented recognition of the legitimacy of their regime by the President of the United States (for one does not sign deals with pariahs), a lessening of some sanctions, and a de facto acknowledgment of their right to enrich (the two sides “agreed to disagree” on whether this right exists, said the Times) — while the US and its allies got, well, six months of breathing space.
And what after that? Even if Iran immediately falls into recidivism and returns to enriching at 20% and beyond, the dynamic between Iran and the west will have shifted in such a permissive direction it will be tremendously hard to ever make tougher demands without first regressing to the pre-2o13 status quo — which was itself relatively permissive. Taking one step in a harsher direction will now require two steps back.
There was a remarkable, long feature in the New Yorker last month — easily one of the single most eye-opening articles I’ve read in years — documenting the sheer scope and complexity of Iran’s foreign policies, policies that entail (among other things) spending millions to prop up the Assad regime in Syria, turning Lebanon and Iraq into permanent vassal states run by Shiite extremists, and organizing near-constant terror attacks “in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi” including “at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone.”
More than anything else, however, the piece revealed the core mindset of the Iranian government — serious, sophisticated, ruthless, and focused on the long game.
No one should doubt the Iranians knew exactly what they were doing in signing last Sunday’s deal. The question is, did America?