Pressure’s on, Iran

Pressure’s on, Iran
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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?


  1. LorenzoCanuck

    Sorry, JJ, but I'm not buying your gloom-and-doom scenario here.

    We have a good understanding of what sanctions have done to Iran: they have made it more intransigent. Everyone hates us, they decide, so we should pump up our military prowess to stop all of our enemies. This will persist as long as Iran believes that they have nothing to gain from backing down.

    It's funny that you mention that New Yorker article, because there's a significant section which talks about how in 2001 Iran gave the USA intel on Taliban positions, because they also hated the Taliban. In fact, US diplomats were working on a rapprochement with Iran for decades (Suleimani was directly involved), until GWB's "Axis of Evil" speech ruined all that. A couple of years later, Ahmadinejad became president.

    The only real interest the West has in the Middle East is that the Strait of Hormuz remains open for trade. Apart from that, we are best be letting the Sunnis and Shi'ites alone to worry about their mutual rivalry.

  2. AlexanderZ

    1. It’s not surprising that Iran has an energy problem. Merely having vast amounts of oil is not enough to turn it into something usable, and Iran is known (mostly due to sanctions) as a country where all processing plants fall apart.

    For example, look at Russia. They have vast amounts of oil and natural gas, but still their prices are high and there are occasional problems with supply (to Russia’s Asian parts in particular).

    2. When you list Iran’s current difficulties you should add “…and still they enrich uranium” as in: “Oil exports have declined by half …and still they enrich uranium, and their part-starved manufacturing sector has bottomed out …and still they enrich uranium.”

    Basically, Iran is going in North Korea’s direction, but posses a much greater threat. Since even Bush’s hawkish presidency couldn’t do a thing about NK, Obama’s negotiation with Iran suddenly seems much more reasonable.

  3. Devil Child

    Iran's going to aim for nukes no matter what. The mullahs know they can spit in the face of everything a worthwhile human being could hold decent, and their terrible regime will remain completely immune from all of it the second they get nukes.

    North Korea did the same thing, and it's worked spectacularly even though North Korea combines Saddamist freedoms with Somali function.

  4. @Cristiona

    Well… if by relieved, you mean "claiming that the US administration is lying through its teeth about the details of the agreement" then yes, Iran is "relieved".

    It's not only complicated, it's a complete mess that's likely going to have dire consequences.

  5. Jake_Ackers

    1) Sanctions don't work. Why? Because China, Russia and Pakistan and the rest go around them. Especially with a big country like Iran and its resources.

    2) Sanctions aren't the proper method. Free trade helps bring down regimes. Brazil's middle class grew and applied pressure to its military regime back in the 80s. The gov't was forced to negotiate itself out of power. Then you have the Cuba versus China examples.

    3) This deal smells of Pelosi's statement about Obamacare. "Pass it and you will know what's in it." Now I know we know a bit about this deal but the full deals and extent of this remains to be seen. Moreover, Israel is the primary target of Iran if not the US. I think they needed a big say, if not overt then behind the scenes giving a nod.

    4) Do people not realize what a dirty bomb is? Seriously. Enriching uranium, doesn’t require a nuclear reactor (Iran's method), extracting plutonium does (North Korea's method). All you need is enough radioactive material with some C4 and release it in the water or in some big building. Now it actually is quite difficult to get enough for a true dirty bomb that would kills hundreds if not thousands. But even with a little bit, you don't need to kill people, just cause a panic, or just put enough radiation to ruin the area for a period of time. The financial cost and panic would do enough. Heck, "spread of 137CsCl powder from a 93-gram container in 1987 in Goiânia, Brazil, resulted in one of the worst-ever radiation spill accidents killing four and directly affecting more than 100,000 people."

    Anyone see that episode of "Blacklist"? They pretty much did that in order to close a seaport. Although it was a corporation and not radical Islamic terrorists. But point made. Which leads to my next point.

    5) The problem is the regime. Only way to stop Iran is to have it's economy grow so the middle class grows and puts pressure on its gov't. Or we find an alternative to oil and bankrupt Iran.

  6. Devil Child

    Growing a middle class doesn't have any guarantee of stopping dictators. Franco lasted all the way through the Spanish Miracle, and died in office after ruling for 45 years. Hu Jintao's China presided over an unprecedented increase in middle class growth, was even more repressive than Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin put together, and he was the second Chinese leader in over a century to peacefully preside over a transition of power.

    There likely isn't a way to stop the Iranians that anyone in the world has the resources and will to follow through on. All we can do is learn to live with the worst.

  7. Jake_Ackers

    Agreed but you have proven my point. It depends on the country. Each country needs a different method. There is a tipping point. China still has a ways to grow with its middle class. Brazil couldn't provide what the people wanted. Russia the same. China can. Once China can't the middle class is too big for a communist nation. Same goes for Iran.

  8. CAB

    Every nation does have a right to enrich for economical use according to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

  9. Amestria

    So your alternative to negotiations is to use the sanction regime to coerce outright surrender and force the Iranian government to give up enrichment entirely? In other words, no negotiation, just outright forcing them into submission. What if the Iranian government wouldn't surrender? What if the Iranian government does not surrender, if it hardens its position in response to this increased pressure, and keeps enriching uranium? What then?

    That seems like a dead end street to me, and if we speed down it we will hit a brick wall, a failed state, a war, and a bomb.

  10. Monte

    Indeed. There is no way that Iran would give up on enrichment. Heck the new president may have taken a softer tone with the west, but he has always promised continuing their right to enrichment. Fact is, Sanctions have gone as far as they could. Heck most iranians support the civilian nuclear program and side with the regime on the issue and instead hate the west for unfairly waging sanctions against them; they don't blame the government for the poor economy, they blame us. So the regime is not even feeling pressure from amongst their people to end the program. And really, according the NPT, the West and the UN really do have no right to deny civilian enrichment to Iran… only thing we can do is, is pressure them to abide by the NPT which means making sure they stick to civilian enrichment and sumbit to inspections for verification

    And heck the sanctions wasn't stopping enrichment anyway; So they would be enriching all they want if we did not agree to anykind of deal. Only difference that the enrichment would go on unchecked.

  11. Simon

    The "easing" of sanctions is merely a token gesture. $7 billion is chump change, a tiny fraction of the total amount of frozen Iranian assets. The suggestion that this is somehow a "soft" move is ridiculous hyperbole.

  12. Devil Child

    The Iranian Government'll stop at nothing for nukes. Nukes provide Whitey Buldger immunity to even the worst regimes, governments that give up on their nukes and WMDs are guaranteed to get toppled, and the sanctions'll be lifted with time anyway in a futile attempt to reach a deal.

    When are people going to learn this isn't a negotiation? The mullahs lived through the fall of Saddam, South Africa, and Gaddafi. Does no one think they haven't learned what allowed decent people to bring them down?

  13. r00fles

    The South African regime had nukes, actually.

  14. Devil Child

    Yeah, and they voluntarily abandoned them in '89. Five years later, the Afrikaner regime was finished.

    Giving up WMD's has historically never helped despotic regimes, and keeping them has provided stability in the face of every other factor. Why on Earth would Iran even consider giving them up if North Korea of all countries continues to survive on nukes alone?

  15. r00fles

    They voluntarily abandoned them because they knew that they were going to be out of power soon and they didn't trust blacks with nukes. That's very different from 'the regime failed because it gave them up'.

  16. Devil Child

    The regime survived via brute force and scaring people. The more they stopped doing that, the closer the regime came to death.

    I'm happy it's gone. I'd hate to have ever lived in a country like that myself, but the retreat on brute force leading to the death of the regime sent a message to other authoritarians like the Kim Family and the Ayatollahs that stepping down on violence doesn't benefit you long term in any way if you want your regime to live.

    Again, I'd also love the Ayatollahs and the Kim Family to be scorched form the Earth, but they want to live forever, and will do whatever they see as best for that.

  17. r00fles

    Why do you think increasing sanctions will do anything against them? The ruling class isn't the one that the sanctions cause problems for.

  18. Devil Child

    The Iranian ruling class depends on a sedated populace that fears standing up to them more than living under them. If the people are pissed, they can't keep that.

    Besides, why the hell is it some sort of unforgivable offense to put sanctions on the Iranians, but when the Arabs embargoed oil, it was the divine will of Allah?

    Just admit why you actually want the sanctions lifted rather than dance around with your hypocrisy like this.

  19. r00fles

    And what of your example of North Korea? That's a regime that can drive its people from the relative heights of their prosperity into crushing poverty and starvation while not giving in to any dissent until memory of the happier times is basically gone. The USA has embargoed Cuba for four decades without any effect other than adding onto their troubles.

    I'm missing where I said it was holy for the Saudis to launch an oil embargo and evil for one to be in place against Iran? Please, enlighten me. Otherwise, I might have to accuse you of setting up some sort of straw man argument or something.

    I would prefer to have sanctions lifted because in general they don't seem to be working that well at anything other than giving a harder lot in life to the people they're supposedly aimed at helping from our end. Why do you want to impose them when they appear to be generally ineffective? I mean, let's go with the OPEC embargo that you mentioned. It was declared due to the USA heavily supporting Israel… did that embargo change that position? Obviously not. What it did do was heavily inconvenience the American citizens, but not really much of anything in changing the country's objectives in Middle East policy.

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