By Joshua Shinbrot

Editor’s note: This piece is the first in a several part series by the US-Middle East Network’s Chief Technology Officer Joshua Shinbrot on Iran.

The White House has launched a major campaign to produce American support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as “the Iran Deal.” President Obama’s negotiating position with the American people has been unambiguous: accept the Iran deal or embrace war. Supporters and critics of the Iran Deal alike should demand a discussion of the actual merits and drawbacks of the Iran deal rather than the oversimplified slogan that the only alternative to this particular deal with Iran is war.

Assume that the White House has framed the options accurately and that rejection of the Iran deal really will mean war. Armed conflict between the United States and Iran would not be pretty, but military realities simply dictate that the winner of such a war would not be Iran. The fact that Iran would lose a war with the United States is certainly not a call to arms. However, it does provide grounds for questioning whether or not President Obama means what he says when he frames the acceptance or rejection of the Iran deal as a choice between diplomacy and war. Proponents and critics of the deal agree that the JCPOA is a really good deal for at least one party to these negotiations. That is, they agree it’s a really good deal for Iran. The Iranian negotiators who were smart enough to produce such a good deal for Iran are certainly smart enough to know that Iran would not win a war with the United States. This should lead proponents and critics of the deal alike to wonder: Did the United States have the same intractable negotiating position with the Iranians that President Obama now has with the American people? Did the United States present a list of demands to Iran and hold the line that it now holds with the American people: accept this deal or risk war with the United States? If so, why are there so many drawbacks to the deal?

It is easy to see that the negotiating position that President Obama has outlined with the American people is far more aggressive than the one the Administration has adopted with Iran. This is not mere conjecture, but rather a verifiable fact. The publicly available text of the deal outlines the choices that the Iranians faced at the negotiating table and the choices they stand to face when the JCPOA is implemented. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have spoken openly about the consequence if Iran violates the nuclear deal. They have threatened the use of “snap-back,” a mechanism that at least theoretically, allows the United States to re-impose sanctions on Iran – unilaterally if necessary.

Iran faced a clear choice at the negotiating table: make a deal or continue to suffer under the most comprehensive international sanctions regime ever created. After the deal is implemented, the Iranians face a less-stark choice: keep the deal or face the re-imposition of sanctions. The choice is less-stark after implementation of the deal because all of the contracts that Iran enters between the implementation of the deal and the violation of the deal are grandfathered in and will not be affected by the re-imposition of sanctions. Consequently, it appears that the American negotiators never forced Iran to choose between a deal and war with the United States.

It is unacceptable for any president of the United States, Democrat or Republican, to adopt a tougher negotiating position with the American people than he did with the world’s largest state sponsor of terror. The American people, whether they are supporters or opponents of the deal should demand better.

Proponents of this deal believe that it is likely the world’s best option for preventing, at least temporarily, Iran from developing nuclear weapons. They argue that the military option, if exercised, will only set the Iranian nuclear program back by a few years. This deal, they believe, will prevent the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least as much, if not more time than military strikes. Critics of the JCPOA argue that a better deal would include a more robust inspections regimen that would give inspectors anytime, anywhere access to ensure that Iran is not pursuing a covert path to develop nuclear weapons. They believe that the “snap-back” mechanism is fundamentally flawed. While the mechanism theoretically allows the United States to unilaterally re-impose sanctions on Iran, the actual re-imposition of sanctions on Iran will require international cooperation. Thus, no member of the P5+1 can truly re-impose all international sanctions against the will of its partners, even if it seems like it can on paper.

Supporting this deal does not mean opposing war, and rejecting this deal does not guarantee war. Whether you are a proponent or critic of this deal, it is a fact that if this deal is implemented Iran will be a threshold nuclear state that will be able to quickly produce a nuclear weapon in roughly 8-15 years. The reason that Iran will be a threshold nuclear state in less than two decades is that Iran will be treated like a normal member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) before forcing it to behave like every other member of the NPT. Economically crippling sanctions have not prevented Iran from using terrorist proxies to achieve its regional ambitions. They have not prevented Iran from supporting the Assad regime in continuing the Syrian civil war that has killed more than 300,000 people. A resistance mentality has led the Iranian regime to achieve, through this deal, the lifting of sanctions and the right to be a nuclear threshold state. Now, the question is: Will a deal that legitimizes and emboldens that same oppressive, extremist, homophobic, and misogynistic Iranian regime lead it to begin behaving like Germany or other normal members of the NPT?

If Congress rejects this deal with Iran and diplomacy fails to produce a better one, technological sabotage and the use of force will likely be the only options that remain to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb. By framing the Iran deal as a choice between diplomacy and war, the President is making the claim that the rejection of this deal will indicate the failure of diplomacy and the use of force will be the only option that remains to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This President has threatened the use of force before (most notably in Syria) and ultimately backed off when he believed a better diplomatic option presented itself. Proponents and critics of this deal alike should test the President when he claims that the failure of this deal will mean war. They can do this by challenging the President to support Congressional legislation that would authorize the use of all necessary means to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon if Iran violates the JCPOA. If the president means what he argues when he states that the failure of this deal means the use of force will be necessary, he should have no problem putting that in writing by signing legislation that would authorize its use if the deal fails.

Proponents of the deal should demand to know that the President truly believes that the choice between acceptance and rejection of this deal is a choice between diplomacy and force. Critics of this deal need to know that the President is really willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that Iran doesn’t obtain a nuclear weapon covertly or in time. And Iran needs to know unambiguously that today or in 25 years, if it tries to cheat or build a bomb, the United States will use any means necessary, including force to prevent it from obtaining one. Reasonable proponents of the JCPOA will admit it has some drawbacks. Reasonable opponents of the JCPOA will admit the deal has some merits. A discussion of those merits and ways to address the deal’s drawbacks would contribute much more to the public debate than the oversimplified classification of critics as warmongers and supporters as diplomats.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif (Right) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Source: http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wabe/files/IranianNegotiations_033015.jpg

By Joshua Shinbrot

Since the August 2002 revelation of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, efforts have been made to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by the Iranians. Initial attempts to curtail the Iranian nuclear program were led by the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. In 2006, the United States, China, and Russia joined the Europeans in their endeavor to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, forming the P5 + 1 (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).

In March 2013, the United States held secret, direct talks with Iranian officials in Oman. Only three months away from Iranian presidential elections, the Islamic Republic seemed unwilling to budge due to domestic political considerations. The Obama administration became more hopeful about talks after Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in June 2013.

Since Rouhani’s approval of talks, two deadlines for the conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear agreement have passed, but no final agreement has been reached and deadline extensions have been repeatedly granted. Most recently, in November 2014, the P5 + 1 and Iran agreed to extend the deadline for concluding a final deal until June 2015. As part of the extension agreement, the US and Iran were supposed to produce a “framework understanding” by the end of March. Despite its release two days past the limit set by negotiators, a framework was agreed upon on April 2.

Ever since the release of this framework agreement, media pundits on every major US news network have been praising or condemning the Iran deal. At this point, however, there really is no deal. What exactly was reached, then, after the most recent marathon round of negotiations between the US and Iran hosted in Lausanne, Switzerland? In his April 2, 2015 speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the outcome of these talks as a “political understanding with details.” For those readers not fluent in ‘Bureaucrat’ who are wondering what a “political understanding with details” actually is, so am I. But, when I attempt to translate from Bureaucrat-speak to English it means something like, “we have a handshake agreement on the outline of a possible deal.”

What are the actual “details” contained within Secretary Kerry’s “political understanding?” Iran must reduce the number of centrifuges it is spinning to 5,060 for the next ten years. The Islamic Republic is only allowed to spin its first generation centrifuges. All centrifuges remaining beyond the first 6,104 are to be placed in “IAEA monitored storage.” This means that the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, will have access to the facility where Iran’s 12,896 remaining centrifuges are stored. All 19,000 of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges (devices used to produce and enrich fissile material) will remain on Iranian soil. Iran is only obliged to limit the number of centrifuges it is spinning for ten years. Leaving all 19,000 centrifuges on Iranian soil ensures Iran retains all the components needed to reignite an industrial sized nuclear weapons program the moment this agreement expires.

The Impermanent Portions of the Deal

In fairness, not all aspects of this “political understanding with details” will expire after ten years. The President of the United States, Secretary Kerry, and other members of the Obama administration have attempted to reassure skeptics by stating that some components of this deal will remain in place indefinitely. What exactly are those indefinite components of the deal?

“Iran has committed indefinitely to not conduct reprocessing or reprocessing research and development on spent nuclear fuel.” Iran has a heavy water reactor at Arak. The spent fuel from this reactor could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The detail of Kerry’s “political understanding” quoted above seems designed to prevent Iran’s ability to weaponize spent fuel from the Arak reactor, which must be modified according to the terms of the agreement. In addition to the ban on research and development, Iran must not build any additional heavy water reactors for fifteen years.

While the Obama administration is correct in asserting that some aspects of the “political understanding with details” are indefinite, a deal based on this “political understanding with details” is simply inadequate to reassure skeptics that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon. Iran’s “indefinite” moratorium on research and development simply means that it agrees to halt this research for a period of time that is undetermined. It would be unreasonable to assume that this agreement is so ambiguous that Iran could resume reprocessing research on spent fuel from its nuclear reactors tomorrow. Nevertheless, it is much less unreasonable to assume that Iran will resume reprocessing and reprocessing research after the expiration of Iran’s fifteen-year commitment to refrain from building additional heavy water reactors. In fact, according to an agreement based on this outline, in ten or fifteen years Iran could resume reprocessing and reprocessing research while claiming it is still abiding by the terms of its agreement with the P5 + 1. According to its understanding with the P5 + 1, the ban on reprocessing and associated research is not permanent. It is only indefinite.

This is not merely playing semantics. The word “permanent” does appear in another portion of the text of the political understanding between the US and Iran released by the State Department. According to the text of the agreement, “Iran’s adherence to the Additional Protocol of the IAEA is permanent, including its significant access and transparency obligations.”

Iran has invested copious resources to develop an industrial-size military nuclear program, even under severe economic sanctions. An agreement with Iran must be specific regarding the limits that are placed on research and development. Prohibitions on research and development that could allow Iran to better understand how to build a bomb should be permanent and any final nuclear deal should specifically delineate those unending restrictions.

Is No Enrichment Really Unreasonable to Ask of Iran?

Some have insisted that in order for a nuclear deal with Iran to be acceptable, Iran must not be allowed to enrich any Uranium. In other words, some have insisted that an acceptable deal could allow Iran to have a civilian nuclear energy program. However, given Iran’s support of terrorist organizations, bellicose rhetoric, and violent behavior, Iran should not be allowed to enrich its own Uranium. Instead, Iran could obtain the fissile material it needs for civilian nuclear power and medical purposes abroad.

Iran’s negotiating position calls for domestic enrichment. The Obama administration has generously sought to construct a deal that enables Iran to say that it is continuing to enrich Uranium, while the P5 + 1 can say that Iran will be unable to build a bomb. However, the President has not done anything to ensure the fearful Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and Jordanians that this deal does not “pave Iran’s way to the bomb,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated.

In his speech to the United State Congress that received much media coverage, Prime Minister Netanyahu notably did not call for a deal that prevents the Iranians from all nuclear enrichment. This seems to be an even more moderate position than the one taken by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states at their meeting with President Obama at Camp David in early May. At this meeting the Saudis and other Arab states have committed to match any enrichment program that the Iranians are allowed to retain.

When the United Arab Emirates decided to act upon its desire for a peaceful nuclear program, it signed a cooperation agreement with the United States that prevents domestic nuclear enrichment. Instead, the UAE is assured a supply of needed nuclear fuel from outside sources.

Iran is one of four countries on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The United Arab Emirates is not on that list. According to the State Department’s 2013 Country Report on Terrorism, Iran has armed Houthi rebel groups in Yemen and Shia rebels in Bahrian. Iran has continued to sponsor Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In Syria, Iran has continued to actively support Assad, even after he used chemical weapons on his own people. Iran has also aided Al-Qaeda and used its proxy, Hezbollah, to train Shiite militants who have killed Americans in Iraq.

Why is Iran, perhaps the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, allowed to enrich Uranium while the United Arab Emirates is not? The United Arab Emirates is not on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List and the UAE did not plan a raid in Iraq in which five American soldiers were killed. This is not to argue that the UAE should be allowed to enrich Uranium. It shouldn’t be permitted to enrich its own Uranium and it seems perfectly happy to be obtaining its own Uranium abroad.

Perhaps the case of the UAE illustrates the clear difference in the intentions between the Iranians and the Emiratis. The Emiratis want nuclear power for civilian purposes. They are willing to forgo domestic enrichment and obtain nuclear fuel abroad. Despite maintaining that it only seeks a peaceful nuclear program, Iran has all the components of a military nuclear program. Beyond its industrial-sized and extensive nuclear enrichment program, Iran has a vast ballistic missile program. It is important to mention that the other components of Iran’s military nuclear program, including its ballistic missile program are not limited in any capacity according to the “political understanding with details” between the P5 + 1 and Iran. Unlike the UAE, Iran insists on enriching its own Uranium and on keeping the 13,940 centrifuges that it is not permitted to use within its borders.

The “political understanding with details” that the Obama administration has produced is not a framework for an agreement that ensures that the only type of nuclear program Iran maintains is a peaceful one. Any Iran deal that Obama signs based on this framework is one that merely kicks the can down the road and will leave a future American President with no option to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb but military intervention. As Iran is allowed to continue nuclear research and development, its breakout time will be continually reduced. President Obama himself has said that in a mere thirteen years, Iranian breakout time will be near zero.

In 2028, with an Iranian breakout time of zero, the President of the United States will not have the luxury that President Obama has now of extending deadline after deadline in the hope of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. The President will be faced with the choice of either eliminating Iran’s nuclear program or permitting the development of nuclear weapons by the world’s largest state sponsor of terror and allowing for the outbreak of a massive nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region.

Negotiating a Better Deal

At present, the US has a tremendous opportunity to alter its negotiating tactics and lock down a better deal with Iran that ensures any Iranian nuclear program will be a peaceful nuclear program. Realities of the negotiating situation have changed. Although Iran needs a nuclear deal more than the US, the Obama administration has negotiated as if it wants a deal more than the Iranians. On May 21, the President signed a bi-partisan law granting Congress the power to review any deal he makes with the Iranians. Regardless of whether or not the President wants a deal more than Iran does, the President will only get a deal, if any, that Congress can accept. Moreover, the insistence by Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that they will match any enrichment capability that Iran retains provides the US with additional bargaining power and it may change the president’s calculations.

Can President Obama accept responsibility for Iran as a threshold nuclear power in the Middle East if it does not develop a nuclear weapon on his watch? Perhaps. Can the crowning foreign policy achievement of Obama’s presidency be the creation of multiple threshold nuclear powers in the Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council? President Obama has coined himself as an opponent of nuclear proliferation and claims to be opposed to a nuclear Iran partly because of the arms-race that a nuclear Iran would initiate in the Middle East. If a deal with Iran based on the released framework guarantees the development of industrial sized nuclear programs within many Middle Eastern states, this will constitute a threat not only to American national security, but also to Obama’s legacy.

Americans need to reevaluate whether or not Iranian nuclear enrichment is tolerable if other Middle Eastern states intend to match that enrichment capacity. The United States should also re-examine whether or not it is really wise to allow Iran to keep all 19,000 of its centrifuges within its borders. Saudi Arabia has insisted that it will match Iranian enrichment capacity. This could mean that Saudi Arabia will decide to keep 19,000 centrifuges within its borders, but promises only to spin 5,060 of them. Could the United States really prohibit its Saudi friends from pursuing this type of enrichment program after approving it for the Iranians?

Would the United States be changing the rules in the middle of the game if it were to deviate from the understandings reached in the political framework? It may be more accurate to characterize such a move as an acceptance of the Iranian rules of negotiation, rather than a change of the rules by the US. After all, the adoption of a position insisting upon enrichment was a change in the middle of the process by the Iranians. In 2003, when the UK, France, and Germany threatened to bring Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program, Iran agreed to “cooperate fully with the IAEA and suspend all Uranium enrichment.” This demonstrates that in the past, the Iranians have been willing to accept a position of zero-enrichment in order to prevent possible sanctions.

Any deal with Iran must not only prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the short term, but assure the United States and its friends that Iran will never be able to develop a military nuclear program. This will involve strict limitations on the types of nuclear components and dual-use items that can be kept inside the country. Moreover, the world will not be confident that Iran only seeks a peaceful nuclear program until it demonstrates a change in its intentions. The P5 + 1 should craft a deal that compels Iran to restrain its ballistic missile program, forces it to abandon its sponsorship of terror, permanently limits Iranian nuclear research and development, and puts a comprehensive and intrusive nuclear inspections regime in place. Inspectors should be allowed to go anywhere in the country at any time. Failure to accept such a deal will reveal Iran’s true intentions and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program should be dealt with accordingly.



By Joshua Shinbrot

Source: Flickr

As was recently revealed by the Wall Street Journal, last month President Obama wrote a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The November 24th deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal on the Iranian nuclear program looms closer, and this letter is the most recent in a series of attempts at outreach to the Iranian government in an effort to move a deal forward. However, this particular correspondence was sent without the knowledge of our Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati partners. The support of all three countries will prove critical in our struggle to defeat and discredit ISIL and all three of these nations also feel that any deal reached between the US and Tehran will come at their expense. While seemingly damaging to American relations with allies in the region and to the American negotiating position against the Iranian nuclear program, the exposure of this letter could provide the US with significant leverage in its negotiations with Iran.

Those who agree with the President’s decision to write this secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader argue that any decision regarding the rollback of the Iranian nuclear program would ultimately rest with Ayatollah Khamenei. As such, direct expression of the importance of an agreement to the Obama administration could provide encouragement that may result in greater leeway for Iranian negotiators. If the Obama administration views the potential for this letter to cause a breakthrough in the negotiations as significant, it may justify the potential damage a leak of the letter would cause in our relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Many disagree with the Obama administration’s decision to correspond with Ayatollah Kahmenei. Essentially, they argue that the American flexibility with Iran has been remarkable in these negotiations. Iran has made few reciprocal moves. This secret letter to the Supreme Leader continues to make it appear that the US needs a nuclear deal more than they do, and consequently provides the Iranians with further incentive to maintain their obstinate negotiating position.

In fact, as Dennis Ross recently detailed in Foreign Affairs, flexibility of the P5+1 has been great. The UN Security Council has passed resolutions demanding that the Iranians suspend all uranium enrichment. The P5+1 has allowed them to avoid full suspension. Despite the fact that Iran has pursued a nuclear weapons program, the P5+1 has agreed that after Iran implements a comprehensive agreement (if one is reached), it will be treated in the same way as any other member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Essentially, this would involve non-acknowledgement of the fact that the Iranians have pursued a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, there have been offers to ensure that the Iranians are able to produce adequate civilian nuclear energy. Iran has seemed to disregard not only the significant flexibility on the part of the P5+1, but also their discretion. Namely, the Iranians do not seem to take into account their counterparts’ generous neglect to arouse public awareness of Iranian uncomplimentary stubbornness in negotiations.

Perhaps the P5+1 has been too flexible. It is possible that the Iranians have interpreted attempts at engagement by the West to mean that the West has greater need for a deal than they do. An opportunity for the US and the rest of the P5+1 to alter its negotiating strategy has been presented by the leak of Obama’s letter to the Ayatollah. At this point in the negotiating process, the US has offered the Iranians many carrots. Now there is a chance to combine those carrots with sticks. It should be unambiguously communicated to the Iranians that the leak of this secret letter’s existence has cost the United States with its allies: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Moreover, the Iranians should be told that attempts to entice Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program have gone unreciprocated for too long. At the moment, they have an opportunity to engage with the rest of the world, but failure to strike a deal will have real consequences. It is highly likely that if there is no comprehensive deal, the newly elected Republican congress will vote to impose much stricter sanctions on Iran. Furthermore, exposure of Iranian recalcitrance in the face of Western flexibility during negotiations will serve to damage Iran’s deceptive public image creating greater support for a stricter sanctions regime that will further isolate Iran from the rest of the world.

It is possible that even when informed of the bleak consequences of failing to strike a deal, the Iranians will continue to demand the maintenance of an inordinate portion of its current nuclear program. However, the current strategy that the United States is pursuing has produced little in the way of results. Presently, there is an opportunity to alter the American approach to Iran in a way that will more greatly elucidate what the P5+1 is prepared to do if Iran continues to refuse to make meaningful concessions. The US should make use of the leverage created by the leak of Obama’s not-so-secret letter.


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