Iran deal: should we embrace it?

By Lawrence Freedman and Saeed Ghasseminejad, November 28, 2013
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Catherine Ashton celebrates the deal with John Kerry (Photo: Getty Images)

Catherine Ashton celebrates the deal with John Kerry (Photo: Getty Images)

YES by Lawrence Freedman

It is possible to imagine a better deal — it always is in a negotiation — but, in practice, this outcome exceeded expectations.

The expert consensus is that its key elements — no extra centrifuge activity, existing stockpile of 20 per cent enriched uranium neutralised, work on the Arak heavy water reactor suspended — will add significantly to the time it would take Iran to produce the fissile material needed to produce nuclear weapons, even if there is no further deal after six months.

The verification measures are intrusive and will give inspectors access to all the key facilities.

The sanctions relief is also not trivial and could be worth some $7 bn.

By itself, however, this is not going to make much difference to Iranian national wealth, especially in the absence of more fundamental reforms of the Iranian economy.

This creates a breathing space, providing the time to see if a comprehensive settlement can be negotiated. If the provisions of the interim agreement are honoured, there should be a growth of confidence and trust on both sides. These final negotiations will, however, be hard to conclude in the time available.

If diplomacy does fail, those who believe that any negotiations with this regime are doomed to failure must not assume that military action offers a reliable alternative. It could also well fail, especially if attempted by Israel alone. Iran has a distributed and defended nuclear infrastructure that cannot be taken out with one “surgical” blow. Sustained strikes might set the programme back a number of years, but the short-term costs could be extremely high — Iran’s regional supporters would exact revenge.

For some the details of the agreement are almost irrelevant because the real objection is to the mere fact of diplomatic engagement with such an obnoxious regime. On this view, Iran has been given an undeserved legitimacy which will encourage it to continue to follow its malign foreign policy. This critique tends to include a routine reference to Munich and appeasement.

Against this, all we can note is that some sort of shift has been taking place in the Iranian power structure, marked by the election of President Hassan Rouhani last June.

It is too early to say whether this will lead to a more moderate course in Iranian foreign policy. Hardliners in Tehran are unhappy and may well try to derail further negotiations while urging continuing strong support for Iran’s regional allies, such as Hizbollah and President Assad of Syria. This is not an argument to abandon diplomacy, but it does warn against overselling the agreement. It is by no means clear where and how this process will conclude. All we can say is that it has not started with a sell-out.

Sir Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies at King’s College London

NO by Saeed Ghasseminejad

Last Friday, Iran was on the verge of economic collapse. It was suffering from high unemployment, high inflation and negative growth. It was totally isolated and running out of cash as it fought a Vietnam-type war in Syria.

In a word, it was desperate.

Despite their immensely strong bargaining position, the US and the West accepted a deal that neither stops Iran’s nuclear programme nor rolls it back.

In fact, by failing to address the entirety of the programme, leaving the capacity to build a bomb intact and opening the flood-gates for Iran to return to international markets, the agreement actually facilitates the country’s nuclear ambitions.

Of the three parts to Iran’s military nuclear programme — uranium enrichment (creating the fissile material), weaponisation (constructing the bomb) and building the delivery system — the deal addresses neither the second nor the third phases, and is not tough enough on enrichment. Uranium enrichment above 5 per cent will be temporarily halted, but Iran can keep its 5 per cent-enriched stockpile, which can easily be used to create 20 per cent-enriched uranium — the level required for a nuclear weapon — at a later date. And although Iran cannot add new centrifuges, it will keep around 19,000 centrifuges intact and in working order.

The agreement gives the International Atomic Energy Agency better access to the operations at Iran’s known nuclear facilities and therefore makes it easier for the world to detect an attempt at nuclear break-out. This is a significant concession, but there is barely any reference in the deal to Iran’s past military nuclear activities, which effectively leaves the weaponisation and delivery system programmes free to steam ahead over the next six months.

Barack Obama’s administration estimates that the sanctions relief is worth around $7bn. This is likely to be a wild underestimate. Iran expert Mark Dubowitz has calculated that through the repatriation of frozen assets, gold transfers to Iran in exchange for its oil and natural gas sales, petrochemicals exports and the lifting of sanctions on the Iranian auto sector, the value relief will come closer to £20bn.

With Western companies now scrambling to do business with Iran, President Hassan Rouhani is correct to have said that, thanks to this deal, the wall of sanctions will collapse in the near future.

All of this means that in six months, Iran’s economy will no longer be collapsing. If Mr Obama could not stop Iran when the country was on the rack, why we should believe he can do it when Iran is up and running again?

Over the next six months, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will respect the deal that his foreign minister has signed, but he will not go further.

He will come back with a stronger hand and will not need to offer any more than what has just been offered.

Despite the official rhetoric, it appears that US does indeed accept a nuclear-capable Iran and its efforts now are focused on preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. This is a very dangerous road.

Many say that the cold war between Iran and US has just ended. They are wrong: it has just started. The mullahs in Tehran will use their nuclear capability to blackmail the West. The first installment is worth at least $7bn and a free hand in Syria — in six months’ time we see what the second installment looks like.

Saeed Ghasseminejad is co-fonder of the Iranian Liberal students and Graduates and PhD student in Finance at City University of New York.

Last updated: 12:43pm, November 28 2013