Why you should care
Because now might be the moment for a longtime hot spot to cool down.
The author was the deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000–2004. He now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
We are fast approaching a crucial early turning point in this new century, one that historians will one day reference as the date when the U.S.’s relationship with the Middle East took a critical turn for better or for worse. The date is June 30, and the issue is Iran.
The question of Iran’s nuclear power and the nations hoping to curtail it is, of course, familiar. Negotiations have been underway in one forum or another for more than a decade. What makes this moment unique is that nearly all of the world’s great powers — the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany (joined by a representative of the 28-member European Union) — have now united. They have made it as far as creating a “framework agreement,” or a set of goals. If this leads to a final agreement, it could inject an element of stability into the most volatile region on earth. And it would represent the first progress we’ve seen in nuclear-reduction talks since President Obama signed an agreement with Russia five years ago.
Iran was only about three months away from building a nuclear weapon.
But the details have yet to be resolved (they will have to be by the June 30 deadline) — and, as anyone who’s ever haggled in a Middle Eastern bazaar knows, devils dwell in details.
Before digging into them, let’s take a step back and recall why Iran finally took a seat at the negotiating table, after years of foot dragging. The answer: economic sanctions that the international community has been tightening since 2006. These have slowly sapped Iran’s economic strength, especially the toughest recent measures that cut Iran’s oil earnings and blocked its use of the international banking system. The sanctions worked as sanctions are supposed to: They created hardships among the citizenry, which in turn fed into the 2013 election. That election brought to power moderate-sounding President Hassan Rouhani on a promise to lift the sanctions’ burden from Iran’s people.
Back to today: The preliminary agreement in April broke more ground than most observers expected. There was urgency, even more so than usual. At the time, most Western leaders knew that Iran was only about three months away from having enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. The agreement has Iran doing a few key things: reducing its centrifuges (the technology crucial to creating weapons-grade material) by more than half for the next decade and further limiting their use, significantly limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment for the next 15 years and diluting the highly enriched uranium Iran already has stockpiled. The upshot: If Iran did all of this even for a few months and then cheated, it would still need about a year, rather than three months, to get a bomb. Iran’s bargaining partners figure they can reimpose sanctions should Iran break the agreement.
The whole thing is controversial nearly everywhere you look, for obvious reasons. Hard-liners in the West want Iran to have zero access to uranium enrichment, while those within Iran’s borders believe Rouhani is giving too much away. But such reactions are predictable in any controversial undertaking. The way to evaluate the effectiveness of an agreement like this is to get past the politics and touch the substance. I’d be looking at three specifics:
Russia and China: These two nations hold much more power than you’d expect — and you should expect a lot. As permanent members of the Security Council, they hold veto power, and they have never liked the idea of sanctions. They’re not alone: As soon as sanctions ease, countries in Europe and Asia, and the U.S., will rush to do business in Iran. Should Iran cheat — a possibility we must take seriously — we will need consensus, including from Moscow and Beijing, to restore sanctions. Without it, we lose the muscle to enforce, to “snap back” sanctions in the diplomatic parlance.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey: We’ll need assurance that Iran’s neighbors, deeply skeptical that the agreement will disarm Iran, will not use the situation to arm themselves further. Clearly, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East would be a nightmare beyond imagining.
And the obvious challenge — inspections: Here is the stumbling block that has always plagued discussions of curtailing Iran’s ambitions. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will need truly unfettered access to both civilian and military sites. The latter is in question right now, thanks to objections from Supreme Leader Khamenei; the lack of military inspection would obviate much of the deal in the first place. My experience with arms-control agreements tells me the deal will require “challenge” inspections, in which IAEA investigators can show up without notice. Iran will not like this.
Even if June 30 goes well, though, a nuclear agreement is unlikely, at least in the short run, to alter other aspects of Iranian behavior, like its support for President Assad in Syria, its growing influence in Iraq and Lebanon, its fueling of chaos in Yemen or its use of terrorism (as in the 2010 attempt on the life of the Saudi ambassador in Washington). And ironically, if sanctions are lifted, Iran will have more money to spend on these activities. Such is the unhappy menu of choices in today’s Middle East.