The devil is in the details in the Iran nuclear deal

A contract, any contract, is only as good as its wording.

The P5+1 – China, France, Germany, the US, the UK and Russia – prepare to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Lausanne. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The P5+1 – China, France, Germany, the US, the UK and Russia – prepare to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Lausanne.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A contract, any contract, is only as good as its wording.
From that perspective, the current deal being worked out between Iran and the P5+1 powers led by the US will be a contract or series of contracts like any other.
But, of course, there are obvious differences.
If the world powers do not have the political will to resist Iran’s attempts to cheat and are not ready to have a military option on the table for deterrence, even the most perfectly worded deal could fail.
But assuming those factors are in place – a hotly debated assumption – the wording still matters a lot.
The most crucial wording issue will deal with violations.
The most important definition in a contract is making a long list of the “material” or fundamental violations – violations that can void the whole deal and expose the violator to the worst consequences.
Defining a “material” violation is important in the Iran deal, but not nearly as important as defining the incremental violations and a sliding scale of consequences or partial reinstitution of sanctions that appropriately address those violations.
Most observers say Iran is too sophisticated and savvy to openly violate the deal, but Tehran is an expert at reaching slow, seemingly technical and innocuous violations.
These are exactly the kind of violations that could leave the world powers split and indecisive of how to act in case the deal is violated, especially with Russia and China likely to push for viewing incremental violations as honest errors or technical misunderstandings.
Whether a violation would be Iran allowing nuclear weapons inspectors only partial access to a military site, being periodically late for a deadline in irradiating uranium or shipping it out of the country, the incremental violations must be carefully listed and defined on a spectrum of severity, with clearly expected responses.
What kind of responses? This leads us to the wording of the “snap-back” mechanism, which is meant to put sanctions back in place in case Iran violates its end of the deal.
The implementation of a snap back would only take place after the world powers come to a decision following a discovery of violations by an International Atomic Energy Agency report.
The time periods during those processes, and the total maximum time period from time of violation to when the sanctions would actually snap back, need to be carefully defined.
The sanctions snap back is designed for sanctions to snap back even if Russia or China would have liked to veto it.
Simply creating the complicated legal voting process without setting time periods and defining benchmarks will allow Russia and China to play the process to Iran’s advantage until the snap back could become irrelevant, even if it would “work” as designed.
One piece of creative wording in this morass of issues will probably help break through some of the likely “bluff” of recent redlines declared by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei has bluffed before, announcing Iran would demand more than 100,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, when Iran later agreed to between 5,000 and 6,000. But to save face, Khamenei will need to be able to tell Iranians that sanctions removal came as part of the final deal and did not wait until later.
Experts have said the wording on this issue could include the world powers “committing” to immediate sanctions removal as part of the deal, but holding off their actual voting on lifting sanctions until Iran fulfills necessary conditions to show it is complying.
Even if this “saving-face” wording is necessary to assuage Iran, connecting back to the idea of incremental violations, it needs to be carefully balanced to permit the world powers to continue to delay their voting indefinitely if Iran commits enough “minor” violations to cause concern about critical aspects of the deal – such as pushing back its breakout time for making a nuclear weapon to at least one year.
What about the “sunset” aspects of the deal that experts worry could let Iran inch across the nuclear threshold in 10 to15 years time, when most of the deal’s limits on Iran expire? The Obama administration and Congress can state from the outset its interpretation that any Iranian production of uranium above the 5-percent level – the lowest level of enrichment that causes concern for world powers – will be automatically defined by the US as a threat to national and international security, even if the text of the deal does not address the issue.
Even more important, they could state in advance the interpretation that any Iranian nuclear activities expansion after 10 years must be clearly related to practical needs for peaceful nuclear energy.
This would mean Iran could expand its volume of centrifuges, again saving face, but with no ability to move toward a weapon without setting off potential US retaliation.
None of the above wording will salvage a fundamentally bad deal or create political will, but if the deal is a fragile but salvageable one, proper wording will likely either give Iran or the West a leg up when likely Iranian attempts at cheating test the deal’s limits.