Defining a bad agreement with Iran

Some characteristics need to be avoided if the final nuclear agreement is to serve its purpose.

Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and EE foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at nuclear talks in Vienna March 19, 2014.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and EE foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at nuclear talks in Vienna March 19, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On March 28, 2014, Reuters reported that a senior US official said that “[US President Barack] Obama... assured [Saudi King] Abdullah that the United States would not accept a bad nuclear deal with Iran.” Given that the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) that was agreed between the P5+1 and Iran in November of last year was hailed by the parties as a good agreement in spite of its many shortcomings, it behooves us to try and define the characteristics of a “bad agreement.”
These are the characteristics that should be avoided, if the final agreement is to serve its purpose.
Although in the present-day mood it is not considered in good taste to criticize the JPA, one must do so in order to try and learn from its mistakes, and attempt to remedy these in the final or comprehensive agreement.
Besides giving in to Iran by avoiding all major points that were imperative in the United Nations Security Council resolutions concerning Iran, the JPA studiously avoided adding any demands that would clarify the outstanding issues and bring about a halt, albeit temporarily, to Iran’s unrelenting progress toward the reduction of the potential timetable of producing a first nuclear explosive device. On the bad side of things, for Iran’s opponents, were: the permission to continue enrichment, with the same equipment and the same rate of enrichment to 3.5% as hitherto, in contravention of the Security Council’s demands to suspend all enrichment operations; the dilution of only a fraction of the 20% enriched uranium stocks; the remaining stocks of 3.5% enriched uranium, and the dubious demand that all future 3.5% stocks be converted into oxides, thus rendering them (as incorrectly referred to) not usable for further enrichment; suspension of all heavy-water-related activities; and the non-compliance with the Security Council demands that Iran resolve all outstanding issues relating to the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. These demonstrate the many things in the JPA that did not conform to the Security Council’s demands.
In addition, there comes the very serious issue of verification. Verification, alongside with intelligence information, constitutes one of the factors that could sound the warning bell. Although intelligence can produce the best evidence of possible non-compliance, it has two serious drawbacks: it is an opportunist factor, arriving if and when new information comes to light, not when events actually occur, and, for reasons of secrecy cannot always be used as evidence to convince the world of wrongdoings. Thus, verification has to be as perfect as possible.
In order to be so, the following conditions have to be met: verification should cover all possible geographic locations, and all aspects of the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems; verification has to be versatile in its methods of inspections, with new technologies being applied whenever they are developed; people and documentation must be made accessible to the inspectors; all possible means should be available to the inspectorate.
These must not be constrained by budget, personnel and equipment limitations. All administrative hurdles such as visas and any-time access must be dismissed beforehand. Without these presets being met, the chances of failure are significant.
Iran could then do whatever it wants, wherever it wants to do so, with little prospect of being discovered before it is too late.
This brings us to what is perhaps the central purpose and issue of the agreement: how much time is needed, in a realistic situation, before a breach of Iran’s obligations is discovered, reported and responded to? This period should be as long as possible so as not to enable Iran to “break out” and produce a first nuclear device and test it without being found out beforehand.
An answer to this question will assign the limits to the enrichment power and output, by all possible methods, permitted in Iran, and the characteristics of any reactor operation with the potential to produce military-grade plutonium. Any involvement with R&D on nuclear explosive devices will also come under the definition of breach of obligations. Assigning a year to this period is probably much too low. Two years is a much more rational and acceptable time.
The text of many international treaties and agreements is left intentionally vague, and with several loopholes that give way, later, to prolonged discussions and interpretations. This cannot and should not be the case here. The issues are too serious for vagueness. Everything must be clear and every case of non-compliance has to be dealt with promptly. In the same spirit, one cannot permit lapses, either in the texts or in the implementation of the agreement. The Iranians have the experience and the temerity to exploit each and every weakness and use it to deceive, distort and circumvent in order to arrive at the desired result. Any agreement that does not take these possibilities into account, and ignores the fact that Iran has been (and probably still is) seeking a military nuclear capability, will be a bad one, and should be avoided at all costs.
The writer is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel-Aviv