The Iran Deal



An annoying aspect of the debate over the Iran deal has been the absence of any information on what it actually was; thus my pique over both the Netanyahu speech and the Congressional letter. That problem is still not solved; the current “interim non-agreement” (as I call it) constitutes, at best, a framework similar in spirit to the 2005 Joint Statement. But we can at least stare at the words and decide what we think. (David Albright's blog has all of the links to the main documents and the initial reactions.)

My overall assessment (and from a variety of other analysts as well): the agreement is much more favorable than critics have suggested. It does leave a larger nuclear infrastructure in place than the Korean agreements sought to do; U.S. objectives in North Korea were “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of the North Korean program. Of course, those were never implemented.

But this one isn’t either. Oddly, the risks lie less with what we now know than with the next round of negotiations and particularly issues of how concessions will be phased. These are not small technical problems. They are at the crux of the big political ones, both within the United States and Iran and among the p5+1 as well. Way too little attention is given to the fact that Russia and China are a party to this deal and need to be kept on board; it is precisely the delicacy of the diplomacy that provides its critics so many opportunities for mischief. We look first at the deal and some comparisons with North Korea; and then at the question of precedent and linkages.

The Deal: Some Comparisons with North Korea

What we know is contained in three statements and a press conference. The only official one that is joint among the negotiating parties is the Joint Statement by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. As noted, this is akin to the 2005 Joint Statement in outlining the general parameters of the bargain.

The other two statements are a unilateral “media note” and statement (respectively) from the United States (Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran's Nuclear Program) and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, which mirrored the Joint Statement almost word for word. Much is being made of the fact that the American statement is much longer and more detailed; in fact, it is even more precise than the two 2007 implementing agreements negotiated with North Korea.

But there is at least one simple explanation for this fact, and it hinges on differences in the politics in the two countries. The Obama administration needs to provide chapter-and-verse to Congressional critics who want more information. For his Iranian counterparts, the opposite might well be the case: the less said the better. But I do not see any outright contradictions between the three documents (although this is not the case with Zarif’s press conference, on which more below); the central outlines of the deal appear relatively clear.

Both sides naturally want to portray this interim accord as a complete win, but it is more reasonable to try to identify what each side gave up, again with Korean comparisons. The US statement organizes the issues well.

  • Enrichment. The reduction in centrifuges is large (from 19,000 to 6,000), will be limited to less efficient first-generation P1’s and all enrichment will be concentrated at Natanz. But it is not total, the surplus centrifuges are mothballed under IAEA aegis rather than being destroyed and some centrifuges will remain at Fodrow even if they will not be allowed to enrich uranium (they will be devoted to the manufacture of other isotopes). Maintaining the enrichment research program—one aspect of the deal that makes no sense, but is probably a necessary concession—will require the creation of a dedicated procurement channel. However, the agreement contains a blanket prohibition on enrichment above 3.67 percent and most surprising calls for a virtual elimination of the stockpile of low-enriched uranium (from 10,000 kg to only 300 kg); that is a fair amount of feedstock.
  • Fordow. The rogue facility uncovered in 2009 will be converted into a research center; the Iranians have emphasized cooperative projects at the facility, which the American statement doesn't mention.
  • Natanz. In addition to the terms outlined above, the enrichment at Natanz is designed to extend the breakout time to at least one year. I have always found this metric a little nonsensical, since it is based on the amount of fissile material alone. This ignores the question of what engineering capabilities Iran has to actually make a device, which should also be on the table (the so-called “Possible Military Dimensions” dossier with the IAEA and ongoing questions about the Parchin site). However, the US claims that the Iranians have agreed to address this issue as well, on which there has been little progress to date.
  • Arak. Again, a somewhat surprising outcome. The research reactor is not “disabled” or “dismantled” as was the objective of the agreements that came out of the Six Party Talks with North Korea in 2007 with respect to Yongbyon (the US did promise to discuss LWRs, but at “an appropriate time” and most saw this—rightly—as a stall). But Arak is to be redesigned and rebuilt and both the original core and all spent fuel will be sent out of the country.
  • Inspections. The agreement promises access not only to the full fuel cycle but to the centrifuge manufacturing infrastructure; again, not disabled or dismantled but subject to inspection. And perhaps the biggest surprise to me: although the term “Additional Protocol” was conspicuously not used (Arms Control Association has a good summary here), the US fact sheet states “Iran will be required to grant access to the IAEA to investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility, conversion facility, centrifuge production facility, or yellowcake production facility anywhere in the country.” This is sweeping.
  • Sanctions and Phasing. As Marc Noland and I argue in a new manuscript we are finishing, the problem of phasing is actually a crucial barrier to negotiating and implementing such agreements. We suspect it is where virtually all of the risks lie at the present moment; put differently, the problem is not so much with the agreement but the difficulty of actually getting it finalized and implemented. While the formal statement read by Javad Zarif mirrored the Joint Statement, his statement at the subsequent press conference outlined clearly that Iran expects some serious sanctions relief will be front-loaded. The US media note, by contrast, emphasizes that Iran will get relief when everything—and I mean virtually everything—is actually done. Moreover, the “sanctions relief” on offer pertains only to nuclear-related sanctions and leaves untouched the entire other sanctions infrastructure that the US has in place against the country (for those interested in comparisons, all of our posts on the Iran sanctions can be found here).


Iran and North Korea: Precedents and Linkages

Shortly after the deal was negotiated, Hwang Joon-kook—South Korea’s lead 6PT negotiator—claimed that the example was a positive one. Others have suggested that the US is preoccupied with Iran at the expense of the Six Party Talks.

But there will no doubt be debate about the precedent established. North Korea might look at the Iranian deal and say “no thanks.” Or it could perhaps believe that they would retain more capacity for longer by holding it up as a template. For example, the Six Party Talks focused entirely on the plutonium track at the outset, hoping to pivot to the issue of enrichment once the reprocessing issue was addressed. They could now claim that they need all of those centrifuges seen by Sig Hecker for research and medical reasons.

The most plausible conclusion, however, is that the Iran agreement will have no effect on the Six Party Talks one way or the other given how little interest North Korea has shown in even coming to the table. This difference does not get enough play: that the Iranians felt compelled to negotiate says something about the effectiveness of the sanctions, which have not managed to similarly constrain the North.

The more important issue to raise in conclusion is whether the agreement will address proliferation concerns and cooperation between Iran and states such as North Korea. I argued in earlier posts that it was a mistake to try to lard other issues into the agreement: the recognition of Israel’s right to exist, Iran’s intervention across the region, Hezbollah, Hamas and so on. Those problems need to be handed by other means, including defense and deterrence.

But it is not a stretch to claim that Iran needs to come clean—and cease and desist—in its cooperation with North Korea. In a recent brief, David Albright and Andrea Stricker address the issue. The US “Parameters” document outlines some very complicated footwork at the UN on sanctions, including the consolidation of past resolutions on Iran. However the Parameters states clearly that UN resolutions related to proliferation will be “re-established” to permit the monitored procurement channel but control other transfers of sensitive technologies. This may appear like a small issue in the grand scheme of things. But the relationship with North Korea should be addressed in this context; any spillovers from this agreement that constrain North Korean behavior should be pursued.

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