Deal or No Deal?: A Primer on the Iran Deal, Your Questions Answered

So after playing some catch up on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, it’s pretty clear that the U.S. has made a lot of people in policymaking positions quite angry. But not everyone has been following it, and if you want some quick answers to those questions that you’re too embarrassed to ask, I’m here to help.

Pete, what’s this whole Iran thing about?
Ok, short story: The question revolves around the status of their nuclear program. Iran has always maintained that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes (nuclear power/energy). Even though Iran has denied working toward nuclear weapons, it has said it will not submit to any plan that would totally eliminate its nuclear program. By this they mean the right to enrich their own uranium for energy.

Ok, so they said it’s for peaceful purposes, nuclear power is fine, what’s the problem?

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the fact that they possess the infrastructure and technology to manage the entire nuclear fuel cycle from start to finish – from digging uranium out of the ground to generating power with it. An offshoot of mastering the fuel cycle is that you can take it to the next level by making a nuclear bomb. The problem here is that you can use the same centrifuges that enrich uranium to low quantities (~3.5% for nuclear energy) for enriching uranium to higher quantities (90% for nuclear weapons). Iran has enriched some 200kg of its uranium stockpile up to 20%. Why 20%? I don’t know, it seems like a random number but I’ve read that once you break 20%, enriching to 90% is not so difficult anymore. And that’s enough to get some people worried.

Another issue is that they’ve built facilities without reporting them to the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) beforehand, some in urban areas, others under mountains (Those make them tough targets for a military strike). One such reactor that you may have heard about recently, the “Arak” reactor, that once completed, would be able to make plutonium fairly efficiently, another possible source for nuclear weapons. The Iranians have also deliberately deceived inspectors about secret sites and the status of their program. They’ve also been developing ballistic missile technology and reports surfaced a few years ago that they’ve been trying to develop a nuclear warhead. And it’s not just us who want them to stop; in 2006 the Chinese and the Russians got on board with the U.S. and the rest of the UN Security Council and began pressuring Iran to halt their nuclear program. I’ll say it again: in 2006 the Chinese and the Russians got on board and began pressuring Iran to halt their nuclear program. Considering all the things we can’t get Moscow and Beijing to agree with us on, I’d say that if they’re concerned about this, it’s becoming a problem.

Hmm, sounds like it may be a problem. What have we been doing about it?

So since Iran has not complied, it’s been punished with economic sanctions, a great deal of which has hit its oil and gas industry. If you want to learn more about them, here’s a good backgrounder on them, courtesy of BBC. The Iranians have also been experienced technical setbacks, the most widely cited example courtesy of a computer virus known as Stuxnet, allegedly developed by the Israelis and the United States (which has been denied by both). Also every now and then a nuclear scientist doesn’t show up to work at the lab because he’s too busy getting blown up [possibly by Israeli intelligence]. And while not explicitly using the phrase “military strike,” President Obama and other senior administration officials have repeatedly claimed that “all options are on the table” when handling this issue.

Yikes, so why aren’t the Iranians backing down?

The 1968 NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), which almost every country in the world abides by, says that parties of the treaty have the “inalienable right…to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” So the quick answer is that international law says they can.

The more complicated answer is that the Iranian Revolution of ’79 still lives. What do I mean by that? The same people who are in power are vanguards of the anti-Western revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran when they overthrew the Western-backed Shah in 1979. They’re still pretty upset about the decades of interference on the part of the U.S. and Western Europe in the Iranian political economy during the 19th and 20thcenturies. And as the heirs of the great Persian Empire, they are a proud people. They want to be recognized as a regional power again, and a nuclear program is a way into the country club.

Another reason, if Iran really does want a nuclear weapons capability, is defense. Iranian leaders believe that the U.S. and her allies (namely Saudi Arabia and Israel) will stop at nothing to overthrow their regime. The last President of the United States called the regimes in Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil” and so far we’re 1 for 3 in the regime-change business. Another leader by the name of Muammar Gaddafi willingly relinquished his nuclear stockpile years back but just a few years ago saw his country bombarded by NATO before he was dragged through the streets of Tripoli and executed. And let’s not forget that in the 80s Saddam was on our side, and we gave him plenty of help in his war with Iran that lasted 8 years and killed hundreds of thousands on both sides. With this kind of baggage weighing on the leadership’s mind, a nuclear deterrent may be an attractive option.

But even if they didn’t want a nuclear weapon, the Iranians have managed to give many countries good reason to suspect that their “peaceful” nuclear program is actually a cover for a covert push to develop a weapons program.

What about Israel? Their Prime Minister was trolling the negotiations and just called this deal we brokered with Iran “a historic mistake.”

In many ways, Israel has good reason to be worried about a more powerful Iran. The Iranian leadership has repeatedly called the Jewish state a “cancer that must be removed” and actively supports Hezbollah and Hamas, the Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups with a long history of attacking Israel. But it’s pretty doubtful that the Iranians are going to fire a nuke over Tel Aviv or Riyadh (the Saudis are also a party with security concerns about a nuclear Iran). If they do that, Tehran just signed their death warrant and it’s game over for the regime. I’m sure they know that. But a nuclear Iran may be emboldened enough by their new deterrent to support and finance Hezbollah and Hamas. It may also start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with governments in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. all pursuing a nuclear weapons capability to counter Iran. So it’s a mixed bag, but if you stick your hand in it, you’ll probably get stung pretty bad. That being said, Iran is a problem for Israel, but not in the same way that it’s a problem for the emirs in the Gulf. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Israel may not like it, but it can probably live with a belligerent Iran.

That actually kind of really sucks. What’s our plan?

The options are really contingent on what you want to achieve. All around though, they’re not all that great.

The first not-all-that-great plan is to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites (the ones we know about). Best case scenario, this would probably set them back a year or two, maybe even just a few months. Bottom line though, it will make Tehran more likely to develop a nuclear weapon if they weren’t going to already. We’d also probably lose support from key international players to stop Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, we’ll probably lose international support for a lot of other things going forward.

The second not-all-that-great plan is a follow up of the first bad plan: an invasion by our Armed Forces and a coalition of the willing (whichever countries want to help out) to overthrow the regime. Why not go all the way? You bomb them and give them a chance to recover? You’re not sure if you got all the nuclear sites? All that fissile material lying around waiting to get stolen now? C’mon bro, finish the job…Unfortunately whichever President authorizes that is doomed. After Iraq, this option is not happening.

The third not-all-that-great plan is to try and overthrow the regime in other ways. This is problematic, since the regime has shown and incredible amount of resilience since ‘79. Even during the “Green Revolution,” the 2009 protests after the disputed Iranian presidential elections, citizens were calling for government reforms, not the overthrow of the ayatollahs. Furthermore, any internal movements that we give even moral support to would lose all their legitimacy anyway.

The fourth not-all-that-great plan is to just keep doing what we’re doing: Force Iran to unconditionally surrender and give up its nuclear program in its entirety. Like I said before, those sanctions have definitely been biting, and covert action like cyber-warfare and assassinations have been successful in setting their program back some. But despite what we’ve been doing, the Iranian nuclear program has continued to grow. We can try to delay it, but that’s all we’d be doing: delaying.

The fifth not-all-that-great plan: negotiating a deal directly with Tehran. If my Spidey senses are spot on this time, this seems to be the thrust of what the P5 +1 (U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, + Germany) actually hopes to accomplish in the near future: Iran gets its nuclear program, but with enough restrictions and inspections that everyone can accept it as peaceful. The downside is that this would be difficult to enact and no deal will please the Israelis, the Saudis or our Congress. Another thing to think about is that this all hinges on actually trusting Iran with a nuclear program, after it has cheated on past deals.

Ok, so we are negotiating with them, that looks like the least worst option. What’s this “deal” or “agreement” everyone’s talking about now?

The most straightforward explanation I found was this one by the New York Times; it has lots of pictures and short sentences. The agreement does not guarantee that Iran will make a bomb, but it certainly complicates it. The agreement lasts 6 months, when a more permanent agreement is supposed to get hammered out: No more enrichment above 5%; nuclear-related activity (no production of fuel, no nuclear research) on the Arak reactor stops; no new centrifuges; daily inspections to all nuclear facilities; all in exchange for unfreezing some overseas assets and some limited relief of sanctions that only amount to a few billion.

Good deal or bad deal?

It’s actually really not the deal that we should be thinking about now. This is an interim agreement that is easily revocable in six months if a comprehensive deal falls apart. It’s a test to see whether the Iranians are for real about this.  But if I had to judge, it’s a relatively safe deal that puts the burden of proof on Iran while at the same time showing some goodwill on our part to negotiate a settlement down the road.  Diplomacy is a two-way street, and easing some basic sanctions while maintaining the overreaching architecture let’s the Iranians walk away with something while not giving away too much on our part. And it’s pretty likely that the negotiators needed approval from the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in order to agree to the abovementioned agreement and bring home the bacon [ok, bad analogy, especially for a Muslim country] so that’s a pretty good sign. Only he can give the “ok” to build a bomb, and to our knowledge he has not given the order. This agreement blocks the most likely avenues for the Iranians to go forward with that. But as with all things, the devil is always in the details, and if any comprehensive agreement falls through, it will be because of those. I do still think that criticisms of this agreement are premature; the real deal hasn’t even started yet. And if the Iranians do end up cheating, we’ll be in a better position to ratchet up the sanctions again and dust off the war-plans.

Long-term though, it’s not so much the nuclear thing that I’m thinking about so much as Iran’s future in the Middle East. Strategically, we have nothing to gain by artificially weakening a country with a young, educated, large population that can be used to balance the Sunni-dominated Middle East. I’ll be looking for signs that we’re ready to start talking about reintegrating them into the international community. Bottom line: We have nothing to lose by gaming this thing out. And speaking out gaming it out, enjoy the football games and have a Happy Thanksgivukkah!

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