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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Deal With it: Hopes, Realities and Egypt

I wake up every day combing the headlines, looking in the news for a car bomb that went off and killed dozens in Cairo. But not yet. Not today. This isn’t to say that I’m hoping for one, but let’s not kid ourselves here, we know what is coming. Both sides in Egypt know what is coming. Too many souls have been taken to go back to pretending nothing happened. Everyone has blood on their hands.

The standoff between Egypt’s military and supporters of Mohammed Morsi has left hundreds of people dead and thousands injured. Here are some takeaways from what has happened in Egypt in recent weeks:

1. Even if we do cut off aid to Egypt, don’t buy the argument that if we do that the ISF will all of a sudden start a war with Israel. Even without our help the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces, c’mon guys, get with the acronyms!) would embarrass them. Both have an interest in maintaining a stable Sinai Peninsula and Suez and maintaining good relations with the United States. If anything, expect Israel to further their ties with the ISF and reaffirm their commitment to their security relationship in the absence of U.S. support.

2. In anticipation of our cutting Egypt off, the Saudis and the rest of the Gulf monarchies all pledged to commit billions in funds and armaments. And so did our friend, Vladimir Putin, with “no strings attached” by the way. That means more influence for geopolitical and regional rivals, less influence for us.

3. The removal of one man does not mean the removal of his regime. The ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt just two years ago was not the ouster of the regime Mubarak oversaw: here, I’m talking the Armed Forces, the police, the Intelligence apparatus (and the secret police), the cartels composed of the privileged and the elite who have their hands in the economic hand-basket that we see going to hell, among others. These people, these networks, are what I am calling the “regime.” They have a vested interest in maintaining their positions in Egyptian society, and I do not see them simply disappearing because of some popular elections. They, particularly the military, remain the true powerbroker of the state system in Egypt. In truth, the “revolution” we saw two years ago was not a revolution. A revolution is a fundamental/complete change in the established order. The “revolution” people have been talking about hasn’t actually happened, at least not yet.

4. Building off the previous point, the military is the only institution capable of holding the Egyptian state together. And they are not leaving anytime soon. For reasons mentioned above, the Arab world (in this case Egypt, but the MENA region in general) did not have the roots of liberal democracy that could take over during the Arab Awakening. There have also not been many modernizing autocrats who built broad, educated middle classes that could organize themselves and eventually effectively take control. The only two parties that have that sort of discipline and structure is the ISF (military) and the Muslim Brotherhood. If you cannot entertain even the thought of that-which-was-just-mentioned, I really don’t know what to say.

That being said, militaries are often quite reluctant to get involved in the long-term, day-to-day governance of a country. It’s too complicated and messy. The determining factor is whether or not there are any groups or institutions to hand that role over to. After what the Muslim Brotherhood tried to pull over the last year, they have reason to be cautious and uncertain.

We think of democracy as the standard, the measure by which we assess a country’s progress. But progress is indeed possible without democracy preceding it. Take Latin America as an example: for all of the horrible things Pinochet and his cronies did in Chile, he played into our anticommunist containment strategy fairly well. At the same time it is safe to say the country as we know it today would be nothing if it weren’t for the reforms he strong-armed through. It is now considered one of South America’s most stable and prosperous nations, and a liberal democracy at that. But the former came first. The same can be said of Fujimori of Peru, who helped eradicate the Shining Path, the Maoist terrorist group, and put Peru on a path of economic growth that makes it as competitive (in conjunction with several other economies) as China. And although he has stood trial for crimes against humanity, the name Fujimori is revered; in fact his daughter is a member of the Peruvian legislature and almost won the Presidency in 2011 (she lost in a runoff by 3 percentage points). Look to Asia for more examples. China, Japan, Singapore, India; they have their share of decades of strongmen, dictators, and shady democrats with authoritarian tendencies, but the kicker was that most of them were modernizers. Think Nehru, Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping; these were people who focused on building infrastructure, both physical and intellectual. This, coupled with entrepreneurship and an export-led economy is a chief reason why we’re seeing a rising middle class in these countries. A strong middle class and relative political stability are precursors to a peaceful transition to liberal democracy (that is, if that’s what the people want. Citizens of Singapore for example seem to be content with their situation).

All speculation aside, as I remember my history, our own revolution was not an easy transition either; it led to a bloody civil war a half century later. We seem to expect that others will do it differently. I don’t know of any society that has changed without struggle. We didn’t. The Russians certainly didn’t. The French didn’t. Neither have any of the African states or most of the Asias ones. In the short history of mankind, we seem to spend a good deal of time either plotting to conquer or kill each other. If you think Egyptians won’t do the same, I challenge you to pick up a newspaper and tell me I’m wrong.

Out with the Old, in with the Coup: Reflections on Morsi’s Ouster

Ok, so if you’ve been living under a rock this week, you’d think that the people of Egypt are hijacking our 4th of July celebration! The truth is, even if you haven’t been living under a rock for the past week, you may come to the same conclusion.

Egyptian military (SCAF) chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (pictured above), announced on July 3 that the country’s president, Mohammed Morsi, had been removed from office in the wake of public, but largely popular, unrest in the streets. The number of Egyptians protesting, some 33,000,000, was the largest number of protesters in a political event in the history of mankind (that I know of).

[The now] Ex-President Mohamed Morsi was a political unknown a year ago; he was not a great statesman. But in Egypt’s first popular presidential election, Morsi was the torch bearer for the Muslim Brotherhood and won 51.7% of the popular vote. The organization, which was founded in Egypt more than 80 years ago, had been banned for decades, most notably suppressed under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, has dreamt of ruling Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world.

Hosni Mubarak (former decades-long ruler of Egypt, now behind bars and rocking some sweet shades)

In the eyes of many that day was a great day for Egyptians; the people voted, and a party that was persecuted for most of its existence was actually elected and trusted by a majority to govern the country and bring the people’s demands for bread, freedom and social justice to the forefront. And it’s not like the SCAF, who were skeptical of the democratic alternative to Mubarak, intervened and didn’t give the Brotherhood a chance to rule. The SCAF gave Morsi and the Brotherhood a chance to rule; in fact they gave the Brotherhood a whole year to rule and the party publicly failed on its own merits over the course of that year. Perhaps the military chose not to intervene when the Brotherhood did win so as to prove to everyone that they were not fit to rule Egypt (that’s speculation of course).

Mohammed Morsi, the man of the hour.

The Brotherhood was elected with a slim majority (51.7% means that 48.3% voted for somebody else) and in the technical sense of the phrase, they “totally blew it.” Morsi and the Brotherhood assumed power and adopted a hardliner, exclusive approach to governing. They ignored a crippling economy, failed to ensure basic security and protection of minority groups, and refused to include other parties (even other Islamist groups) in a coalition government that we in the United States and other Westernized democracies, perhaps take for granted.  In the end, the Muslim brotherhood led Egypt down the path of Islamic despotism and economic decline. But I guess since the Brotherhood took all the power, they can take all the blame.

That being said, I think the recent events of this week set a dreadful precedent for the region’s future. It encourages the people to get rid of their elected leaders by disrupting their rule as opposed to voting them out. It goes to show that the people were more concerned with Morsi’s failure to govern rather than with the democratic process. The thing people have been calling “democracy” in Egypt though isn’t the democracy we think of; this is mob rule, democracy in the rawest sense of the word, and probably one that Aristotle would think of (pull out your Freshman-year Political Science notes). But let’s not kid ourselves here and think that what’s happening now in Egypt is in the interest of ALL Egyptians. If you think that, then you probably think that the millions of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood live on the moon. Well, they live in Egypt too, and they also have interests, interests that they tried to force on others with no checks or balances. And that’s politics for you: factions and societal and economic pressures all in one pot that must be reconciled and sorted out. It is a constant struggle, and even some of us in the United States grow impatient of our own political struggles. Maybe Egypt isn’t quite ready for this experiment we call “democracy” yet.  Now before you all get offended by this, I think democracy for an unprepared populace could be far worse than a Mubarak. Even Thomas Jefferson, a great American hero and a father of our Republic, agrees with me here.  In a letter to Lafayette after Napoleon seized power, quelling the chaos of the French Revolution, Mr. Jefferson wrote (as an intellectual exercise, pretend he’s writing to someone in Egypt now):

“A full measure of liberty is not now perhaps to be expected by your nation, nor am I confident they are prepared to preserve it. More than a generation will be requisite, under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation. Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident; it becomes, with an unprepared people, a tyranny still, of the many, the few, or the one.”

A few more takeaways and things to look for/expect in the near future:

1) Don’t think just because the Muslim Brotherhood was booted out that all is ok now with them. Expect the Brotherhood to keep resisting and push back against this move by the military; they will not forget.

2) The people protesting in the streets were all united in that they wanted Morsi and the Brotherhood out, but that’s about all they really agree on. The future will be a struggle of their competing interests. Unfortunately for the politics of the Middle East, most countries have a “winner-take-all” policy.

3) For decades, since the Cold War to today, the military has essentially ruled, approving and backing an individual or a party.  This is primarily because no military wants to be involved in the day-to-day affairs of running a country. The military has and will remain the primary source of power in the country, as with many countries, and will throw its weight behind any party or coalition that will see to managing the political economy and as such, limiting unrest.

4) Washington cannot do much to shape Egyptian politics right now, even if it tried. And for many reasons, it shouldn’t. I’m not going to say anything more about that point

I call upon the Egyptian people to prove me wrong. I would wholeheartedly welcome that. I sincerely hope that this coup is more akin to the one we witnessed in Portugal in 1974 than the one in Algeria in the 1990s. But as with all things though, time will tell.

Syria and the Israeli Mind

Some speculate that the Israeli airstrikes in early May were tied with a message to the Iranians. A less conventional reason is tied to the operational/tactical reasons for the strike: to send a message to the U.S., the U.N., and anyone else that has called for restraint against significant intervention, citing sophisticated Syrian air-defenses as a chief reason. Israel just proved to the world that the Assad regime is but a shell of its former self and cannot protect its own airspace.  A no-fly zone and/or an airstrike, therefore, is back on the table.

Some have wrongly speculated that this is the beginning of an alliance between the rebels and Israel. But the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” argument does not hold water here. Israel has had a relatively stable informal security understanding with the Assads, granted, with some flare-ups every now and then and it would much rather deal with the “devil you know” than something far more unstable and unpredictable.

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The truth is that there are no good options in Syria. Do nothing and the war drags on indefinitely. Funnel money, arms and training to the rebels, the best fighters of which have ties to al-Qaeda, and blowback is inevitable. There are also reports of Russia considering equipping the Syrian regime with sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, helping rule out Western intervention. Israel has conveyed that it would consider destroying such shipments before they reach the regime’s forces.

Israel has a long history of preemptive attacks to set back weapons programs, facilities, convoys, etc to protect its very survival.  This strike is a continuation of its policy to prevent weapons systems from getting into the hands of its enemies that are capable of striking the country. Given the fact that Hezbollah has formally committed to the Assad regime’s survival, count on Israel continuing with the status quo: not involving itself in an all-out war, but conducting limited strikes if it feels its security is being threatened.