Iran Nuclear Energy Deal

Following a long conversation with a well-informed friend who opposed the nuclear deal with Iran, I conducted some research to address common objections (for example, Chuck Schumer’s) to its proposals and came up with the following. While neither definitive nor unbiased, my notes at least reflect the thoughts of observers with a fair measure of credibility and experience related to Iran. (Since I’m way out of practice posting, I apologize that I wasn’t able to edit the typeface sizes [- typefaces redacted…])


August 15, 2015

I.         Remarks regarding historical and cultural background

A.       While the 1979 Khomeini regime used anti-US sentiment to distract from domestic issues and was guilty of fabricating crises, it’s easy to understand historical Iranian animosity to the US given its

1.        Role in the 1953 coup of an elected Iranian leader

2.        Support for the Shah’s brutal regime

3.        Support of Iraq in the 1980 Iran/Iraqi war, even extending to supplying chemical weapons and taking part in some military actions against Iran

4.        Shooting down of an Iranian civilian aircraft in 1988 that killed 290 people, including 66 children.

5.        Unwavering support for Israel’s military operations and occupation of Palestine

6.        Support for Saudi Arabia.

B.       There’s evidence that initial Iranian nuclear weapons research started in the 1980s largely in response to the threat from Saddam Hussein rather than from any designs on either Israel or the US.

C.       While obviously repressive in many respects and ultimately run by theocrats, the Iranian government has been credited by even some past Republican diplomats as having more features of democracy than any other Islamic country in the Middle East as evidenced by its most recent presidential elections.

D.       Despite skepticism of critics, Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons is regarded by Islamic scholars as highly credible and well outside the code of allowable deception in Islam

E.       Unlike the US and Israel, Iran has not attacked another country for 300 years

F.        Unlike many other Islamic countries, notably our ally, Saudi Arabia, Iran respects the rights of “people of the Book” (practicing Muslims, Christians, and Jews) and provides constitutional protection to its 9,000-30,000 Iranian Jewish citizens, who are represented in Parliament.

II.                   Past Iranian compliance as reported by Scott Ritter, former Iraq weapons inspector

A.       In 2003, Iran signed a negotiated deal — the “Tehran Declaration” — with the EU-3 (France, Germany and Great Britain.) that certified Iran’s right to pursue the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes. In exchange, Iran agreed to voluntarily suspend its enrichment activities while the IAEA conducted enhanced inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities for the purpose of establishing a “baseline” of declared nuclear activity, after which Iran would resume its enrichment activities under full IAEA safeguards inclusive of an “Additional Protocol” and “Modified Code 3.1” — the very monitoring and verification conditions at the heart of the current negotiated deal.

B.       Despite Iran’s adherence to the terms of the “Tehran Declaration” and the IAEA’s subsequent acknowledgement that it was able to monitor and account for the totality of Iran’s declared nuclear material and activity, the order to lift Iran’s voluntary suspension of enrichment activity never came.

C.       Instead, building upon documents obtained from a laptop computer considered by many to be a forgery, the United States prevailed on the IAEA to renege on the “Tehran Declaration” and instead declare Iran’s temporary voluntary suspension of its enrichment activity to be permanent. Outside of Iran’s refusal to answer questions about pre-2003 nuclear activity, there was no evidence of a weapons program

D.       Iran withdrew from the “Tehran Declaration,” claiming innocence and citing the failure of the IAEA to live up to its commitment, then resumed its enrichment operations under the original safeguards regime.

E.       This disagreement, spurred on by US allegations of an undeclared Iranian nuclear weapons program, led to a cycle of diplomatic reproaches that ultimately saw the Iranian nuclear file passed from the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council. A series of stringent economic sanctions were imposed on Iran in an attempt to compel it to cease its enrichment activity. Iran has consistently refused to buckle under this pressure, and instead insisted on its right to enrich uranium under Article IV of the NPT.

F.        It is also important to point out that it was not Iran, but rather the EU-3 (duly prompted by the United States) that violated the “Tehran Declaration.” The current nuclear negotiations not only bring Iran back to the status that existed at the time of the “Tehran Declaration’s” brief period of implementation, but go beyond by monitoring Iran’s centrifuge production and its entire uranium fuel cycle, from mining to reprocessing.

G.    CIA has reiterated that it disbelieves that there was any further nuclear weapons development (if any prior) after 2003 when Saddam Hussein was deposed. At the same time, there are other sources that suspect some clandestine nuclear development took place during those years.

III.     Past Iranian overtures

A.       In 2003 Iran proposed a “grand bargain” to the US including far more concessions than those in the current deal but was rebuffed out of hand by the Bush administration.

IV.     Basic agreement on the table (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) as developed by the arms control group including the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (the P5); namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany (i.e. P5+1)

A.       The terms of agreement, all of which make it impossible to build a bomb if implemented, include the following as prerequisite to the lifting of sanctions:

1.        19,000 current centrifuges reduced to 5,060 with the balance warehoused under AEIA supervision and tapped only for needed replacements.

2.        Enriched uranium stockpile reduced by 98% to 300 kg for the next 15 years

3.        Enrichment limited to 3.7% in line with peaceful purposes versus the prior 20% that would have allowed the production of a bomb once it reached 90%

4.        Protocol for verification extended to 2040

5.        24/7 monitoring of all phases in the supply chain, including mining. A 24 day outer limit for access to sites considered “suspicious”.

6.        Conversion of Arak heavy water plant, along with other sites, into international research facilities

B.       Terms are more highly restrictive than those in any prior agreement with another country

1.        6 month compliance needed before $150 billion in escrowed funds are to be released and phased in over 10 years

2.        Violations by Iran can result in a “snap back” of sanctions at any time.

V.       Concerns and objections to the deal

A.       Concern that 24-day access cap is too long for effective surveillance

1.        This time frame is seen as unprecedented (far more onerous than what was required for Iraq) by a wide community of experts and is considered more than sufficient to ensure detection of non-compliance given the persistence of radiation. In addition, the 24 days refer to an outside limit assuming that all phases of dispute resolution and appeal are carried out. For example, only 24 hours are normally required to collect samples, and two weeks are required for access to any “suspicious” site. The 24 days are the sum of the schedule in which the U.S. or another country can demand access, have the Iranians respond and then, if there’s no agreement, have the question submitted to a panel on which the U.S. will almost certainly command a majority.

2.        Establishment of 24 day period is partly to allow sufficient time to research potentially baseless third party allegations.

B.       Too rapid a break out period

1.        Chance of rapid recovery of weapons program after 10 years is offset by our superior knowledge of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and continued surveillance for the next 15 years

C.       Difficulty of validating past history of military and nuclear development

1.        The Pentagon has cited its belief that Iran’s non-nuclear military buildup is defensive in nature and can’t be legally challenged in any case.

2.        While the Parchin site is suspected by some as evidence of more recent nuclear activity, experienced observers feel that the obsession with the Parchin site is a red herring, since development was almost certainly discontinued over 10 years ago.

3.        Most expert opinion reflects confidence that, given the importance of determining the extent of past arms development as the indicator for the most realistic breakout period assessment, sufficient oversight will be implemented to determine breakout status without relying simply on Iran’s claims.

D.       Weaknesses in snap back provision

1.        Assuming EU partner agreement, the snap back is functionally unilateral, and each of the 6 involved countries can snap back their own sanctions within 30 days while bypassing any Russian and China vetoes

2.        The claim that loosened sanctions will allow Iran to accumulate enough wealth to weather re-imposed sanctions may have some short term truth but not likely in the long term

3.        While the snap back could be adversely affected by trading partners unwilling to give up investments in Iran, it’s conversely true that partners are unlikely to invest heavily until it’s clear that snap backs are extremely unlikely

4.        While there is concern that snap backs grandfather pre-existing trade and investment agreements, requiring otherwise would violate international law

5.        Concern that other P5+1 countries may not go along with the snapback raises questions as to the validity of decision in the first place

6.        While in some ways Iran will be better positioned if a snap back occurs, why would Iran want to risk this outcome given assured hardship? In addition, the alternative is scuttling the deal and risking either renewed military buildup and possibly war.

E.       Refusal of “anywhere, anytime inspections”

1.        This requirement has never been part of any weapons monitoring deal and is by definition insultingly intrusive to the sovereignty of any nation

2.        The fact is that, in addition to nuclear facilities, Iran will have to open any military sites considered “suspicious.”

F.        Issue of cheating

1.        Overall scientific evaluation is that surveillance conditions make chances of nuclear weapons development extremely remote in the next 25 years

2.        The solution to monitoring centrifuges, which can be more easily concealed, is to monitor uranium volume from the source and compare it with recorded usage

3.        As part of the agreement, Iran is limited to antiquated centrifuge technology for uranium production that wouldn’t allow weapons production for a long period of time

4.        Given P5+1 knowledge of Iran’s military installations, it’s considered unlikely that Iran would risk attack by noncompliance

5.        Concern that incremental violations will pass under the radar of “significant violations” referenced in the agreement overlooks that all violations will be subject to scrutiny.

G.       Issue of secret “Side Agreement” between Iran and AEIA

1.        The two agreements between AEIA and Iran include:

a)        Establishing a framework for disclosure of past weapons development

b)       Specifically, access to the Parchin site associated with suspected activity in the past.

2.        The draft of the AEIA agreement has already been seen by the Obama administration and content shared with Congress. In addition, there is some flexibility in sharing at least summary information based on US membership on the AEIA board.

3.        AEIA’s implementation protocol has always been confidential for the 185 subject countries to allow appropriate negotiation and flexibility without third party countries interfering, since AEIA is an independent agency, regardless of how much funding comes from the US. This relationship was clearly disclosed on July 15 and the AEIA head, Amano, provided a private briefing on August 5. Agreement was never intended to be bilateral between the US and Iran.

4.        Note that during apartheid, AEIA’s confidential agreement with South Africa nevertheless produced desired results. Overall outcomes and requirements of the Iran deal have been agreed upon, and the question is only whether AEIA is considered trustworthy to implement them.

5.        There is some apparent contradiction between the confidential “side agreement” and terms of the US Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, but there’s also room for interpretation based on clear past practices and international convention.

6.        Iran’s alleged “bad record” of the 2003 Additional Protocol with the AEIA has been strongly questioned by reports of the overall circumstances that actually led to Iran’s eventual rejection of the agreement

7.        Concern that the AEIA is over-extended does point to the need to ensure adequate funding so that the agency can complete its evaluation by the December 2015 target date. At the same time, the AEIA will have 150 inspectors with access to advanced technology, satellites, etc.

H.       Issue of Iran’s use of released funds

1.        Likelihood of diversion of Iran’s escrowed trade revenue of $150,000 to “terrorist” activities are considered exaggerated for the following reasons:

a)        The CIA predicts that most funds will be needed for the economy, which has been severely damaged by sanctions. Even if not, the alternative is worse if no agreement exists

b)       Hezbollah is already well supplied with weapons and for the most part only needs well-trained and hardened fighters (which Iran can hardly supply), especially given its embroilment in the Syrian quagmire

c)        Hamas has been at odds with Iran recently and subject to a blockade in any case

d)       Iran’s relationship with Assad in Syria is part of an internationally recognized treaty. Given US past history of intervention to protect its “national interests”, it’s not surprising that Iran would assert its own interests regionally.

e)        Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen is understandable to protect Shi’ite interests, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing campaign

f)        Historically, it’s understandable that Iran would pursue regional interests given its perception of Israeli expansionism as exemplified by Netanyahu’s commissioned “Clean Break” report issued in the 1990s calling for the

(1)     Abandonment of the Oslo Accords
(2)     Overthrow of Saddam Hussein
(3)     Eventual regime change in Syria and Iran

g)        Iran’s platform, as stated in Khamenei twitter account (misrepresented by Netanyahu), is not annihilation of Israel (i.e. the Jewish people in Israel) but

(1)     The dismantling of the Zionist regime, which it considers unjust to the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine
(2)     The implementation of a referendum of the “original inhabitants” of greater Palestine as to what polity should be adopted

h)       While this referendum of course unfairly excludes Zionist immigrants, it is a far cry from Netanyahu’s claims of genocidal intent.

I.         Concluding thoughts

1.        The current deal is the result of massive international cooperation and research. If a better deal was possible, it would have been adopted. If the deal is rejected by Congress with a veto override, Iran will be totally free to pursue possible further nuclear enrichment, and US allies, feeling jilted, will likely restore trade, ensuring more revenue to Iran.

2.        The agreement is supported by

a)        50 high ranking Israeli, security, and intelligence personnel

b)       24 US ex-military and arms control experts

c)        29 nuclear physicists.

3.        Since Iran already has a “robust” nuclear infrastructure, the goal should be to limit capacity rather than destroy infrastructure to which Iran is entitled based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty

4.        Tightening of sanctions will likely alienate Iranian middle class and sow more internal discontent that hardliners would want to avoid (note that sanctions have already reduced GDP by 6% and increased inflation to 44%). At the same time the decision to reject the deal is likely to strengthen hardliners given perception of Western betrayal and intransigence.

5.        While hostile to many US interests, closer relations with Iran is still important in battling Sunni extremism – ISIS for example

6.        Lifting sanctions may not have a dramatic effect on economic prosperity in Iran but is more likely to foster moderation and better relations than imposing further hardship and isolation.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Welcome back.
    A concise description, in plain English. Thank you.

    It has always seemed to me that Shia were less rigid in their religion and approach to the world, willing to recognize and respect others in a way the Sunnis don’t. Non-Muslim citizens of Iran are certainly much better off than they would be in most Sunni countries.

    Considering that the main Shia power is Iran and Iran inherited a lot of pre-Muslim Persian culture, I wonder if the real difference between Sunni & Shia is less a matter of religion than of Arab vs Persian culture. Basically, the Iranians were civilized when the Arabs were petty squabbling tribes. Modern Iran has a millennia-old understanding of power; it’s uses and misuses, what it can and cannot do; how to use power responsibly. I trust them a whole lot more than I trust the Saudis, who are just bullies that got rich by accident and haven’t the centuries of experience it takes to act with political wisdom.

    Of course, Americans are equally neophytes, and unlikely to be a major power long enough to learn political wisdom. I don’t see us being the Big Boy On The Block for the next 1000 years it would take for us to pull our head out of our ass and wise up. IMHO, a resurgent Iran, flexing its muscle in the Middle East will be all to the good. Support for Israel seems to be waning somewhat and support for the Palestinians growing. I’m hoping for the Trifecta – a free Iran, a chastened Israel and eventually a more liberal/progressive Turkey. That’s the only thing that will bring peace to the region.

    • All highly valid observations. If anything, my notes should have referenced Persia’s long historic experience with sophisticated (if at times cunning and duplicitous) and realistic diplomacy, and I agree that a regionally dominant Iran would be better for the world than a regionally dominant Saudi Arabia.

  • I worked and lived in Iran for 3 years in the 70’s until the end of the Shah’s reign. I worked and lived in Saudi for 13 years during the 80’s & 90’s. Iran was by far the more interesting country.

    Iran has a diverse population of many different ethnicities, including Aryans, Kurds, nomadic tribes, Armenians, Arabs, etc. They may have differences, but they tolerate each other. Iranians are proud of their long heritage of civilization, and have preserved the monuments of prior civilizations.

    On the other hand, Saudi is basically all Arab, with no ethnic minorities. This purity breeds intolerance. The Wahhabis, a conservative sect of Sunni Islam, are the state religion of Saudi. The Saudis have some pre-islamic ruins and culture, but that part of their history is ignored. They take the start of history as the birth of Mohammed.

    Iranians make a point that they are not Arabs. I think this was historically true, too. Although the Persians became Muslim after being conquered by Arabs, they retained their own language and culture. It always seemed to me that they adopted Shia Islam to differentiate themselves from the Arab Sunnis.

  • @tla, Iranians always make it a point to argue that they are not Arabs because they are actually Indo-European, like the majority of Americans in the New World or the Europeans or the Indians in the Old. Their language is related very closely to the various Indian languages and more distantly to Slavic and more distantly still to the Germanic, Romance and Greek languages most Americans would be more familiar with. They use a script which looks like Arabic but Farsi (the modern version of Persian) is structured much more like Hindi/Urdu. They are in no way connected to Arabic culture but for their religion, Islam, and their branch is obviously quite a bit different there as well. In many ways their conflict mirrors the old Catholic versus Protestant quarrels which led to quite a bit of animosity between the northern Europeans and those located closer to the Mediterranean during the 16th and 17th centuries.

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