On April 2, 2015 in Lausanne EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif presented parameters for an agreement about Iran’s nuclear program. What kind of deal is in the making? (2 of 2)
Let us be clear: even though it represents a clear step backwards from what the EU3+3 hoped for only two years ago, the Lausanne agreement is, on its surface, a decent framework. For the first time ever, a comprehensive settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue is on the table, with provisions covering all the problematic issues. That is why even the cautious French government fully supported it. (In fact, the only negotiating parties in Lausanne were the Iranians, the Americans, and the French, along with a contingent of Germans who contributed technical expertise on uranium enrichment.)
However, the roadblocks on the path to a satisfying final agreement – one that would put the issue to rest in the eyes of the international community – are so high that the issue is almost certain to remain on the agenda beyond the end of June 2015.
To begin with, it is far from certain that there will be a final deal in the foreseeable future.
The only officially agreed document that resulted from the Lausanne talks is a joint EU-Iran statement, one that is rather vague. A much more detailed draft document exists – a form of rolling text drafted at the suggestion of France – but was not made public. Any interpretation of this document is thus the responsibility of the parties.
And this is where the fun begins. For there are significant discrepancies between the US fact sheet and the Iranian “quasi-fact sheet” published by the ministry of foreign affairs. A third document, a French fact sheet distributed to EU partners, also differs from both the US and Iranian fact sheets on certain points.
The differences reflect the absence of a clear agreement on many issues. The joint statement remains vague on the duration of limits to the enrichment program (a “specified” duration), on the exact nature of verification measures (“provisional” application of the Additional Protocol and “agreed procedures” on enhanced access to “clarify past and present issues”), on the timeline of sanction relief (“simultaneously” with implementation of “key” commitments), and on the duration of remaining restrictions (an “agreed” period of time).
Anyone familiar with the Iranian nuclear issue already knows that the forthcoming negotiation is likely to stumble on at least three key issues: the timeframe of sanction lifting, the exact nature of the verification regime, and the so-called “Possible Military Dimensions.” These are three core issues, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has made it clear since Lausanne that he does not want to compromise on the first two. (Iran has always stonewalled on the third one.) Pretending that we are close to a deal is thus tantamount to saying that a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is at hand because the “Clinton Parameters” are considered a good basis of discussions by the parties.
In addition, even though Iran suffers under the sanctions, Tehran may believe that it now has the upper hand, and that maintaining a hard line will play in its favor. From its point of view (and not mistakenly), the Obama administration is very eager for a deal, while few of the Supreme Leader’s publicly stated “red lines,” if any, have been crossed. Moreover, Iran may believe that the West needs it to fight the Islamic State.
All this does not bode well for the coming months. And that is even without factoring in possible additional difficulties posed by opponents to a deal in the US Congress.
If there is a final deal, it is not certain that it will be faithfully implemented.
But let us assume that there is a final deal that preserves the essential interests of the EU3+3 and the international community at large. It may very well be that Iran just wants to buy time and maintain its ambition to be capable of building the Bomb in a short period of time. Given that some past (and possibly present) weaponization activities will presumably remain undiscovered – even with stringent verification procedures in place – Iran may be betting that the international community will lose interest, and that the sanctions would be difficult to re-impose. The US would presumably not engage in future sabotage operations, and its threats to use force may ring hollow to the ears of the Iranian leadership.
In this scenario, Tehran would test the West with minor breaches, then with more important ones if we do not react (maybe arguing publicly that “conditions have changed”), and get ready for breakout (or sneakout) after a few years.
What would happen then? Who would determine what a significant, material breach of the deal is? Would Moscow play along? Would it even be conceivable to re-impose sanctions if foreign trade and investment have returned en masse in Iran?
If not, or if Iran is undeterred, then two outcomes would be possible. The first would be to tacitly allow Tehran to arrive at the nuclear threshold, and perhaps cross it. This “North Korean” scenario (with an “Indian” variant where it would conduct an allegedly “peaceful” test) is not the only bad one. We could also have an “Iraqi” scenario, where a US president is determined to use force without the explicit agreement of the United Nations Security Council.
If there is a final deal and it is faithfully implemented, it will still leave Iran with significant breakout capability.
Let us now assume that Iran faithfully implements the agreement and has decided to give up its military nuclear ambitions. We will have recognized and legitimized Tehran as a “hedger,” which in 12-15 years will be able to build the Bomb in an even shorter period of time than now. (Today, Iran could produce a significant quantity of fissile material in 2-3 months – and actually less than 2 months according to some French government estimates.) Would it not be tempting for a future Iranian leadership to resume military-related activities? Of course, we can still hope that the regime will have changed by then (a liberal democracy would be infinitely less likely to go down that path). But let us not hope too much: that would be making the same mistake the US negotiators of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea made, unwilling to believe that the regime would still be the same in 2004 …
We would then have gained time – arguably a precious commodity in diplomacy – but nothing more.
This is the price of having given up on restricting Iran to a uranium enrichment capability “consistent with practical needs,” which is what the November 2013 “parameters for a final agreement” aimed at – at some point in 2013, the EU3+3, under US pressure, gave up “roll-back” in favor of mere “containment.”
Another issue is that a decade-old Western effort to limit the spread of uranium enrichment technology would have failed. It is likely that several countries in the region (and beyond) would consider it now entirely legitimate to build large-scale enrichment programs without a clear industrial rationale. We would then have created a world of “nuclear hedgers.”
Finally, even if Iran completely gives up its military option, there is little evidence that this will be a political game-changer.
Europe and the United States should not entertain any illusions about what a deal would mean for their relationship with Iran. A deal might in fact reinforce conservative trends in Tehran. Supreme Leader Khamenei might want to show that he is still in charge and avoid allowing the more pragmatic elements of the Iranian leadership to become political competitors. Remember also that demonization of the US and Israel is at the core of the Islamic Republic’s political “DNA.” Washington will want to show its friends and allies in the region that it will not compromise further with a regime that has been, since 1979, one of the world’s most important sponsors of terrorism and a destabilizing element throughout the Middle East and beyond. Remember that Saudi Arabia fears a US–Iran rapprochement as much as it fears an Iranian bomb, and that, as events in Yemen demonstrate, Washington has no intention of “shifting sides.”
Lausanne is not a “Munich.” But going back to the Middle East metaphors, it is definitely not a “Camp David.” After the “Oslo” of November 2013, it is at best a “Roadmap.”