The interim deal reached on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is just that: interim. It’s a way station on the way to somewhere else. Where? It’s still too early to say. But if Western leaders stick together and keep up the pressure over the next six months of negotiations, there’s a chance that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program can be rendered impotent. Iran’s economy is hobbled by sanctions, and the regime badly needs to find a way to lift them.
The United States and the European Union have long insisted that Iran abandon all atomic-weapons ambitions. The question is whether the regime in Tehran is now ready to do that or instead, after a decade of foot-dragging, is trying to run the clock while continuing its march to the nuclear end zone. We know what the West wants out of these negotiations. What’s unknown is what the Iranians want, or how much they’re willing to give up.
The Israelis and the Saudis are worried, and Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird says he’s skeptical. They all have reason to be. The White House and the Europeans are cautiously optimistic – and there’s reason for that, too.
The deal signed this weekend in Geneva creates a six-month window during which the Iranians and the P5+1 – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – will try to negotiate a “comprehensive solution.” During this time, Iran’s current nuclear-weapons program is to be frozen, and in some areas even rolled back. International inspectors will be intensively monitoring Iranian atomic facilities. Iran will be able to continue enriching uranium – something United Nations resolutions have long demanded it stop – but only at lower, non-weapons-grade levels of less than five per cent. Iran’s stockpile of 20-per-cent enriched uranium – it isn’t weapons-grade, but it’s getting close – will have to be diluted down to five per cent, or turned into a less dangerous oxide. Iran promises not to complete any new nuclear facilities – but neither will it be dismantling the nearly finished Arak plutonium reactor, which critics call a bomb factory. And while Iran won’t add more uranium-enriching centrifuges to the thousands it already has, it can repair and replace any that break down. Iran has not given up very much, at least not yet.
In return for putting the weapons program on ice for at least six months, the Iranians are being given a small, time-limited relaxation of some sanctions. Sanctions restricting the sale of Iranian oil and cutting off the country’s access to much of the world’s financial system remain in place, but Iran will receive a small opening to global trade – the ability to buy needed spare parts for civilian aircraft, for example – and some Iranian funds frozen overseas will be released. The White House estimates that will be worth $6- to $7-billion to the Tehran regime.
The Western objective has long been the complete dismantling of Iran’s accelerating nuclear-weapons program. UN resolutions have demanded that Iran put a stop to activities, such as uranium enrichment, that could lead to a bomb. The interim agreement is a bit of a climbdown from that position. The Geneva text says that any eventual final agreement will “involve a mutual defined enrichment program,” for Iran, “with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs.” In other words, what’s on the table is not a complete dismantling of Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure. Is that a fatal flaw in the agreement, or a face-saving gesture that will allow moderates in Iran to effectively end the nuclear-weapons program, while retaining a small amount of low-grade enriched uranium that can’t be used for a weapon? Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, fears that this means Iran will be able to keep sufficient facilities to build a bomb, just on a slower timetable. The Obama administration believes that it is close to achieving the end of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Who is right? We don’t yet know. But in a few months’ time, we will. It’s a risk worth taking.
Many members of the U.S. Congress are talking about imposing new sanctions on Iran. That would be counterproductive during the six-month negotiating period – and the Geneva agreement specifically promises that the U.S. will take no such steps. But what about the threat of additional sanctions, should Tehran fail to make big concessions? Bring it on. Sanctions are why Iran’s rulers are at the negotiating table. They want to lower them, not find themselves subject to new punishments.
The West is in a strong negotiating position with Iran. Trade and export restrictions are crushing the Iranian economy. Sanctions are the best leverage we’ve got. The West should only be willing to drop them in return for what it has long demanded: an agreement ending the Iranian nuclear threat.