[China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States with the European Union sitting in as an observer. The public announcement of the agreement was made by the Iranian Foreign Minister and the European Union Foreign policy chief. Nonetheless everyone in the U.S. credits or blames President Obama for the deal.]
I believe that it will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and an effective delivery system for a very long time, if ever. I am also optimistic that the resumption of trade ties will, over time, lead to a more open Iranian society and a less disruptive role in regional politics. That positive perspective will inescapably color my analysis, although I’d like to think I can minimize its effects.
There are two broad areas I’d like to explore in this piece. The first is an analysis of some of the most salient features of the agreement and the second is a discussion of the political dynamics we’ll see played out over the next two months.
THE MAJOR POINTS
Arms Control. Iran has always asserted that its investment in nuclear research and development was meant for civilian programs such as medicine and electricity generation, whidch it is fully entitled to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Even Iran’s harshest critics do not claim that the Islamic Republic has in fact developed nuclear weapons.
The negotiations focused on controlling Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons. By limiting the number of centrifuges Iran could operate and restricting the amount of enriched uranium it could possess, the P5+1 negotiators extended the “breakout” period from as little as a month to a year.
Enriched uranium: uranium ore is almost exclusively U238 but that isotope is not sufficiently radioactive to power reactors for electricity generation, let alone to make weapons. The most effective way to get U235, the useful isotope, is to put uranium in a centrifuge that spins the lighter U235 out of the ore. It is necessary to repeat the centrifuge process (cascading the ore from one centrifuge to the next) many times to get enough U235 to be useful. So limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can operate at any one time and limiting the amount of enriched uranium Iran can store makes it far more difficult for Iran -- if it wanted to -- to get enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead. Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium must be reduced by 98%.
“Breakout”: the amount of time it would take a country to physically produce a nuclear weapon. The more nuclear technology a country has, the more enriched uranium it has produced, the shorter the time from the decision to build a weapon until it is completed. The most common estimate is that Iran’s breakout time before the agreement was one or two months. The negotiators firmly believe that after the agreement is implemented Iran’s breakout time will be at least a year.
Inspections. Critics of the agreement point out that it does not allow for “any time, any where” inspections. What it does do is give the International Atomic Energy Agency sweeping access to all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities for inspections and monitoring that are a good deal more thorough and intrusive than anywhere else in the world. The agreement sets up a mechanism for dealing with sites that Iran has not declared but are suspected of harboring nuclear research. There’s a fairly complicated 24 day period of negotiation, but if there is no agreement between Iran and the parties to the agreement, inspections can be ordered.
The secret documents. Critics of the agreement have seized on a set of agreements between the IAEA and Iran covering inspections of Iranian military facilities potentially involved in weapons development. These so-called side agreements are not part of the 100 plus pages of the P5+1 and Iran agreement and have not been shared with the P5+1 countries. The IAEA, as well as defenders of the agreement, point out that they are highly technical arrangements and this is a typical way of getting access to highly sensitive areas in a country. It seems to me that this is no different than the steps the EPA, FDA or SEC or other regulatory agencies in the U.S. takes to protect trade secrets and intellectual property when they regulate a company or product.
Sanctions. The United States has imposed a wide range of economic and military sanctions on Iran since 1979. Some of the legislation authorizing those sanctions give the President discretion in their implementation; some require an act of Congress to alter or eliminate. Individual European countries, as well as the European Union have imposed sanctions on Iran for both nuclear activities and human rights and terrorism abuses. and the United Nations Security Council has imposed its own set of sanctions. Iran demanded the immediate lifting of all sanctions. That obviously did not happen, but the UN Security Council did vote to suspend its sanctions related to nuclear activities just a few days after the agreement was signed. And several European countries have begun to relax their economic sanctions. Most of the European Union sanctions on nuclear or weapons technology will remain in place for the next eight years. Nothing in the agreement obliges the United States to lift any of its sanctions. The nuclear agreement does not involve the potential lifting of sanctions related to human rights or terrorism.
An important aspect of the sanctions component of the agreement is “snap back.” If Iran does not live up to its side of the bargain, the UN sanctions are supposed to snap back into place. The most interesting aspect of the snap back provisions is the fact that the Security Council veto does not apply. Despite the fact that China and Russia are extremely protective of their right to stop Security Council action by voting “no” -- even if everyone else votes “yes” -- they agreed to give it up in this instance. If Iran is accused of cheating before the Security Council the question to be voted on will be “should we continue to suspend the sanctions?” If one of the permanent members, e.g. The United States, votes “no” then the sanctions will snap back into place. No single country can prevent Iran being punished for violating the agreement.
There is a second set of UN sanctions aimed at Iran’s ability to develop ballistic missiles, the most effective way to deliver a nuclear weapon. Those sanctions have not been lifted and will not be lifted for at least ten years and some of them remain in place for at least fifteen years.
Lifting sanctions is one of the most controversial parts of the agreement. The argument by opponents of the deal is that Iran will suddenly have access to tens of billions of dollars in assets currently frozen in Europe or the U.S. and will use that money to support Hezbollah, Assad of Syria, Hamas and other disruptive and malevolent forces in the Middle East.
The argument by supporters of the deal is twofold. First of all, Iran was motivated to strike a deal because the economic sanctions, plus the decline in oil prices, have hurt the economy. Unemployment, especially among educated young urban dwellers, is high. Corruption and inefficiency are endemic. The announcement of the agreement on nuclear activities has unleashed a wave of high expectations in Iran that foreign trade and investment will reinvigorate the economy and improve the situation for everyday people. Half of all Iranians are under 30 years old which means that the revolution and the early days of ideological fervor are ancient history. The long term survival of the regime may well depend on its ability to deliver a brighter future to younger Iranians. Teheran is studded with (illegal) satellite dishes, social media is pervasive, and younger Iranians are aware of the outside world.
The second part of the argument is that even if some elements of the Iranian political system are eager to increase support for radicals abroad and undermine regimes like Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most important clients, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, have a limited capacity to absorb increased spending.
All in all, the most likely short term effect of lifting economic sanctions will be an increase in domestic spending. The longer run effect may well be a growing, educated young middle class, the sort of people who spearheaded the wide spread protests after the 2009 elections. The pressure for a more open, liberal and democratic Iran will become stronger and, as the old revolutionary generation dies off, it is highly likely that the Iran of 2025, when many of the limitations on the nuclear program expire, will be far less eager to support revolution elsewhere in the Middle East and far more interested in stable and co-operative relations with its neighbors.
THE POLITICAL DIMENSION
Early in the classic movie Casablanca, the local chief of police comes into Rick’s bar to pocket his bribe money but is very publicly shocked, yes shocked that there is gambling going on! Well, I am shocked, yes shocked, to find partisan politics underlying reactions to the recent agreement between Iran and the P5+1!
The Role of Congress. Congress has given itself until September 17 to weigh in on the agreement with Iran. The House and Senate could vote to approve the deal (and 100 unicorns wearing sparkly tutus and carrying leprechauns on their backs could come prancing down Pennsylvania Avenue); they could avoid voting on it (and here come the unicorns again), or they could vote to reject it. Since the Republicans have a majority in both the House and the Senate and are unanimous in their opposition, voting to reject is the most likely outcome.
When President Obama immediately vetoes the bill rejecting the deal the real drama will begin. It takes a 2/3 vote of both the House and the Senate to override a Presidential veto. There is little doubt the House will vote overwhelmingly to override the veto. Between the Republicans who sincerely want to torpedo it and those Democrats who calculate that voting to override is a safe vote -- it mollifies the passionate opponents of the deal in their district but they expect the Senate to fail to override so the agreement will remain intact -- the House will easily muster the 2/3 super majority. The Senate will be where the action is. More precisely, the Senate is where the action is right now, with intense lobbying of a fairly small number of Senate Democrats. The Republicans will need to convince 13 Democratic senators to vote to override the President’s veto.
The Game is Afoot. Google “Iran nuclear deal” and the first thing you will see is a sponsored ad damning the deal. The ostensible sponsor of the ad is nuclearfreeiran.org; the real sponsor is the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) which is believed to have as much as $40 million to invest in opposing the agreement. Most of the money from AIPAC and other well endowed conservative organizations will be spent on media buys in states with a Democratic senator who is seen as vulnerable to pressure. Supporters of the agreement have a lot less money. For example, J Street, the most important liberal Jewish lobbying group, has perhaps $5 million for media.
Of course President Obama and his administration don’t rely on mass media campaigns to rally support. He has been busy talking to key senators on the phone, key figures in the administration have been making the rounds of talk shows and meeting with supportive interest groups and lobbyists. The usual suspects among liberal groups, such as MoveOn are mounting grass roots campaigns to support the president and the agreement.
And The Hypothetical “Person in the Street”?
A recent CNN/ORC poll showed that over half of the people who had an opinion about the Iran nuclear deal thought Congress should reject it. But a poll of Jewish Americans conducted by the LA Jewish Journal found that 48% of their respondents supported the deal (and 54% thought Congress should approve it) while 28% opposed it (and 35% thought Congress should block it) and 25% said they hadn’t heard enough about it to have formed an opinion. Other polls have been just as widely divergent: only 38% of the respondents in a PEW poll supported the deal but 56% of the people in a Washington Post/ABC poll were in favor.
http://www.vox.com/2015/7/27/9049839/iran-deal-polls has an excellent analysis of the remarkable impact of question wording on these poll results. The more details of the agreement that were included in the question, the higher the level of support.
Beyond the impact of question wording and other methodological niceties, all the polling reflects the fact that for the large majority of Americans, the Iran nuclear deal is a domestic political issue. Regardless of the poll, the single most important variable predicting support or opposition was self-proclaimed ideology: people who think of themselves as liberals or Democrats are disproportionately supportive; people who think of themselves as conservative or Republicans are disproportionately opposed. This reduces the effectiveness of AIPAC and other opposition groups to sway Democratic senators to vote to override a Presidential veto. The strongest opponents of the agreement, conservative Republicans, aren’t going to vote for a Democratic senator regardless of what they do on this issue while the strongest proponents are the very people the senator counts as a core constituency.
I am one of the large group of observers who think it a Presidential veto will be sustained in the Senate and there is even a small chance in the House, as well.
I think that the agreement will forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon and will have a moderating effect on the Iranian political system over the next ten years. I think that the Iran of 2025 will be less dominated by socially conservative religious figures, have a much improved economy and will be less active in promoting regional instability. [Yes, that’s a bold prediction that no one will remember in one, let alone ten years. Unless I’m right; then I will certainly remind one and all.]
In the very unlikely event the Obama administration fails to block attempts to derail the agreement, I think that:
1) Congress would have blocked the removal of American economic sanctions; the UN sanctions are already being removed and much of the European Union is lining up to resume economic ties with Iran. U.S. sanctions alone have not been enough in the past to bring Iran to the negotiating table; they won’t be in the future. Iran will feel justified in resuming and accelerating its weapons program (all the while claiming it doesn’t have one) and seeing real economic progress. By 2025 Iran will have a nuclear arsenal, a robust economy, and some important infernal reforms.
2) It will be an embarrassing blow to President Obama and significantly deepen the partisan bitterness in Washington.
3) It will be a significant blow to the United States as a super power. The partisan gridlock of the past seven years has made American style democracy much less attractive to the rest of the world. American diplomats will find it far more difficult to take a leading role in making global policy or coping with difficult situations since both our friends and our foes will have to wonder whether Congress will undo whatever American diplomats agree to.
4) Rightly or wrongly, Israel will be blamed by the administration and its supporters for interfering in American domestic politics. It is hard to see how the Obama-Netanyahu relationship could get much worse, but even if AIPAC and its allies fail to block the deal, Israel will become even more firmly associated with the right wing in American politics.
Since I don’t think those bad things will happen, I intend to sit back and watch the political games play themselves out. Congress is in recess until after Labor Day and I think there will be less public activity and less hyperbolic rhetoric until then. I think the first two weeks in September will be interesting with breathless tallies of the latest vote counts and shrill partisan debate competing for attention with the start of the NFL season and continuing efforts by Republican Presidential candidates to do or say something that will get them more than 9 or 10 percent support in polls of Republican primary voters.