international analysis and commentary

American skepticism and selling the Iran nuclear deal

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Though by no means a rigorous research method, online commentary provides a colorful insight into American attitudes to the Iran nuclear deal. Reader comments on Fox News are predictably critical: “Let them rot”, “Negotiating with Muslims is a waste of time”, “As for American security, forget it.” Whereas the New York Times comment section offers a more diverse sample: “Talking sure beats fighting”; “Not wanting to go to war is not a reason to enter into a naive agreement”; “I’m glad that President Obama is trying to avoid a repeat (of Iraq) in Iran”; and one comment that suggested the Islamist attacks on a university in Kenya demonstrated that the Islamist government of Iran was not to be trusted. The only immediate source of relatively consistent support for the framework agreement can be found on Twitter among the nuclear experts: “The more I find out, the more I like it” (James Acton, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace); “We can’t say it’s a ‘good deal’, because there’s no final agreement yet. But as a framework it’s very good.” (Mark Fitzpatrick, International Institute for Strategic Studies); “Hold the bus! The Lausanne breakthrough is so much more than expected. This is a huge win for American national security.” (Joe Cirincione, Ploughshares Foundation).

What this exercise demonstrates is both the supreme technical achievement of the nuclear talks, as captured by the expert community, and the enduring political delicacy of any agreement, particularly among US domestic audiences. The framework laid out on April 2nd is specific in its details and timelines: it calls for a two-thirds reduction in the number of Iranian centrifuges and limits to 3.67% the enrichment of uranium (Iran previously enriched to approximately 20%); it also puts a cap on the amount of enriched uranium that can be stockpiled and increases transparency and verification, among other things, by having Iran join the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol. The deal came after nearly two years of negotiations following the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, and further talks will continue through the ultimate deadline of June 30th.

Experts demonstrate cautious optimism about the framework as a means of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But skeptics will undoubtedly remain steadfast, and their criticisms are likely to focus on four issues: the suggested deal does not include enough detail, is not of indefinite duration, allows for a “breakout” capability, and does not address other egregious aspects of Iran’s foreign policy. These debates are likely to rage throughout the spring, particularly in the lead-up to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote, on April 14th, on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and in the final days before the June 30th deadline.

The first three criticisms can be dealt with as one, namely that it allows for a breakout scenario and does not sufficiently prevent against the possibility that Iran might cheat. By its nature, the framework is not final and numerous details remain to be ironed out, which many critics will likely pick up. But based on what was announced so far, the framework would push back Iran’s current breakout timeline of two-three months to a minimum of one year. These limits appear to be one of the primary issues still up for negotiation in the next three months, along with the lifting of sanctions. To those who are concerned about the risk of Iran cheating, the proposed agreement entails unprecedented inspections that currently do not exist and would give the international community oversight of Iran’s facilities and the entire nuclear fuel cycle. As US President Barack Obama stated, “Iran may try to cheat in the future, but this framework makes it more likely that we will know if they try to cheat and we will have preserved all the currently available options.”

Since Iran has made unprecedented technical concessions in the framework agreement, the remaining criticism is perhaps the most difficult to address because it is rooted in fundamental beliefs about Iran’s pernicious intentions, and, more cynically, in politics. It is a criticism most recently voiced by a non-American, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated on April 1st, “A better deal would link the lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programs to a change in Iran’s behavior. Iran must stop its aggression in the region, stop its terrorism throughout the world and stop its threats to annihilate Israel.” By this line of argument, Iran’s policies must be dealt with as a whole rather than untied into separate packages. In negotiations, the nuclear program must be linked to human rights and its missile program, for example.

Linkage is a familiar concept in arms control talks. Another message from President Obama’s speech announcing the framework was to draw a comparison to US-Soviet arms control agreements. In those breakthrough negotiations, particularly the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, agreement was only possible once arms control was de-linked from other hurdles of the Cold War standoff. In the face of Iran’s willingness to make concessions, holding the nuclear talks hostage to these broader political issues would be tantamount to sacrificing immediate and tangible security gains for a long-term prospect shrouded in uncertainty.

All of these criticisms, and even optimists’ concerns, demonstrate a deep-seeded distrust in the United States towards Iran. This distrust is rooted in Iran’s past covert nuclear activity, along with the residual effects of the 1979 hostage crisis, Iran’s support for terrorist groups, and a harsh anti-American rhetoric. The proposed framework goes further than any previous arms control efforts to address these trust deficits with its intrusive verification at the technical level. Trust-building at the political level will take time and be dependent on Iran’s compliance- the April 2nd agreement is but one step forward after decades of stagnation and back-tracking.

The Obama administration is in a position to carry through the Iran nuclear deal without the full support of Congress or the American public. But that is hardly the optimal outcome nor the one the President himself desires. Congress still presents a risk to the deal not necessarily in practical terms, but rather in political ones. For the failure of a Congressional majority to support a deal, instead scuttling one, could send a message to the international community, and particularly to Iran, that it is rather the United States that is an untrustworthy partner. Criticism can in some cases become a self-fulfilling prophecy.