What Is The Alternative To A Bad Deal With Iran?

24/06/2015 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrive to deliver a statement, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Thursday, April 2, 2015, after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions. The United States, Iran and five other world powers on Thursday announced an understanding outlining limits on Iran's nuclear program so it cannot lead to atomic weapons, directing negotiators toward achieving a comprehensive agreement within three months. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

The June 30 deadline for a comprehensive settlement between Iran and the P5+1 over the former's nuclear programme is just around the corner - with the possibility of another extension - and while the negotiations have been taking place in Europe, it is generally acknowledged that the final decision will be made at home. In the US, the Republican-dominated Congress has been recalcitrant over the provisos of an eventual deal, and in Iran, the preservation of its rights and dignity is an important determinant of the compromises that it would be required to be make.

Admittedly, there are certain signs of improvement. The US Corker-Cardin bill, with its provisions for Congress to vote for or against a final deal, was suitably amended - it was recently passed as the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015. Iran's neighbours in West Asia, too, after expressing concern about the dangers of an 'imperfect' deal, are now inching towards a cautious acceptance of its positive regional implications. That being said, attempts to obstruct the deal continue, whether by hardliners in the US, Iran, or elsewhere. This intractability has, since November 2013, when the Joint Plan of Action towards a comprehensive nuclear agreement was first signed, threatened to sabotage a very hard-earned diplomatic rapprochement.

Critics of the ongoing negotiations claim that a vastly reduced capacity for uranium enrichment is not a sufficient concession by Iran because this does not nip its nuclear programme in the bud, and if it decides to weaponise at a later date, the option remains open. According to them, the current talks do nuclear non-proliferation efforts a great disservice, and the only deal worth taking is one in which Iran surrenders its nuclear programme in its entirety, and in perpetuity.

This argument is counter-intuitive for three reasons.

"[I]n the ten plus years since the last failed attempt to reach some sort of agreement on curbing Iran's nuclear programme, its nuclear capabilities have only expanded."

First, in the ten plus years since the last failed attempt to reach some sort of agreement on curbing Iran's nuclear programme, its nuclear capabilities have only expanded. If the negotiators are to reject an eventual deal because it is not 'perfect', it does not require serious soothsaying abilities to predict that the Iranian nuclear programme will continue to intensify - without any oversight. Compromises have to be made from both sides, and the recurring extensions demonstrate that efforts are being made to reach an equitable understanding.

Second, it is understood that an acceptable deal would necessarily include dramatic cutbacks in Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Among others, there would be significantly less centrifuges spinning, limits would be set on the level of uranium enrichment, R&D would be restricted, and questions regarding the contentious 'possible military dimensions' of Iran's nuclear programme would be clarified. All of this would function under the aegis of an intrusive verification regime. Crucially, these measures would also ensure that Iran's 'breakout' time - the time taken to produce enough fissile material to construct a bomb, if it chooses to take that path - is extended by several months. Additionally, strict verification and regulation would help keep far better tabs on Iran's nuclear programme than now, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be much better equipped to detect any potential weaponisation attempt or violation of Iran's obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Now imagine a scenario without a deal: no caps, no checks, no accountability, and a growing Iranian nuclear programme.

"As an outlier, Iran would have considerably less incentive and pressure to behave as a responsible actor."

Third, as party to the NPT, it is Iran's right to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To be able to enrich uranium towards this end, therefore, is decidedly non-negotiable. While the proposal to supply Iran with nuclear fuel from outside sources has merit, would this be acceptable to Iran, for whom its nuclear programme is of great symbolic value? Unlikely. In fact, to 'officially' recognise Iran's threshold nuclear state status through a comprehensive deal would be useful because it would usher Iran into the fold of the international community, with which would come both rights and responsibilities that are applicable equally to all states. As an outlier, Iran would have considerably less incentive and pressure to behave as a responsible actor. That aside, completely denying Iran a right that is enshrined in the NPT would do as much disservice to the Treaty as critics claim an 'imperfect' deal would to its non-proliferation credentials.

By going after what is perceived as ideal, it has become easy to lose sight of what is realistically achievable, and what is needed at this time. How much of this opposition is genuine and how much is intended to serve ulterior motives also remains to be seen. In the bleak outlook on the current state of global nuclear non-proliferation efforts, characterised by deepening cleavages between the US and Russia and an NPT RevCon that was mostly rhetoric and no substance, a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran is currently the only reason for some optimism. And lest we forget: the Mean Girls-esque "you can't sit with us" intimidation tactic works only in high school, and the only alternative to a 'bad' deal is no deal at all.

More On This Topic