Striking a Deal? The Deadline Approaches for Iran and the US

As the June 30 deadline draws closer, pressure is increasing for the Obama administration and Iran to settle on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning Iran’s nuclear program. While domestic politics may pressure the White House to demand greater concessions from Iran, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has articulated quite clearly that Tehran will not accept a deal it deems unsatisfactory, and views the deadline as in no way sacred. However, the existing Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) limiting Iran’s nuclear program ends on June 30, and the situation will be precarious for US security interests if no new agreement is implemented.

The United States views a nuclear Iran as a primary threat to the stability of the Middle East and the world, due to the nation’s regional aggression, hostility toward Israel, and sponsorship of terrorist groups. The ideal outcome of the JCPOA would create stringent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program by significantly increasing its nuclear breakout time—the time it takes for any nation to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear bomb. While the current JPOA inhibits Iran’s nuclear development, the proposed JCPOA would not only remove a significant amount of Iran’s existing nuclear capabilities but also begin to reverse its progress.

Iran’s nuclear program is not a new issue. In 2002, the Iranian dissident group known as Mujahedeen Khalq revealed the clandestine development of two massive nuclear facilities in Iran,  causing substantial international alarm. The repeated refusal of Iran’s government to comply with international nuclear standards exacerbated a diplomatic and security crisis that continues today. While the United States had already sanctioned Iran on account of its terrorist sponsorship, Iran’s continued illicit nuclear efforts warranted further sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, beginning in 2006, and the European Union, in 2012. The sanctions effectively cut off most of Iran’s global trade and segregated its economy from the rest of the world. The sanctions include bans on the trade of weaponry and nuclear-related technology and equipment, transactions with Iranian banks, and Iranian oil and natural gas imports—resources on which Iran’s economy heavily depended. While some sanctions are specifically targeted to prevent the possibility of further nuclear activity, others are intended to compel Iran to comply with the international community’s wishes. The sanctions have essentially crippled Iran’s economy, barring the state from international markets and causing inflation rates of over 40 percent, at great cost to the Iranian population.

These tough sanctions give Washington significant leverage in diplomatic talks and may incentivize Tehran to compromise. Iran’s desperation for lifted sanctions might lead the Iranian leadership to accept stricter regulations on their nuclear program. An ideal agreement for the Obama administration would involve rigorous inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as limitations on Iran’s access to fissile material (the crucial component of nuclear weapons). These limitations would involve the removal of all existing fuel stockpiles and a limit on the number of centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium. Such restrictions would push back Iran’s nuclear breakout time from two or three months to one year. However, should Iran sufficiently comply with these terms, restrictions would be eased after ten years’ time and the breakout time could eventually decrease to zero.

However, Ayatollah Khamenei has publicly expressed his distrust of the United States on Twitter, and has contested some of the key points of the potential agreement. First, Iran asserted that it would not allow foreign inspections of its military bases—sites of very high concern for the United States. Second, Khamenei declared that Iran would only sign a deal if all sanctions were immediately lifted the very day the agreement was signed. Washington, meanwhile, stipulates that sanctions would be lifted in phases in accordance with Iranian compliance.

Iran’s move to make the immediate removal of sanctions a prerequisite could create insurmountable barriers to a successful nuclear deal. The United Nations and European Union sanctions could be removed almost immediately, but President Obama would face difficult domestic policy barriers at home. As president, he could easily suspend US sanctions, but such a suspension would be temporary without congressional approval. Owing to a widespread distrust of Iran, members of Congress have approved a bill ensuring the congressional right to review any deal, should one be made, with Iran. Many Republican members of Congress even wrote an open letter to Tehran warning that any agreement can be revoked after Obama leaves office.

Not only does House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu without White House consent suggest members of Congress may be sympathetic to Israel’s stark opposition to an agreement with Iran, but it also highlights Israel’s significance in the negotiations. Netanyahu contended that the proposed deal would “threaten the very survival of the state of Israel” and demanded Iran’s “recognition of Israel’s right to exist” as a requisite for the deal (Iran does not currently recognize the legitimacy of Israel). While Obama asserted that the proposed deal would cut off every pathway to a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu criticized any deal that would allow Iran to preserve many of its nuclear capabilities as paving the path to the bomb. And while Netanyahu deemed the JCPOA as “a dream deal for Iran and a nightmare for the world,” Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif’s tweets suggest that Tehran will not consent to a deal it deems unfair, and believes that it is Washington that needs to make further concessions.

Washington appears more willing to compromise than Jerusalem, as Israel maintains that the US should continue to increase pressure until more Iranian concessions are made or even increase sanctions to force Iran to alter its aggressive behavior in the Middle East. Yet the outlook does not look wholly promising, as both sides are demanding stipulations that the other side does not seem willing to grant. Israel may be right and Washington may have the upper ground, but the Iranian economy—and the Iranian people—will continue to suffer greatly as long as sanctions are in place.

Iran has already sustained itself for years under various combinations of strict sanctions, and Khamenei’s unyielding remarks suggest that Iran is willing to endure further economic penalty rather than consent to an agreement it believes unfair, or believes to take advantage of Tehran, whether by June 30 or in the months to follow. The fact remains that the Iranian people will continue to deal with the effects of a damaged economy unless significant concessions are made that allow the leaders to reach an agreement, but such a fact may not realistically give Washington as much upper ground as Congress or Netanyahu believe.

It may be genuine distrust of Washington that motivates Tehran to continue demanding greater concessions. Yet Tehran may very well know, thanks to Congress, that an instantaneous removal of sanctions is likely off the bargaining table. Not only is this because of an apparent lack of will on the part of the Obama Administration, but also because of the complex nature of the American legal system. If Iran’s primary interest were the removal of sanctions, it would be more willing to concede to their gradual lifting to allow the eventual restoration of its economy. However, Iran’s willingness to demand greater, potentially unrealistic concessions suggest that sanctions, no matter how damaging, are in fact not its first priority and that it may view economic penalty as a reasonable price for the ability to build nuclear weapons.

Should negotiations fail, sanctions will continue and there may not be any substantial changes to the situation. But with no negotiations in place, Iran could potentially pursue nuclear weapons with its existing capabilities and reach the nuclear threshold in a matter of months. Not only is this a situation highly undesirable to the West, but is one that might induce Israel, a state that has already been subject to Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks, to perceive itself as threatened and launch an offensive strike against Iran, which would inevitably draw in US involvement and could escalate into a full-fledged (and possibly nuclear) war.

Of course, such a situation would be extreme and Iran might remain content with gradual nuclear development or simply the preservation of its present capabilities. Yet Israel seriously considered launching a strike against Iran over nuclear development in 2012; such considerations could be transformed into action a second time around.

Iran’s potential nuclear capacity would do more than terrify Israel. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, even of allotted capability, could coerce other Arab states like Saudi Arabia to try to match Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Realist theories dictate that pursuing nuclear weapons in this manner, especially in such a volatile region, is not surprising and points to an unfortunate reality beyond the international negotiations. A cursory understanding of Iran’s past actions underscores that, even if deal is made, Iran might very well discard promises or attempt clandestine operations. In short, even if negotiations are successful, Iran could simply cheat. Even if Iran does not blatantly continue to enrich uranium, it could more easily continue attaining resources or manufacturing equipment without detection, especially if the US actually were to concede to less rigorous inspections—including lack of inspection of military facilities. Alternatively, Iran could continue a great deal of development under the pretense of civilian nuclear power use. The United States can champion its attempt to prevent a dangerous and contemptible regime from attaining the most destructive weapons in existence, but it must ask itself if it is willing to do so at the expense of the prosperity and well-being of a civilian population.

If Iran does compromise and behave appropriately, after a decade it will be permitted to achieve the nuclear threshold as dictated by the proposed JCPOA. While the US and certainly Israel have a great interest in delaying this moment as long as possible, should Iran retain its skill, intelligence, and any nuclear technology or infrastructure for even civilian nuclear power uses, the day will come when a threshold nuclear state seems almost inevitable. June 30 may come and go with little disturbance and we cannot predict what the international arena will bring in the coming years, but we may simply face the same set of concerns in the following decade, if not sooner.

The image featured in this article is courtesy of Aslan Media. The original image can be found here

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