Local Blogs

By Tom Cushing

On Iran: Miles to Go Before We Sleep

Uploaded: Nov 26, 2013

The essential nature of a good deal is one in which both parties to it get more of what they really want, in exchange for something they want less. When I buy a new car (as in: 'new to me,' in case you've seen what I drive), it's because I value it more than the money it takes to make it mine; and conversely for the dealer. In another context, I might want to forestall an outcome that would otherwise probably occur, as if I sought an option-to-buy, at any time within a defined period. It may be useful to analyze the current Iran deal in that fashion – both parties got something they valued in taking the first, halting step in many years toward an accord that could make for a better future with fewer nukes.

It is at once significant and very preliminary: significant in that we are finally talking to this important country's leadership, after 30-odd years of air silence; and preliminary in that what we appear to have bought is 'time' to pursue the possibility of a more definitive agreement -- while such an agreement is still possible.

Okay, so what did The World (TW), at least as represented by Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany, and the US (thus, a pretty goodly chunk, all of which have their own nukes) 'get' in this case? While early information is slightly inconsistent, it appears that Iran will destroy its entire stockpile of near weapons-grade uranium, and for six months stop production of lower enriched uranium, stop construction and installation of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, and freeze construction of a new reactor that could produce plutonium, another nuclear bomb fuel. Iran also agreed to unprecedented inspections to ensure compliance.

According to several sources we all hope are accurate, Iran has about 8 tons of 5% pure uranium (think empty school bus), useable in that concentration for nuclear power and other peaceable means. They have also produced about 400 pounds (think NFL nose guard) of 20% pure material. That seems like a long way from the 90% level required for weapons, except that the purification process apparently moves faster in those upper reaches. (BTW, try saying Iranian uranium five times, fast). In essence, then, TW bought 'time,' a half-year delay in Iran's ability to realize its nuclear weapon agenda.

In return, Iran got the following: it received back some $5 Billion in its own oil revenues that had been frozen in foreign banks, no new economic sanctions for the six-month duration of the accord, and suspension of some sanctions: on precious metals, on Iran's auto industry and its petrochemical exports. For context, Iran's GDP is over $500 Billion/year. So they bought 'stuff.' Crucially, the Parties also agreed to work during those 6 months on a long-term agreement to further redirect the former Persia's nuclear ambitions.
So this preliminary pact is not earth-shattering, in the way an atomic bomb explosion might fracture the earth around it. But to say it's either 'nothing' or 'too much' is wrong, methinks. We're in the novel realm of 'so-far, so-good' with the new Iranian regime – with the prospect of achieving something better.

The agreement by itself ensures nothing permanent, but it did purchase delay by at least half-a-year, together with a better window-into that country. Such is the nature of buying options. Anyone who demands that the first deal achieve the ultimate result has never watched a child learn to walk, or a diplomat ply that trade. After three decades of inter-governmental paralysis, this is a positive first step. I also think that verifiability may be exceptionally useful in determining whether TW is relying on good information in its estimates. I have no idea whether the new insight will be 20/20, but I do know that it's better than the blindfold we've been wearing.

Finally, the interconnections elsewhere in that restive region are worth considering. Iran is a player in the conflicts and politics of other nations, including Syria where it has intervened on the side of the Assad regime. An active diplomatic relationship with that country, albeit typically aligned against current US interests, may open other doors down the road. As the saying goes, running the first mile of a marathon is no guarantee that you will overcome its every obstacle, but not running it ensures that you won't.

Israel (itself a nuclear power) has also objected, predictably, since it is their territory that would almost certainly be bombed if a future regional balance of terror failed. Their preference would be for all sanctions to remain in-place, and that Iran retain its status as an international pariah. Mr. Netanyahu hinted darkly that his military still has its own option of unilateral action to end the Iranian nuclear threat.

It seems to me, though, that this agreement delays that potential day-of-reckoning, as well, and also renders it ultimately less probable in case a longer deal can be reached. With a Great Powers process underway, Israel would risk too much global opprobrium if it attacked its enemy now. And what if – IF – this agreement leads to a better, longer term deal? Nobody, but NObody has more to gain if this initiative works. I believe that Israel's objection has more to do with its present seat on-the-bench in this exchange. Nor does this initiative significantly impact the prospect of a US-brokered deal with the Palestinians: the chance of that was nil, and has gotten no worse.

TW has much to fear from a unilateral Israeli strike. War is unpredictable, and it is not at all clear that any hot conflict could be contained to its partisans. It is more likely that various allies would be swept into the fray – and that doesn't even count the high probability that unforeseeable, unprepared-for events could ignite a much wider war. That scenario is now objectively less likely to occur.

So this is neither an ultimate destination nor a ditch. We do have the metaphorical miles to go before we reap a lasting, peaceful reward -- but in the interim, but the world is a little bit safer today.