Stimson experts offer their insights into the six-month agreement with Iran reached early Sunday designed to halt the nation’s progress in developing nuclear weapons. Under the deal, Iran agreed to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities and take other actions to prevent the creation of fuel for nuclear weapons. In return, the United States and other nations will ease some trade sanctions against Iran and unfreeze some of Iran’s foreign assets.
Implications of the Iran Deal for Nuclear Proliferation
By Barry Blechman, Co-founder and Distinguished Fellow | [email protected]
If the opportunity provided by this interim agreement leads to a permanent halt to Iran’s movement toward nuclear weapons, it will be a major triumph in the battle against nuclear proliferation.
Nearly 70 years after invention of the atomic bomb, only nine states possess nuclear weapons. Iran would have been the tenth and, perhaps, would have opened the floodgates for additional proliferators in the Middle East.
If Iran’s option is staunched, additional pressure will be put on North Korea and its protector, China, to reverse Pyongyang’s pathway to the bomb. It will demonstrate the world’s intolerance for these weapons of mass destruction, just as the outcry that followed Syria’s use of chemical weapons did for lethal gasses.
If a permanent agreement is concluded, it also will strengthen the hands of all the non-nuclear nations, putting new pressures on the remaining nuclear weapon states to make more significant progress toward the elimination of their arsenals.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in 2015 will be a most interesting meeting. Iran will be in a position to lead the roughly 180 nations that have permanently renounced their right to build nuclear arms in an all-out diplomatic assault against the five declared nuclear weapon states, demanding that – for once – the nuclear powers take action, not only make promises.
Finally, if a permanent agreement is feasible it will put an even brighter spotlight on Israel’s nuclear arsenal – the only one in the Middle East. With Syria giving up its chemical weapons and Iran its nuclear potential, only two obstacles prevent turning the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction – Egypt’s chemical arms and Israel’s nukes.
It will be time to fulfill the promise made at the 2010 NPT Review Conference to begin serious discussions of such an agreement.
Responding to Critics of the Deal
By Michael Krepon, Co-founder and Senior Associate | [email protected]
The interim agreement curtails Iranian nuclear-related activities in ways that sanctions have been unable to accomplish, without having to resort to military action and all of the unintended consequences that might follow.
A great deal is being made about extending the timeline in which Tehran could break out from the interim agreement’s constraints, but this concern may be overstated. The breakout timeline that matters most has to do with how long it takes intelligence analysts to piece together evidence of cheating that clarifies malign intent. The interim agreement’s monitoring provisions could help greatly in this regard. Absent this accord, breakout would be a far more serious problem.
The modalities of inspections will be another sore point. There will be a constant drumbeat of criticism over what Tehran has not agreed to, as well as reports that Iran is covertly cheating on what it has agreed to.
Skeptics on Capitol Hill will seek steps that will have the practical effect of derailing the negotiations. The Obama administration can best deal with criticism of the interim agreement by moving as promptly as it can to negotiate a final deal that curtails Iran’s enrichment and related infrastructure, and that blocks a parallel plutonium track to nuclear weapons.
If Iranian nuclear capabilities are effectively frozen, then the most dynamic nuclear competition on the globe – between Pakistan and India – might gain the attention it deserves.
Engaging Iran on Other Issues
By Ellen Laipson, President and CEO | [email protected]
The improved environment between Iran and the United States resulting from the interim nuclear agreement returns us to the enduring debate about the larger goals and purpose of US-Iran relations.
The Obama administration has made clear that Iran’s nuclear activities will remain the principal focus of engagement. While this may be seen as the only issue in bilateral relations that has significant national security consequences for the US, attention to non-nuclear issues is warranted.
It is important to imagine what a more normal bilateral relationship would look like, and how the US, Iran and other regional Middle Eastern powers can work to achieve greater regional stability.
Conceptually, finding other issues for bilateral engagement and possible cooperation would strengthen prospects for the hard work ahead. Over the next six months, all the sensitivities in this long-estranged relationship will be exposed, as diplomats and intelligence experts work on a final, verifiable nuclear agreement.
It will be important to build constituencies in both countries for an improved and even productive bilateral relationship, and greater economic and civil society interaction will be important to that end. Even as many sanctions remain in place, there is room for cooperation in the fields of science, health, culture and education. This can be pursued in both government and non-government channels.
The issues on which there are profound differences, such as Iran’s human rights performance at home, its very flawed treatment of political dissent, its support for radical and violent groups in the Arab world, among others, will not lend themselves to easy resolution. Iran’s ambitions in the Muslim world drive the US to measures to protect its allies and partners, and this works at cross-purposes to building trust with Tehran.
But finding common ground on regional trouble spots where Iran’s security interests are adversely affected by turmoil, such as in Afghanistan, is a promising arena for discussion. US administrations of both parties have quietly supported such informal interactions, and strengthening these channels now holds promise.
Implications for Syria
By Mona Yacoubian, Senior Advisor, Middle East | [email protected]
Should it create traction for regional diplomacy more broadly, the interim agreement with Iran on the nuclear question could pave the way for broader discussions between the United States and Iran on Syria. Of course, the challenges for US-Iranian diplomacy on Syria will be significant.
The United States and Iran back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, reflecting their seemingly diametrically opposed interests. The United States has staked its strategy on seeking the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. For Iran, Syria is a key locus of activity in the Arab world, providing Tehran with an important vector of influence in the Levant, as well as a critical strategic corridor to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Not surprisingly, Iran stands as the Assad regime’s staunchest ally, providing it with arms, financing and training. Iran also provides critical support to Hezbollah which has sent fighters into Syria to support Syrian government operations. Together, Iran and Hezbollah, along with Russia, have bolstered the Syrian regime significantly, serving as its critical lifeline. Iran will look to preserve its regional strategic interests in Syria at all costs.
Yet, despite their stark differences on Syria, both the United States and Iran share some important overlapping interests. The United States and Iran both worry about the growing influence of al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist elements in Syria. Iran also has expressed its strong dismay over chemical weapons use in Syria.
Moreover, Tehran has reiterated that it is not wedded to Assad staying in power. Both the United States and Iran have called for a political settlement to the conflict. This could gain momentum with the announced Jan. 22 date for Geneva II, the diplomatic process aimed at negotiating a resolution to the conflict.
Should nuclear diplomacy with Iran deepen, it might unlock a critical pathway to broader discussions on regional security, with the Syrian crisis at the top of the agenda. At some point, parallel diplomacy on the nuclear issue and Syria may converge as the discussions inevitably address broader questions of regional security. Ideally, the interim agreement with Iran will be just the first step as part of these broader discussions.