Within hours of last week's Iran nuclear deal the Left-wing Democrats, the Israel lobby, and the Obama-haters had all expressed their studied conclusions. Realistically, it will take a few months to understand whether we should be praising Barack Obama and John Kerry (no matter how much we may dislike their politics) or comparing them to "peace in our time" Neville Chamberlain.
For better or worse, the deal is done - Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have agreed to let it be an "agreement" rather than a treaty, meaning that two-thirds majorities in both houses would need to vote to override a veto rather than the burden being on the President to get two-thirds of the Senate to approve a treaty. He took it to the United Nations Security Council where he got a 15 to 0 vote before taking it to Congress. There are two secret side agreements whose status is not yet clear - one dealing with earlier Iranian testing of detonation devices, and the other dealing with international inspectors investigation of military aspects of Iran's program.
So, what to make of the deal? There are three categories of considerations.
1. The least important - except to the families directly involved. Some felt that we should have insisted on the release of four Americans being held in Iran. Fortunately, President Obama may have learned something from his naive exchange of five Taliban leaders for an Army deserter. Some reporters get emotional interviews, but this was not even a distraction.
2. Important, but with indeterminate long term results - the shift of power in the Middle East.
- Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 the United States has been on the side of the Sunnis in an effort to contain Shiite Iran and their proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and now Yemen. In addition to the Israelis, the Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, and Gulf States have operated under in an environment where they could rely on an American patron to protect them. This is no longer obvious.
- With the end of sanctions, Iran will have the capability of releasing some $2 billion of oil in storage and projects an ability to expand oil exports by some $10 billion per year. Some impounded assets have been released during the talks, but now some $120 billion will be available. For perspective, the World Bank pegs the GDP of Iran at $415 billion, with Iraq half that, and Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen in the $45 to 75 billion range. Iran will have ample capacity to help their proxies. The UN embargo against selling military equipment to and from Iran will end in five years, so weapons deliveries may take awhile.
- There may be more clarity about the war against the Sunni terrorist organizations, Al Queda and ISIS. With less animosity between the United States and Iran, it may be easier to support the government of Iraq; in Syria we are more likely to prioritize the defeat of ISIS and the al Queda affiliate (the al Nusra Front) over the overthrow of Assad. This would be in our interest, although Turkey and Saudi Arabia would not see it that way.
- As important as the relative Sunni / Shia balance in the Middle East is, containment of the Shia was not the purpose of the sanctions. Russia, China, and the United States joined the UK, France, and Germany in 2006 (under President Bush) to stop Iran's nuclear program. Sanctions were a tool agreed to by geopolitical adversaries; impacts on relative power in the region were a byproduct, not the purpose. Isolationists can can argue that we should let the water seek its own level anyway.
3. Critically important for long term global security - the strict containment of Iran's nuclear program.
- Since 1968, 191 countries have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (North Korea subsequently withdrew.) The Treaty recognizes only the five permanent Security Council members - the US, the UK, Russia, China, and France - as nuclear weapons states, although it is widely understood that India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel are in the club. Many states have given up their programs - South Africa; Libya; the Ukraine; Kazakhstan. Aside from North Korea, the nuclear clock has been rolled back.
- Iran's development of nuclear power began in the 1950's with the "Atoms for Peace" program under President Eisenhower. With Russian help, they started a peaceful nuclear power plant at Bushehr in 2011, all perfectly fine with the NPT. There has been unacknowledged research and development on detonators and the attachment of nuclear weapons to missiles as well refinement of uranium approaching weapons grade levels. A 2012 US intelligence estimate concluded that Iran was doing research on the production of nuclear weapons, but was not attempting to produce them. An IAEA report on this activity by December 15 will presumably acknowledge that the Iranians have violated their NPT commitments - an interesting, but irrelevant footnote.
- On the plus side, the agreement calls for a reduction of two thirds of Iran's centrifuges, a 98% reduction in their inventory of enriched uranium, limitations on their ability to enrich to weapons grade, and an obtrusive inspection regime to oversee 24/7 monitoring of the two major Iranian facilities and the entire nuclear supply chain.
- On the minus side, it is only for 10 years (hoping for change in Iranian attitudes), it allows for a delay of 24 days before inspections at any site beyond a few, it assumes a highly unlikely "snap back" of sanctions in the event of Iranian violations, it allows imports and research on intercontinental missiles in eight years, and it has those two pesky secret side deals.
- An exhaustive set of expert opinions by the 70-year old Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ranges from praise for the structure and pervasiveness of the monitoring arrangement, to concern about the absence of access to Iranian scientists, and concern about the precedent set for the other Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories by allowing Iran to process fuel. Even without a political agenda, knowledgeable experts can disagree.
Healthy skepticism should be exercised for the next 90 day study period, but by all indications, the horse has left the barn and the US congressional vote will be a meaningless side show.
This week's bonus is an undercover video of Planned Parenthood's senior medical director describing the organization's program for selling body parts from aborted fetuses.
bill bowen - 7/24/15