You Never Know: Approaching Iran

The Obama administration’s steps toward a nuclear accord with Iran are as controversial as they are potentially historic. Here, Middle East expert and Brookings Institution senior fellow Kenneth M. Pollack games out the knowable and the unknowable in any eventual deal, what those factors might mean for the U.S., for Israel, for the Saudis, and for geopolitics as a whole, and why policymakers may not be able to afford to wait any longer to make a decision on the issue.

Any nuclear deal with Iran would open a world of uncertainties.

Khamenei.ir. Any nuclear deal with Iran would open a world of uncertainties.

Somewhere, Donald Rumsfeld must be smiling. In his now-infamous discourse on knowledge and decision-making, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense tried to define numerous categories of inadequate information and how they should affect the policy process. He confused more than he clarified, of course. But the fog of ignorance he conjured now seems fitting for the uncertainties of the new Iranian nuclear framework agreement and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for a final nuclear deal.

That framework agreement has become a Rorschach test. Every commentary about it reveals more about the author than it does about the deal itself. That isn’t surprising: the defining features of the framework agreement are its gaps. How you fill in those gaps determines whether you love or loathe the agreement, as well as any final deal expected to flow from it.

An Unknown Deal
The uncertainties begin with the terms of the framework agreement itself and how they might be translated into a final deal. As its nickname implies, the framework agreement is not a detailed, legal document. It is a vague political statement. There are many terms that will need to be specified as to their precise, practical meaning before a legal agreement can be signed. Americans hope that the terms expressed in the framework will be defined as implied, but there is no certainty on that point. Not yet. That is what is still being negotiated.

The Iranians have muddied the waters around the language question already. Westerners who participated in the negotiations have insisted that every sentence of the agreement was explicitly approved by the Iranian side. Yet almost immediately after the framework agreement was published by the United States, Tehran released a version of the text subtly contrary to the U.S. take. In some cases, the differences appear to be simple omissions that do not necessarily contradict the American description. The American version states that Iran would be allowed to perform limited research and development on its more advanced centrifuges, whereas the Iranian version omits the word “limited.” That may have just been Tehran accentuating the positive: “limited” research is still research.

The ambiguity and confusion grew worse in the weeks thereafter, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issuing a series of unhelpful “clarifications” that seemed more starkly at odds with the U.S. version. To start, Khamenei declared that the American text was “wrong on most of the issues.” Then Khamenei announced that all of the sanctions on Iran had to be lifted when the deal was signed, not in phases and not contingent on Iran complying with the various terms of deal, as the American version stipulated. Then Brigadier Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard, proclaimed that Iran would not allow nuclear inspectors access to Iranian military facilities, which would fatally compromise the inspection and verification terms of any final deal.

Unless all of this can be reconciled, there won’t be a deal. Moreover, if too much of it is reconciled in Iran’s favor, the deal may be rejected by the U.S. Congress. Thus, the first uncertainty is whether there will be a final deal at all, and if so, how favorable to Iran it will be.

An Unknown World Without an Iranian Nuclear Deal
The Obama administration’s principal argument in favor of accepting a final deal with Iran based on the new framework is the contention that this is the only possible deal, and that if the United States turns it down, either Iran will develop a nuclear weapon (since it will be unconstrained by a final agreement) or else the United States will have to go to war with Iran to prevent it from doing so. That logic may be exaggerated, but it isn’t necessarily wrong.

In the near term, neither possibility seems likely. The United States has no interest in going to war with Iran. It is unimaginable that Barack Obama would launch such a war in the final two years of his presidency after struggling for the prior six to reach an agreement with Tehran. Nor should we expect his successor to do so. The American people have shown little interest in another war in the Middle East, especially one that risks becoming long and costly (as any war with Iran likely would) and could only guarantee a final end to the Iranian nuclear program if the U.S. toppled the regime, occupied the country, and built a new political system to replace the Islamic Republic. Few of even the most ardent opponents of the deal dare to suggest that the U.S. should attack Iran -- and no one is willing even to imply that the U.S. invade and rebuild the country.

While the Israelis may have the will that the United States lacks, it seems unlikely that they have the way. The Israel Defense Forces do have a military option against Iran, but it is not a good one. Clever and resourceful as they are, it would be difficult for the Israeli armed forces to set back the Iranian nuclear program by more than a few years. Moreover, an Israeli strike would come with powerful political drawbacks: most nations would publicly condemn it (though some would privately applaud), and there is a high risk that Iran would use such an attack to justify withdrawing from the non-proliferation treaty, rebuilding its nuclear program, and fielding an arsenal -- for which Israel would take a huge share of (if not all) the blame.

A sudden Iranian dash for a bomb also looks far-fetched. There is widespread agreement that Iran curtailed much of its effort to develop the weapons component of its nuclear program in the past decade. The American, European, and Israeli intelligence communities all agree that Iran has continued some covert activities in this area, but disagree as to whether they are meaningful enough to be considered an active weaponization program (the Israelis believe it is, the Americans insist that it isn’t). Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khamenei regularly claims that he has issued a fatwa forbidding Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. While the fact of the fatwa is meaningless -- Iran has ignored its own fatwas in the past, including those issued by the Ayatollah -- Khamenei’s repeated reference to it does seem noteworthy. Khamenei likes to be seen as the benevolent father of his people, and does not like to be seen as lying or otherwise hypocritical to the Iranian nation.