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You Never Know: Approaching Iran

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.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that Khamenei has decided that Iran does not need to possess a nuclear weapon, at least for now. Indeed, it seems most likely that Khamenei only agreed to limits on Iran’s nuclear program because he believed that the United States would not attack Iran in the near future and so there was no immediate need for a nuclear deterrent.

Thus, if the nuclear deal evaporates, the most likely “war” that could ensue would be a struggle over the sanctions. Given the lack of Israeli capability or American intent to attack Iran, Tehran may feel little need to get a bomb quickly. A far more pressing need would be for it to erode or eliminate the sanctions that are causing real pain, and which the Iranian people desperately hope a nuclear deal will end. So Iran’s first target if the negotiations fail will be to convince China, India, Brazil, Russia, and other countries to repeal the multilateral sanctions and ignore the unilateral American sanctions.

This won’t be easy for the Iranians, but their cause will be helped mightily if they can paint the U.S. as the bad guys. That’s why it has always been critical to both sides that if the negotiations ever break down, the other side be blamed for the failure. That, not the likelihood of war or an Iranian rush to weaponize, is the most compelling near-term argument against Congress blocking a deal.

If Congress kills a deal signed by Iran, Russia, France, Britain, China, Germany, and the President of the United States, it is the United States who will be blamed for its failure, and that will make it far harder to hold the sanctions in place. Recall that in the late 1990s, the sanctions against Iraq — all of them enacted by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter — collapsed in less than two years when they lost international support, allowing Saddam Hussein access to billions of dollars in technically illicit trade. Nations that had voted for those sanctions and defended them in the past simply ignored them when international opinion concluded that the U.S., not Saddam, was to blame for the impasse. If that scenario repeats with Iran, then some years down the road, Tehran may well choose to resume its nuclear program and even field a nuclear arsenal. By then, there will be no sanctions to hamper them. In other words, the Obama administration’s claims about what will happen if there is no deal may not be as urgent as implied — but that does not mean they’re fully wrong.

The Unknown Congressional Reaction
Despite all the uncertainties about whether a deal with Iran is possible, the smart money in Washington is betting that it is and that it will happen at some point this summer. For all of their hemming and hawing, key Iranian leaders — including hardliners like Mohammed Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard — have publicly praised the framework agreement. That suggests that the Supreme Leader is getting all of his ducks in a row to accept a deal. Likewise, on the U.S. side, the Obama administration seems determined to get a deal. Moreover, it is important to recognize that in the case of both the interim nuclear agreement with Iran and now the new framework agreement, the administration was able to secure considerably better terms than their critics had expected — better, too, than what the leaks in the media suggested they would be. Those are important precedents that argue that the administration may get a better final deal than most currently envision, one more acceptable to Congress and U.S. allies.

Finally, there are strong arguments for Congress allowing the deal to stand, even if grudgingly. Since voting down the deal would jeopardize the sanctions, it is unlikely that doing so would produce greater concessions from Iran in a new round of negotiations (contrary to what Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed). As noted above, that means that Congress killing a nuclear deal could eventually produce one of the two specters raised by the Obama administration: either Iran builds a bomb or America goes to war to prevent it — neither of which Congress would want to be blamed for. In addition, many centrist congressmen will be loath to take the foreign policy prerogative away from the executive on constitutional and political grounds. It’s why many predict that a final nuclear deal with Iran will get voted down initially (quite possibly with a veto-proof majority) but survive via a presidential veto because Congress then fails to muster the votes needed to override one.

The Unknown Iranian Future
If we do get a nuclear deal with Iran this summer, the uncertainties don’t end there. And that is true even if the final agreement looks exactly like the American version of the framework agreement.

The conundrum at the heart of the framework agreement is that it is actually quite a good deal for the United States and its allies — but only for the first 10 or 15 years it is in effect. Assuming the final agreement matches the American version of the new framework, it would impose a range of important constraints that would make it hard for Iran to abandon the agreement and race quickly to build a bomb without being detected. Not impossible, but quite difficult. Moreover, during this same period, Iran would be, essentially, on probation: if it were caught violating the agreement in either a dramatic or systematic fashion, the international community would be more likely to take action against it. Certainly Iran would have to calculate as much. This failsafe isn’t perfect, and what mechanisms the U.S. will have available to snap the sanctions back in place remain badly undefined. But the circumstances could be a lot worse.

However, after that 10-to-15 year period, the terms of the agreement would reverse to favor Iran. At that point, Iran would be permitted to build an industrial-scale uranium enrichment industry, develop and operate thousands of highly advanced centrifuges, and possess unlimited amounts of enriched uranium. Although the inspections regime will remain in place, as a practical matter it will be far more difficult to monitor so large a program, and Iran could build up to the point where it would require very little to take the final step and field a weapon. This is why the most insightful critics of the deal argue that whatever its constraints on Iran in the short term, it furnishes a pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon 10 to 15 years out.

So the most important question, the critical unknown, is what Iran will be like then. When posed this question, U.S. officials offer various answers — all of them positive. Some contend that there is a high likelihood over that timespan of Ayatollah Khamenei dying and being replaced by a less-reactionary successor — Rafsanjani, Rouhani, or another figure less determined or less able to thwart popular Iranian aspirations to greater integration with the rest of the world. Others argue that if the Iranian nuclear program is frozen for somewhere between a decade and a decade-and-a-half, bureaucratic inertia will kill any weaponization effort. When the more stringent terms of the agreement are finally lifted, the Iranian establishment won’t feel the need and won’t make the effort to resume its march toward an arsenal. Still others believe that once Iran’s government sees the benefits of expanded trade and is not attacked by Israel or America, it will recognize that the cost-benefit calculus overwhelmingly argues against resuming a nuclear weapons program.

These are all plausible beliefs. There are historical precedents to back them up. And so it is not foolish to believe that constraining Iran for 10 to 15 years could preclude an Iranian nuclear arsenal permanently.

But the arguments of the deal’s critics are just as plausible, just as historically grounded, and just as compelling. The Iranian regime has clung to a nasty, anti-American, anti-status quo, violent foreign policy since 1979. It has ignored many incentives to jettison this approach. In the 1990s, it was widely believed that Iran’s hardline leadership could not survive long because demographics and the actuarial table suggested the revolutionary cohort of leaders was on the way out and a new generation far better disposed to the West and far less committed to the hardline project was on the way in. But then Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected president, and we learned that there was a small but important segment of younger Iranians just as hardline as their elders — arguably more so — that could be counted on to keep pulling Iran down the path of militancy and world-rejection, despite all the factors pushing in the opposite direction.

Thus, it is equally plausible that at the end of the timespan laid out above, Iran will be just as paranoid, just as anti-American/anti-Arab/anti-Israeli, and just as committed to using violence to advance its goals. In those circumstances, Iran might very well decide to go ahead and acquire the nuclear weapons that it has long desired. And it will be much harder at that point for this agreement to stop them.

The Uncertainties of the Regional Response
The last set of uncertainties bound up with a new nuclear agreement is how it will affect the regional dynamics in the rapidly disintegrating Middle East. What we believe about how a deal might change Iranian, Israeli, or Sunni Arab behavior should also affect whether we think the deal worthwhile, but again there are more unknowns than knowns at play around this question.

Let’s start with the Iranians themselves. Based on his various statements over the years, it seems most likely that Khamenei’s perspective on a nuclear deal is purely transactional. If he agrees to one, it will be solely to get the sanctions removed. Nothing more and nothing less. It seems unlikely he will countenance a wider rapprochement with the United States — whatever Foreign Minister Zarif and (possibly) President Rouhani may want.

It is also worth noting that, across the region, the Iranians seem comfortable with the course of events — largely because it is favorable to them right now. Their Shia allies are dominant in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. In Syria, the Assad regime remains in power. While its fortunes ebb and flow, there is no sign of its impending collapse. Tehran probably feels it could be doing better in Bahrain, but of the countries in play in the region, that’s the only one Iran cares about where Tehran may not believe it is “winning.” So there is no compelling reason to believe that Iran is looking to increase its aggressive involvement in any of these states but has been somehow constrained from doing so by the nuclear negotiations.

Rhetoric aside, it seems equally unlikely that Israel would dramatically shift any of its regional policies in response to an Iranian nuclear deal. A military strike on Iran would be even less likely in these circumstances than if the negotiations break down. Iran will have just signed a deal with the United States and the other great powers agreeing to limits on its nuclear program, accepting more intrusive inspections, and reaffirming that it will not try to build a nuclear weapon. If the Israelis were to attack at that point, they would have to assume that an already anti-Israel international climate would turn wholeheartedly against them. Who would support Jerusalem? The Obama administration, which has made the deal the centerpiece of its Middle East policy? The Sunni Arab states? They will quietly applaud from the sidelines but won’t provide any meaningful assistance. So who? Probably no one. Whatever damage Israel might do, an attack would lead to further (and likely much worse) Israeli isolation, while Iran could play the victim and abrogate the deal secure in the knowledge that the sanctions would never be reapplied — and probably resume its nuclear program unimpeded, as well. That would be the worst of all worlds for Israel.

Nevertheless, no one should expect Jerusalem to roll over and just accept the deal. Israel will undoubtedly seek more American military aid, possibly including more F-35 fighters, greater funding for Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic-missile and Iron Dome anti-rocket systems, and more capable bunker-busting munitions. The Israelis may also decide to ramp up their covert campaign against Iran and its nuclear program. More Iranian scientists may get mysteriously assassinated in Tehran. More sensitive Iranian facilities might blow up. More computer viruses might plague Iranian networks. More money might find its way to Iranian democracy activists and ethnic minorities. Finally, the Israelis will likely argue that the deal has made them feel less safe, and therefore less willing to take risks on other security matters — particularly peace with the Palestinians.

The biggest unknown here, however, is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis will not be fans of a nuclear deal with Iran. This is not to say that we should not expect them to acquire a nuclear weapon of their own if the deal comes together. At least since the 1980s, the Saudis have calculated that the international opprobrium and potential sanctions they would incur from acquiring a nuclear weapon outweighed any strategic need, especially when they could always count on America to guarantee their security. In addition, in the context of a nuclear deal with Iran, the optics would be all wrong for the Saudis, in a way similar to the optics problem Israel would face. Iran will have just signed an agreement with the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China agreeing never to build a nuclear weapon and accepting limits on its enrichment program to reassure the world that it won’t and can’t do so. In that context, if Saudi Arabia buys a bomb from the Pakistanis, both Riyadh and Islamabad would become international pariahs. Global sympathy would swing to Iran, which will be seen as having behaved well, whereas there would be worldwide demands to sanction the Saudis (and Pakistanis) for doing exactly what Iran had agreed not to. None of this makes sense for the Saudis — and probably explains at least partly why Islamabad is already distancing itself from Riyadh on military matters, including refusing to participate in the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.

That said, the Saudis may react in other ways. First, we should expect that soon after a nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudis may announce that they are going to build up a nuclear program of their own to whatever levels Iran is allowed. If Iran is allowed to keep 6,500 first-generation centrifuges and 150 kg of uranium enriched to 3.5% purity, then the Saudis will announce their intention to build out the same capacity. This would be a strategic warning both to the Iranians (that the Saudis will match their nuclear capabilities step for step) and to the West (that they will have further proliferation in the Middle East if they do not force Iran to live up to its new commitments).

Second, the Saudis may choose to ramp up their support to various Sunni groups fighting Iran’s allies and proxies around the region. The Saudis seem to agree with the Iranians that Tehran is “winning” in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. The Saudis also seem to believe that Iran is making important inroads in Oman and with various Shia communities elsewhere in the Gulf. So while the Iranians may not want to double down, the Saudis may, and they may choose to do so after a nuclear deal both to signal to the Iranians that they should not take advantage of said deal to inflict more damage on the Sunni side, and in fear that the U.S. intends to use a deal with Iran as a “Get Out of the Gulf Free” card. The Gulf states are convinced that this is the Obama administration’s intent, and far from accommodating Tehran (as some have feared), they are much more likely to get aggressive as a means of deterring the Iranians. This last is arguably the greatest danger of any nuclear deal. The Gulf states are not strong enough to take on Iran alone, and if they act provocatively toward Iran, even if their intent is only to deter Iranian aggression, they could easily find themselves facing pushback far more serious than they anticipated. If the U.S. is not there to reassure the Gulf states and deter Iran, things could get very ugly.

The Inevitable Subjectivity of a Nuclear Deal
It is not possible to judge the nuclear framework agreement with Iran in an objective way. Any assessment will be intensely subjective because of its reinforcing uncertainties and the unprovable assumptions that any analyst must use to fill those gaps. It could be a very good deal, it could be a very bad one. But it is unlikely that we will know which until many years into the future.

Yet the policy-making process cannot wait — not for the answer to reveal itself, not for more precise evidence to emerge. Not to decide is itself a decision, with very real consequences. The known unknowns of a nuclear deal with Iran cannot be allowed to preclude a decision, even though they cannot definitively point the way forward either.