Ambassador Stephenson on the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Thomas Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)


Most of us would concur that diplomacy should always be the preferred route to resolving conflicts, and few doubt that the efforts of the Obama Administration were well-intentioned as they prepared for the nuclear negotiations with Iran.  From an outsider’s perspective, however, the Administration’s negotiating approach to Iran’s nuclear aspirations and capabilities appears to have been poorly conceived and ineptly executed.  What was said up front and along the way in terms of an acceptable outcome bore little resemblance to the final agreement.

I was in Israel with a delegation shortly before the negotiations with Iran commenced, and the Israeli government and intelligence people with whom we met were extremely apprehensive that we would end up “negotiating with ourselves” and “giving away the store”.  Their biggest concern was that we would change the discussion from one of “whether” Iran would be allowed to process and possess enriched uranium to one of “how much” uranium Iran could enrich and retain.  They were also highly skeptical regarding our ability to enforce any agreement with Iran, and finally they were dismayed that at a point in time when we were gaining increasing leverage on Iran with our economic sanctions, we were proposing to prematurely let Rouhani and the mullahs off the hook.  The Israelis were convinced that Rouhani’s mission was twofold only, to dramatically reduce the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., the U.N., and the E.U. and to preserve Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability.  It’s fair to say he succeeded brilliantly on both fronts.

Despite their protestations to the contrary (“no deal is better than a bad deal”), from the beginning this Administration seems to have believed and conducted themselves as though any deal providing constraints on Iran’s nuclear development, no matter how flimsy, was better than no deal.  The Obama “strawman” of reach a deal or go to war with Iran, however, was and is a false choice.  Even now, had Congress been successful in a vote against the deal, Iran would have had every incentive to let the U.N. and E. U. processes play out regarding sanctions relief.  In the event that U.S. sanctions were to remain in place, the elimination of E.U. and U.N. sanctions will be a huge economic plus for Iran, and thus an incentive to avoid aggressive nuclear related activity.  Since the agreement negotiated is not a treaty, there is also incentive for Iran to wait until the outcome of our 2016 elections is known.  If supporters of the current deal were to retain the White House and at least 34 votes in the Senate in 2016, the agreement will stay in place.

There are four main reasons why I believe the deal negotiated is fatally flawed and not in the best interests of the United States and its allies.  The first reason is the grossly inadequate verification regime.  Whatever happened to “anytime/anywhere” verification procedures?  Does anyone really believe that Iran will comply with restrictions on their nuclear enrichment activities without the ability of credible inspectors to investigate any facilities, including military installations, at the time of their choosing without the kind of absurd delays built into this agreement.  We can argue about the credibility of the IAEA, but it is inconceivable that we would acquiesce by deferring to the IAEA on a protocol where Iranian officials would be entrusted, even with IAEA monitoring, to examine the military facility at Parchin for uranium residue.  Under such a set of circumstances we could have enormous difficulty determining if there has been any past nuclear explosion testing and have no credible baseline against which to measure subsequent nuclear activity, even if access to Parchin were to be granted.

The second significant drawback of the agreement is the absence of any effective enforcement provisions.  “Snap back” sanctions are an illusion as a remedy for failure to comply with verification procedures.  While with some expenditure of political capital, we could probably reimpose our own economic sanctions, getting Europe to do likewise would be much more of a challenge given the tremendous pressure on European political leaders to enable trade with Iran in a very sluggish economic environment across the EU.  One can certainly argue that Iran is unlikely to comply even with rigorous enforcement procedures, but we can be sure that  Iran will milk the weak verification procedures in this agreement for all they are worth while trying to make sure that they don’t cross any bright red lines that someone might actually enforce.  The likely net effect will be little change from what Iran has been doing for a number of years, namely enriching uranium and doing research on nuclear weapons at a level that will not precipitate a military response from us or the Israelis.

The third major negative of the deal negotiated is that it provides a path to nuclear legitimacy.  There is some uncertainty about what the actual timeframe to a nuclear weapons capability will be, but we have effectively capitulated, notwithstanding some of the language in the agreement, on the basic issue of a right on the part of Iran to engage in nuclear enrichment and the development of nuclear weapons.  Furthermore, the failure to insist as part of the agreement on limitations on Iran’s ability to develop or acquire their own ICBM capability only accentuates this threat of a nuclear Iran. The Nuclear Proliferation Treaty is quickly becoming a historical relic.  With Iran enabled, there is little reason to believe that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others in the Middle East will be far behind in acquiring their own nuclear weapons capability, perhaps as customers of Pakistan.  The world will be a much less safe place as a result.

The fourth prospective negative of the agreement results from the release of plus or minus $100 Billion to Iran that had been withheld by sanctions.  How the compliance provisions will impact the timing of the return of these funds is unclear, but what is worrisome is how Iran is likely to use these funds as they are released.  Iran’s economy was severely battered by the sanctions and so some portion of these funds will be needed to restore domestic infrastructure and social programs.  But, unfortunately, we can assume that some significant allocation of these funds will likely be used to support Iran’s Shia proxy terrorist activities throughout the Middle East, further contributing to regional instability.

How and why did we get to where we are with this agreement?  We seem to have demonstrated early on that we too desperately wanted an agreement.  We reportedly laid out strong positions initially as to what was acceptable compliance and what was not regarding enriched uranium, but we seemed to have exercised little resolve in maintaining those positions.  Sometimes in negotiations you just have to say no and walk away as Reagan and Shultz did with the Russians at Reykjavik.  Unfortunately, this administration has demonstrated little resolve or fortitude in their dealings with our foreign adversaries whether it is in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, or now Iran.  It is extremely difficult to conduct effective diplomacy when you don’t have a credible military threat, and our approach over the last six years can best be described as” too little too late”.  When you set forth a red line and then don’t enforce it, you quickly lose credibility.   Rouhani and the Ayatollah Khamenei simply observed our lack of negotiating resolve and became the ones saying no to so many critical aspects of an acceptable agreement.

But while it’s a bad deal from almost any perspective, as I write, it is almost certain that the deal will survive a congressional majority’s attempts to overturn it.  I believe, however, it is important for Iran, its supporters, and our allies to understand that there is only marginal support on the part of the U.S. Congress and the American people for this badly flawed deal.  Barring the unforeseen, however, the agreement will not be blocked, and so the focus of we critics should be what do we do now and where do we go from here.  That is a good question for a subsequent edition of Ambassadors Perspectives.


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