Five Questions: The Iran Nuclear Deal

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Representatives of EU, US, Britain, France, Russia, Germany, China and Iran meet for another round of the P5+1 powers and Iran talks in Vienna, Austria on June 12, 2015.(JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

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In this Q & A, Robert Einhorn,  a senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, sheds some light on a few of the problematic and misunderstood aspects of the so-called Iran deal.  Earlier, Einhorn served as assistant secretary for nonproliferation in the U.S. Department of State and as the secretary of state’s special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control.

As Congress battles over the Iran deal, what is missing from the press coverage that the American people should understand?

An important element is the political situation and leadership dynamics in Iran.  Even before the Obama Administration took office, Iranian leaders had convinced the Iranian public that uranium enrichment was indispensable to a modern civil nuclear energy program and that it was a "right" that Iran must not give up.  Enrichment became equated with Iranian sovereignty and even national dignity.  Throughout the negotiations, the United States had to contend with Iran's acute sensitivity to succumbing to foreign pressures, especially from the West and the United States.  "Concession" may be a dirty word in the United States, but it may be a dirtier word in Iran.  We often think of Iran as an autocratic system.  But it has its politics, albeit a very different form of politics than we have.  The Supreme Leader does have the final say on key issues, but he has to balance his constituencies, including his hardline supporters who are the pillars of the Islamic Republic.  He has allowed the talks to proceed and to be concluded.  But he is unlikely to come down unambiguously in support of the deal.  He will likely keep his distance and later take credit if the agreement proceeds to Iran's liking or say "I told you so" if it doesn't. Negotiating with Iran is a far greater challenge than the American public appreciates.

What are the chances of getting a “better deal” later on?

Critics have called for rejecting the existing deal and ramping up sanctions dramatically to force the Iranians to make major concessions they were unwilling to make in the last few years.  But re-negotiating such a better deal is an illusion.  The United States was able to assemble a powerful and united international sanctions coalition because countries like China, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and South Africa were willing to make sharp reductions in their purchases of Iranian crude oil, at considerable economic sacrifice, in order to provide leverage for the negotiations.  Now virtually all members of the international community believe a strong agreement has been reached.  Indeed, if the United States rejected the deal, it would be very difficult to persuade other countries even to keep existing sanctions in place, and we could expect the current sanctions to erode over time.  Moreover, Iran would be free to unfreeze their nuclear program, (which has essentially been frozen for two years) and begin increasing its capabilities and reducing its breakout time.  The starting point for any future negotiation would be much more disadvantageous from a U.S. standpoint than it is now -- with much greater Iranian nuclear capabilities in place and without the unified international sanctions coalition.  A better deal, now or later, is not in the cards.

What is the most problematic aspect of the agreement from where you sit?

An aspect of the deal that has been heavily criticized is the expiration of key restrictions on enrichment after 10 and 15 years, enabling Iran to build up its enrichment capacity without restriction and become a "threshold" nuclear weapon state and shortening the time it would need to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb to a matter of a few weeks. Some critics argue that the expiration of key enrichment restrictions will pave a pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon after 15 years.  I disagree.  Iran will still be committed never to possess nuclear weapons and will still be subject to intrusive monitoring arrangements that would give us warning of Iranian movement to nuclear weapons.  And we would still be able to intervene, if necessary with the use of military force, to stop Iran from making a dash to the bomb.  It would surely have been better if restrictions on enrichment were of longer duration, but that did not prove achievable.

Why is there so little opposition to the nuclear deal in other P5+1 countries while in the United States a majority of members of Congress and many Americans oppose it?

There are several explanations.  The United States has always been more concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran than other countries (with the exception of Israel) have been, and has higher standards for what constitutes an acceptable deal.  There is also a much higher degree of mistrust toward Iran in the United States than there is in other countries.  Sanctions preventing U.S. companies from dealing with Iran will remain in place despite the deal, so other countries have a stronger commercial interest in implementing a deal to reengage with Iran.  Americans, moreover, are much more sensitive to Israel's opposition to the deal. Powerful interest groups have also waged a strong lobbying campaign against the deal which clearly has had an impact.  Finally, the Administration waited too long to make its own public case for the agreement.

What are the biggest challenges the IAEA faces [should the deal go forward] in implementing the deal?  Does it have the capacity to monitor the deal effectively?

The IAEA is a highly competent, professional organization.  It has the technical tools and the personnel to do its job in Iran.  But it will need additional resources, and IAEA members need to step forward to provide the additional funds the Agency will need to carry out its greatly expanded workload in Iran.  But perhaps more important than material support, the IAEA will need strong political support from its members, and especially from the P5+1 countries.  The IAEA cannot be expected to be as assertive as it needs to be unless it can be confident that it will have the backing of the international community, especially those countries that negotiated the agreement with Iran.