The United States and Iran are seemingly days from signing an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that has been brought about by a series of American concessions. If the deal is signed on the present terms it will effectively dismantle the sanctions against Iran and the international legal regime that recognizes the Iranian regime as an outlaw, will leave Iran on the threshold of nuclear weapons, and will provide legitimacy for, and billions of dollars toward, Iranian hegemony in the Middle East.
It was not a surprise that the nuclear negotiations with Iran went past the June 30 deadline; there had been signalling for some time that this would happen, and the same had already happened in March, when the Iranians pressed an American political deadline against the Americans, attempting to wrench concessions from the U.S. in order that the U.S. could meet a deadline that mattered to Washington but did not to Tehran. The same thing will doubtless recur this time.
The real deadline is now July 9, and the reason for this is instructive. If a deal is signed on July 9 or before, Congress only has thirty days to review it and vote it up or down; if a deal is signed on July 10 or after, the Congressional review period grows to sixty days. Not a high vote of confidence that the deal can stand up to scrutiny that the administration is weakening its own hand in negotiations merely to avoid extended Congressional review.
While the April 2 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a fiction—America and Iran are working from a rolling text and both sides put out factsheets that varied quite widely on some important matters, with alarming agreement on the concessions to Iran—the JCPOA announcement served its purpose: delaying Congress passing sanctions that would set an end-date to this negotiating process.
In looking at the JCPOA—in other words deciphering what had been “agreed” so far—there were several key areas where the U.S. had already caved, and a couple more where all the signs were that capitulation was in the offing.
The sunset clause that lifts all restraints after ten or fifteen years means Iran can get to a nuclear weapon by keeping the deal, which has led to unsubtle hints from Saudi Arabia that it will match Iran’s nuclear capabilities; the massive research and development loophole means Iran can put its program under the protection of American power for a decade or so while perfecting its weaponization capability; and the ballistic missile program, the delivery system for a nuke, is untouched by this deal.
The sanctions regime—and the legal regime that goes with it, marking Iran as a pariah—has already been significantly eroded, and there was every indication a final deal would contain an early lifting of the remaining sanctions. The massive signing bonus, then estimated at between $30bn and $50bn, is one way the early sanctions-relief Iran demands might be executed in order to circumvent Congress.
The President has said that “snap-back” sanctions will deter Iranian cheating on a final deal, but if Iran already has tens of billions of dollars then the reimposition of sanctions is not going to bite in time to stop its cheating—and even that assumes that sanctions can be imposed through international institutions hostage to Russian and Chinese vetoes and over the objection of the economic lobby inside the West the President’s policy has formed.
The only two key areas where the U.S. position had not completely collapsed was inspections and possible military dimensions (PMDs).
Inspections have to be “anywhere, anytime,” and Iran had to disclose the PMDs of its program by allowing access to military sites like Parchin, where Iran is believed to have tested nuclear detonators, and scientific staff, David Albright and his team at the Left-wing Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) wrote in a report on the JCPOA. To concede Iran sanctions relief before they have accounted for the PMDs was to imperil “regional security and peace.”
It was looking very doubtful that either condition would be met; it looks even more doubtful now.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei flatly rejected inspections of military sites on May 20. It has now become fairly routine to see the State Department doing Tehran’s press releases, explaining why intransigence is really cooperation, but it was still extraordinary to see State’s spokesman say that America “wouldn’t allow anybody to get into every military site, so that’s not appropriate [to demand from Iran]”.
Soon after, it was announced that “managed access“—such as taking environmental samples from around facilities—might be allowed, but interviewing scientists was absolutely out. “We have worked out a process that we believe will ensure that the IAEA has the access it needs,” a U.S. official said. Obama has previously mused on “some sort of international mechanism” to referee demands for access.
In the last few days there have been vague reports that an agreement has been reached on inspections. As with the similarly-opaque reports on agreement over the pace of sanctions relief, to the extent they mean anything, they appear to mean that the U.S. has accepted the Iranian position.
On PMDs, John Kerry has had to walk back his remarks that there was no need to be “fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another” because the U.S. had “absolute knowledge” of these “military activities,” and only the future mattered. The problem is that without disclosure of PMDs, there can be no agreement. The PMDs are the central element of an Iran deal: if it is not known what Iran’s nuclear program contains, there is no way the IAEA can enforce the restrictions placed on the program.
The administration had previously said—in line with the suggestion of ISIS and other experts—that there would be no sanctions relief until the IAEA certified that Iran had come clean about past weaponization work. Now, “American officials have been suggesting that if [IAEA] inspectors can get access to Iranian scientists, documents and some sites …, sanctions could begin to lift even before the agency reaches final conclusions.” In short, if Iran makes partial concessions on the inspections, it will be absolved of the need to concede at all on PMDs—Iran is not going to concede on PMDs after the money withheld over PMDs has been released.
U.S. leverage was devastated in the very first interim agreement in November 2013, worked out behind the backs of America’s allies, which effectively ceded Iran the right to enrich that six U.N. Security Council resolutions said it couldn’t have. It is for this reason that the claim that Iran has complied with its obligations over the last nineteen months (which actually isn’t quite true) is not impressive: Iran has been paid to keep negotiating because it was conceded the main thing it wanted up-front. Had Iran been conceded a token enrichment capacity at the end of this, it would be very different to being conceded steadily more centrifuges.
In addition to an increased number of centrifuges, Iran has also been conceded the non-dismantlement of its program; centrifuges and other infrastructure are merely being mothballed—and on Iranian territory, at that. A recent ISIS report lamented that not only had the U.S. chosen to rely on “unproven technical method[s]” of restraining Iran’s nuclear program, but the U.S. had “revised its criteria for Iran meeting its obligations,” i.e. the U.S. was altering the “deal” to conform with Iranian actions, rather than the other way around.
Important as these details and Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon are and would be, the most immediate effect of this negotiating process is being seen in the region.
Michael Doran has argued that “[o]ne of Obama’s greatest diplomatic successes is to have persuaded much of the world, including many of his critics, that the primary goal of his Iran diplomacy is to negotiate a nuclear arms-control agreement. In fact, the primary goal is détente with Iran.”
By this reading, because the U.S.’s real goal was to use the nuclear deal as a means of formalizing détente—allowing the U.S. to withdraw resources from the region and deputize Iran to stabilize it by, for example, joining forces against the Islamic State—it meant Iran held the upper-hand in negotiations. No longer could the U.S. threaten to walk away and add further crushing sanctions or even take military action against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Instead, Iran could threaten to walk away and extract concessions, on the deal itself and in the region, to keep Tehran at the table. This is why the administration so adamantly opposed Congress passing a law that would have imposed escalating sanctions if Iran did not sign a deal by a date-certain: the process was the main thing.
Even if one does not see the nuclear deal in this light, however, its impact on the region—specifically in allowing Iran to extend an Islamist Imperium from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean—cannot be denied, nor that Iran’s imperialism will be greatly assisted by a final deal.
Iran is currently spending up to $35 billion-per-year to prop up Lebanese Hizballah and the other foreign Shi’i militias that keep the Assad regime in power; this is more than Iran’s entire defence budget. Iran also sends free oil to Assad—totalling more than $600 million already this year. Within Syria, the State has degenerated into a sectarian militia, the National Defence Forces (NDF), which was created, trained, funded, and commanded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). In Iraq, the call for mobilization against Daesh was co-opted by Iran and the umbrella group al-Hashd al-Shabi is dominated by Shi’i militias that are proxies of the IRGC, some of them designated terrorist groups. Iran’s influence over the Houthis in Yemen is not as extensive as the aforementioned groups, but it is early days yet.
Between Hizballah, the NDF, the Hashd, and the Houthis—to say nothing of Iran’s increase in funds to the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan—it is quite clear Iran has made investments in Empire it is going to be very difficult to sustain without sanctions relief.
The claim that Iran will not use the hard cash it is given to export terrorism and instability, and will instead concentrate on alleviating the suffering of the Iranian people, flies in the face of the regime’s entire history; it assumes that Iran’s regime sees its revolutionary mission as contingent and secondary, rather than central. The associated argument that because human rights and terrorism sanctions remain in place, Iran cannot use money released from the nuclear sanctions to violate human rights or fund terrorism, is silly.
Iran’s Islamist Empire will not bring stability—nor is it meant to outside a few vital zones of the Arab world—but will lock in instability, and empower forces like the Islamic State who can pose as the protector of the Sunnis against a vengeful sectarian theocracy.
The argument that, imperfect as it is, a nuclear deal and integrating Iran into the global financial system will tame Iran’s revolutionary government is exactly wrong. In Iran’s imperial provinces and inside Iran it is the most extreme forces, Ali Khamenei and his Guard Corp, who will be strengthened. Khamenei and the Guardsmen will annex any incoming resources from Iran’s opening to the world and they will be vindicated. All Iran had to do was hold out and it has maintained its nuclear infrastructure, had its pariah status and the sanctions severely eroded, and had its hegemony in the region legitimized; everyone who said Iran needed to make concessions in order to lift the sanctions and improve Iran’s standing has been discredited.
A nuclear accord of some kind will almost certainly be signed—the only veto is Khamenei’s—but if it contains a sunset clause and does not insist clearly on clarifying PMDs before sanctions relief it will be an illusion for these two issues are poison pills. Every indication is that Iran will get its way on these matters, and in the meantime Iran continues its march across the region. The President’s focus is on securing thirty-four Democrats in the Senate who will not vote against a “final deal”; the fate of counter-proliferation, regional stability, and quite a lot of lives depend on whether he gets his way.