The outline of a landmark nuclear deal between a US-led group of countries and Iran is coming into focus.
According to the AP, Iran will be able to keep 6,500 uranium enrichment centrifuges under a final agreement. This would allow Iran to achieve one nuclear weapon’s worth of uranium enrichment in between six months and a year (depending on the amount and enrichment level of low-enriched uranium the country’s allowed to have hand), and to keep as many as 5,500 more centrifuges than the minimum needed to run a “demonstration cascade” that would allow Iranian scientists to maintain a basic mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle.
Even before the AP article was published on February 22, the 6,500 number had been reported in Israeli media and partly corroborated by the New York Times. But the AP includes news of a second and equally significant US concession.
The nuclear deal will apparently include a 15-year sunset, with certain restrictions on Iranian uranium enrichment lifted after 10 years and Iran permitted to keep somewhere in the neighbourhood as 10,000 centrifuges at the moment the deal expires. As the AP explains, the US had initially wanted a 20-year deal going into the latest round of talks, which means that the full, as-yet unknown set of restrictions will be in place for anywhere between one quarter one half the amount of time American negotiators were aiming for.
Why are US negotiators willing to stomach this concession? While a 10-15 year sunset is far from ideal, it at least freezes the amount of uranium Iran can possess and produce for a decade or more. It would keep Iran under a strict inspection regime and give the US and its allies a long lead-time to build support for another round of sanctions if Tehran evinced plans to further develop its nuclear program or otherwise buck the international system.
There’s another reason for accepting a short deal. As David Ignatius explained in a February 19th column in the Washington Post, the Israelis believe that the US is willing to accept a shorter agreement because the administration “wants to tie Iran’s hands for a decade until a new generation takes power there.”
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been ill recently. The Islamic Republic’s founding generation is dying out, and US negotiators hope that Iran will be a much different place in 10-15 years, with a government willing to draw down the more threatening aspects of its program even after a nuclear deal has expired. It’s probably also hoped that a nuclear agreement and Iran’s resulting reintegration with the international mainstream may even push the country towards this more pragmatic course.
But justifications have one troubling thing in common: They both make huge assumptions about the future nature of Iran’s relationship with the US and the rest of the world.
Under a short deal, the international community must re-implement sanctions if Iran decides to pocket its concessions and restart its program once the deal expires — something Tehran will be able to easily do, since the deal the AP describes would allow it to keep significant aspects of its nuclear infrastructure.
But it might be a huge leap to think that in 2030 the world will have any appetite for a second Iranian nuclear standoff, especially after economic and diplomatic ties have been fully restored for a decade or more under the preceding deal.
The current round of sanctions took substantial time and US political capital to implement. The global leaders of the future may wonder whether it’s worth doing it all over again to resolve an issue that they may feel has already been settled.
A short deal might also transform Iran’s nuclear calculus. When a 15 year deal expires, Tehran would be justified in figuring that it had been able to lift the international sanctions regime while being able to keep as many as 10,000 centrifuges. With sanctions gone and much of the country’s nuclear infrastructure in place, the Iranian leaders of 2030 will have little incentive to negotiate a second deal, should the US consider such a deal necessary.
The sunset clause’s assumptions about the Iranian regime’s future moderation may be wishful as well. The Islamic Republic has vacillated between reform and retrenchment for much of the past two decades. In 1997, the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected Iran’s president. But ten years ago, the newly-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made headlines for denying the Holocaust and expounding on the importance of destroying the state of Israel.
A short deal gambles on an opaque and highly compartmentalized regime transforming itself by a specific future date. This is a strange basis for an epochal diplomatic agreement in the Middle East or any other part of the world.
Finally, a short nuclear deal reflects a kind of short-term thinking that’s disconcertingly out of keeping with the actual challenges of nuclear proliferation. This is partly a structural problem. Presidential administrations last between four and eight years. Nuclear weapons, however, may be with humanity for the rest of the species’ existence, and once a country goes nuclear it seldom if ever crosses back over the threshold.
The ephemeral timetable of American political leadership at least makes it comprehensible that US political leaders wouldn’t be approaching the Iranian nuclear issue on a 50-or 100-year scale. But there was a 26-year lag between the inauguration of Pakistan’s nuclear program in 1972 and its first test of a nuclear weapon in 1998. North Korea attempted its first nuclear test in 2006, 12 years after signing the Agreed Framework with the US.
Determined nuclear proliferates understand that even long delays are meaningless so long as a capability is eventually established. The only countries that have lost their nuclear weapons have either destroyed or exported them voluntarily; once you’ve got the bomb, you’ve got it for good. And Iran, which has built illicit plutonium and a uranium programs while laboring under strict international sanctions, has been incredibly determined.
A 10-15 year sunset clause seems oblivious to some of the dangers of approaching the Iranian nuclear issue as a short-term matter that can be solved in a single go — rather than an question that could dog successive US administrations for decades or even centuries to come.