Will the mullahs sign this worse Iran deal?
fter a months-long hiatus in the negotiations between Iran and the West, last week something changed: The parties met for a rapid-fire round of talks in Vienna, at the end of which the powers announced that Iran has received the final text of a revised nuclear deal, and needs to make up its mind whether to sign it or not. Iran had a different version of events, emphasizing that many points of disagreement still need to be resolved.
But whatever differences of opinion remain, there’s no doubt that Iran and the international community are the closest they’ve been to a deal ever since Trump tore up the last one four years ago. The question is, what’s inside the deal taking shape? How does it differ from the previous deal? And will the West’s claim that this is the final draft prove accurate, or will the Iranians succeed in dragging out the process and securing further concessions?
John Hannah, the Randi and Charles Wax Senior Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, expects the worst. “Let’s stipulate that we don’t know all the details of what’s been negotiated,” he says. “But what we do know looks bad enough.”
According to Hannah, this will certainly not be the longer, stronger deal that the administration promised when it came into office.
“It’s already acknowledged as much,” he says. “By definition, a straightforward return to the 2015 deal today will be a shorter, weaker agreement. There’s been no extension of the sunset clauses, so all the restrictions on the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program now expire within nine years instead of 15. And because Iran will get to retain all the capabilities that it gained from violating the deal for the past three years, especially when it comes to highly advanced centrifuges, its breakout time in the best case will go from 12 months under the 2015 deal to less than six today.”
Richard Goldberg, senior advisor at the Foundation For Defense of Democracies (FDD) and former director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction for the White House National Security Council, sounds a similarly grim tone.
“We know the basic outline at this point,” Goldberg says. “Iran gets to keep the old JCPOA sunsets, maintain its advanced centrifuges in storage, and get access to $275 billion in the first year and $1 trillion by 2030. Nearly all terrorism sanctions on the top financiers of the IRGC will be lifted, most if not all of the sanctions imposed since the US pulled out of the JCPOA will be revoked, and as with the last deal, there will be no restrictions on missiles or terrorism. In total, it is more sanctions relief in exchange for fewer restrictions than the last deal. If the last deal was the deal of the century for Iran, this will be the deal of the millennium.”
One of the main obstacles in the negotiations is the Iranian demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) take back claims that Iran has failed to provide an explanation for uranium traces at several sites.
“It can only be resolved in two ways: Iran comes clean, or the West decides to look the other way, as it did in 2015,” says Goldberg. “At this point, it seems the latter is in store.”
According to Hannah, there are two ways that the IAEA issue can be resolved — the right way and the wrong way.
“The right way is by holding Iran’s feet to the fire and requiring it to provide truthful answers to all the IAEA’s outstanding questions,” he asserts. “The wrong way is for the United States and its European allies to pressure the IAEA into settling for less and sweeping its concerns about Iran’s past activities under the rug. That’s exactly what happened in 2015. Only after Israel seized the nuclear archive in 2018 did we learn the breathtaking extent of Iran’s lies and how much closer it had come to developing nuclear weapons than the world realized.”
I asked the two experts if they see a scenario in which the superpowers concede to the Iranians on the IAEA dispute.
“There now appears to be a serious risk that history will repeat itself,” Hannah says. “Recent reporting suggests that the US and Europe may again capitulate to Iran’s demand that the IAEA investigation be closed before it agrees to reenter the 2015 deal, and before it provides any credible accounting of its past nuclear activities. There’s a very real danger that the West’s desperation to put the Iranian nuclear problem on the back burner will lead it to pressure the IAEA to shut down its inquiry before it gets answers as to how much covert nuclear material, equipment, and activities Iran is continuing to hide.”
Goldberg agrees. “If reports are accurate, the EU is proposing a process whereby Iran need not declare its undeclared nuclear sites and activities to the IAEA, but it could still be absolved of its nuclear deceit,” he says. “That would be a major blow to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a green light to other countries to establish covert programs without concern for international accountability.”
And yet, one question remains open: If the Iranians come and say, “We’re not signing that deal,” what comes next? What will the US do? Most of the speculation naturally centers on the option that the sides will reach a deal — but what if they don’t?
“I expect they’d say something more akin to, ‘We like the direction of the deal but just need a few more changes,’ ” says Goldberg. “The obvious move is to complete the snapback of UN sanctions at the Security Council to finally cancel the JCPOA sunsets. But having not signaled any Plan B to date, it’s not clear the Biden administration is willing to work with its Europeans allies to take that step.”
According to Hannah, based on the experience of the past year, “The most likely US and European reaction to an Iranian rejection of the deal will be to find an excuse to keep negotiating.”
That posture is driven by a lack of fortitude in the face of a host of crises, Hannah says.
“It’s clear that the West is scared to death that ending negotiations might lead to a confrontation with Iran and another crisis in the Middle East at a time when Washington is preoccupied with Russia and China,” he says. “I’ve lost count of the number of times that US officials have issued dire warnings that ‘time is running out’ or ‘the window for a deal is closing.’ It’s become a bad joke. Iran has no reason to take such threats seriously. The West has given Iran every reason to believe that it can continue to use the talks as a cover to expand its nuclear program, while at the same time earning more foreign currency by circumventing oil sanctions that the Biden administration has largely stopped enforcing.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 924)
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