Questions and Answers about the Iranian Nuclear Agreement


Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 15, No. 26    August 26, 2015

Is it a good deal?

Even by the criteria that the Americans declared at the start of the talks and during them, it is a bad deal. The question, however, is tautological since, for the U.S. Administration any deal it accepts is a good deal by definition, since otherwise it would not have signed on it.

It is a bad deal because it will enable Iran to overcome the main obstacle on its way to possessing an arsenal of nuclear weapons. In 10-15 years, the deal would put Iran so close to securing an arsenal that it will become impossible to deny it from Iran. The deal leaves open to Iran having enough fissile material to “break out” to a bomb within six  months, and not within one year as the Administration claims (because the excess centrifuges and infrastructure are not destroyed). It also does not efficiently prevent a “sneak out” to a bomb because of the difficulty to inspect undeclared sites, and it lacks any conditionality regarding the activation of the sunset clause on  the agreement.

Was a better deal possible? Is it still possible to achieve a better deal?

Here the answer is subjective. One thing, however, is clear: the United States conducted the talks as if a deal had to be reached no matter what. It never challenged or threatened to upset the applecart, and an Iranian defector who took part in the talks said the U.S. team’s main concern was to enable the Iranian team to flaunt the deal as an achievement.

Such an approach to the talks accompanied the Administration’s aspirations to prove that all disputes can be settled by dialogue and negotiations, and to further its goal of strengthening the realistic radical elements among the Middle East’s radical camp, namely, those who believe radical Islam needs more time to change the world order.

Actually, in the run-up to the talks, the realist radical personalities among the Iranian leadership, particularly Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, thought that in light of the sanctions’ heavy pressures, more substantial concessions were in order. In opposition, the Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei thought the Americans could be bent to Iran’s will. The United States ignored the realists’ position and regarded Khamenei’s as the decisive one. In my view, a much better deal could have been attained by conducting the talks appropriately. It still can be attained by rejecting the current one and ratcheting up the U.S. sanctions.

Would a military operation have achieved a delay more significant than the delay that the agreement provides?

The logic behind the deal is a logic of containment. According to this logic, it is impossible to prevent Iran’s nuclearization and hence the question is how to delay it as much as possible. Is this view justified?

A successful military operation, that we all regard as a last option, would probably delay Iran’s nuclearization for a much longer time, and maybe thwart it altogether. The threat of a credible military option is what has deterred Iran from racing to the bomb so far. Under the present conditions, a credible threat of a military option will continue to prevent Iran from attempting a breakout. But if Iran does attempt to break out and military force is used effectively, then from Iran’s standpoint there would be no point in rehabilitating the project since it would know that a decision to thwart its nuclear ambitions had already been taken once and will be taken again if necessary.

What weight should be assigned to the deal’s problematic ramifications for Israeli security? Is it possible to compensate Israel for the increased threat?

President Obama himself claims that he can understand those who criticize the deal out of their concern for and affinity to Israel, and that he also understands the concerns of Israel itself, given the danger Iran poses from its standpoint.

At the same time, in his view, none of this justifies voting against the deal, and Israel can be compensated for the increased dangers with weaponry and by boosting U.S. military aid and commitment to its security. In this context, Obama again stresses that he is the U.S. president who has bolstered military aid to Israel more than any of his predecessors.

And yet, if concern for Israel validates criticism of the deal, should it not also, from Obama’s standpoint, validate opposition to it? Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, but it is also a Western liberal democracy and an important component of the array of democracies fighting to defend the existing world order and enlightened values against the assault of Islamic radicalism, a category that includes Iran. The assigning of secondary priority to Israel’s needs reflects the weakness of the liberal-democratic camp as a whole. Moreover, no compensation can suffice for paving the way to a nuclear arsenal for a country that constantly reiterates its commitment to Israel’s destruction.

What will happen if the deal is not approved?

Obama and his supporters claim that nonapproval of the deal will speed up Iran’s march toward the bomb and hence lead inevitably to a war to stop Iran from going nuclear. The assertion is, however, devoid of logic.

On the one hand, if the deal is voted down in Congress, Iran will still have an incentive to abide by the spirit of the deal since Iran repeatedly declares that it has no interest in nuclear weapons, and the deal’s implementation will likely lead to the lifting of at least Russian and Chinese sanctions and possibly those of other countries.

On the other hand, Iran will continue to fear that racing to the bomb now will lead to a military operation at a time when the threshold is still too distant and it does not have the capability to defend itself. It’s worth remembering that what brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place were the sanctions and what stopped it from racing to the bomb was its fear of being attacked, with Iran well aware of its limited ability to deal with the consequences. Ramping up U.S. sanctions would probably cause Iran to show greater moderation, and augmenting the credible threat to use force if necessary would probably keep deterring Iran from attempting a breakout.

It should also be borne in mind that ultimately, Europe, Japan, and other major countries, and perhaps even China and Russia, will probably prefer economic ties with the United States to ties with Iran; hence it is not clear to what extent the sanctions regime will actually collapse. So far, all of the Administration’s prophecies of doom whenever measures were taken against Iran have turned out to be false prophecies. It is also worth recalling that the U.S. Administration strongly opposed the oil and financial sanctions and began to impose them only when, under pressure from Europe and Congress, it had no choice.

Can one rely on intelligence to detect Iranian cheating?

The confidence the Administration demonstrates on this issue is curious, and it is not clear what it is based on. In fact, so far, the record of American intelligence (and that of Israeli intelligence, too) when it comes to revealing foreign nuclear programs, including those of Iran, is far from impressive (one thinks of North Korea, Syria, Iraq, India, and Pakistan). Such programs are pursued by the rogue nation under a special cloak of secrecy, and it is clear that Iran, too, keeps getting better at the game. Even if secret activity is revealed, the procedure for visiting a site requires first presenting the information to Iran – something intelligence agencies would likely not be eager to do.

About Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.