Monday, July 20, 2015

The Iran Deal

I wanted to give the announcement of the nuclear arms control deal between Iran and the P5+1 a few days to circulate, watch the outrage machine kick into high gear, watch my facebook news feed get bombed by all manner of memes denouncing the deal, and give all the other by now tediously predictable opinion-massage techniques time work their way through the system.

Let's take a step through what the deal is - and is not - and see where that leaves us. A lot of the arguments against the deal can be found in this National Review article and many others like it. 

The Deal
Some of the claims about this deal somehow guaranteeing Iran will somehow be poised to immediately deploy nuclear weapons at the end of 8 years or 10 years look to be more talk than actual substance. The deal allows full and intrusive monitoring at the known nuclear sites, everything from mining to centrifuges. Centrifuges are limited and reduced dramatically in this deal.

The activities at Fordow, the place I would have most concern over, are dramatically reduced. Yes, the Iranians can continue centrifuge studies - but they can't use uranium in them. That is a big deal. Yes, the Iranian negotiators can go home and brag that they brought home the ability to work on centrifuge tech (under our watchful eye), but they don't mention, no uranium. They can only work with stable isotopes. Enriching stable isotopes is useful some niche manufacturing work and in the realm of medical isotope irradiations. There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of things you have to get very right in order to enrich uranium (the form you use for enrichment, uranium hexafluoride, is incredibly toxic and must be kept a high temperatures). Limiting uranium enrichment studies to the older centrifuges at Natanz is probably the best compromise that could have been reached short of war since, technically, it is not illegal to enrich uranium up to the 20% mark (that is, raise the level of U-235 from 0.7% to 19.9% - the U-235 isotope is the one that matters in this case).

The Iranians are required to downblend the material they had enriched up towards 20%, which again is a big deal in my mind as this limits a "breakout" or "sneakout" towards having fissile material in enough quantities to be of concern before we'd figure it out and bomb them.

I read the agreement to state that if Iran is found to violate key parts of the enrichment limitations then there is an automatic path back to the UN Security Council that re-imposes sanctions without a vote, which means Russia or China can't block future efforts to clamp them back down. It says something like "any participant" can raise issues with the oversight commission governing this agreement. The clock starts and within 30 days the UN Security Council can either do something (like impose sanctions) or if they do nothing, the sanctions are automatically re-imposed. That appears to me as a huge win. 

What the Deal Does not Do
No, the deal does not allow the IAEA or the US to swoop in on any military base anywhere in Iran unannounced for inspections. That is quite true. This is a bargain to ease sanctions in return for more inspections and insight into the Iranian nuclear program, which means also more chances to catch covert work should there be any. This actually seems like a case where sanctions worked - we imposed hardship on them and they responded by policy changes.

What I think is being conflated by those who really oppose this plan is that it does little or nothing to ease geopolitical tensions in the region. That is true. This really is a nuclear non-proliferation treaty - not a regional peace treaty. This is much more akin to what Reagan accomplished with the USSR in the 1980's in terms of arms limitations and setting out methods for two states that don't trust each other. We got nuclear arms limitations out of the Rekjavik conference, but Reagan also continued to fund the mujahadin against the Soviets in Afghanistan (you know, back when Bagram Air Force base was the center of evil occupation, not a critical node supporting a military partnership). That's how I look at it, at least.

Now, I totally understand the hesitation over the sunset clauses, but it is not like we'll spend the next 8 or 10 years in a vacuum. We'll still be penetrating their programs with our spies, we'll be monitoring their efforts in nuclear and other programs, and we'll see how it evolves. I don't have a better answer other than to say this was a negotiation and you don't always get everything you want.

At the end of the day, the things most of the opponents wanted - full access any time, any place - was not going to happen. Iran was not a country defeated in a major war. This is still reasonably strong regional power and negotiations never give everyone everything they want. The Iranians actually had to give up quite a bit. Not everything, but then again, they didn't have to.

The other thing I find interesting is that Iran is viewed as having almost superpowers by many commentators. The IRGC apparently can magically miracle a nuclear bomb in place (and all the vast sub-systems and other challenges needed to deploy a useful weapon), undetected, without a testing program, and also magically have militarily relevant numbers of those weapons ready to use, also undetected. This is the same nuclear program which was penetrated by Stuxnet and where Iranian scientists continue to have a nasty habit of winding up dead.

Add to that the fact that Iran and their proxies are getting their butts handed to them in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, yet somehow I continue to read how they are magic demon warriors and will drive across the Middle East and take Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem if we blink our eyes for just a second. This is the same country that couldn't beat Iraq back in the 1980's, even with Oliver North selling them spare parts.

Liking it vs. What is Best Strategically

There is another interesting thing lost in the immediate flare up of antipathy towards this deal. Roll the clock back to the early 1970's and ask yourself what a Korean War vet would have thought upon seeing Nixon grinning at a reception in China? The hate would have been strong. And justified. But that deal radically changed the balance of power against the USSR and gave the United States a tremendous number of options in dealing with the Soviets for the next nearly two decades.

Not to get all John Lennon on you, but imagine, if you will, just imagine having the option to flip Iran into, if not the US sphere of influence, then let's say out of the Chinese/Russian orbit. What happens when the Islamic State gears up for the big push into Saudi Arabia, the home of the hardcore version of Islam which drives IS and where a corrupt monarchy totters on top of a population boom and stares out at declining oil revenues? Wouldn't it be nice to have the option of cutting a few more deals with Iran? Hell, the brilliant neo-con architects of the Iraq invasion bascially gifted Iraq to the Iranians. We might as well have a few more options to get at all that lovely oil...

Don't mistake my lukewarm approval of the deal to mean I like it. But sometimes what is best strategically is not all that palatable personally.

Also, I realize it is heresy to think in terms of US needs and strategic position in this region where we are supposed to have only one position - the position told to us by our ally in nuclear-armed Tel Aviv, so I'll stop here.


There are still tons of issues in this region. Yes, there are legitimate worries over things like ballistic missile tech, Iranian support of Hizbullah and Iraqi Shi'ite militias (just to try and clear it up, we don't like Hizbullah, but we are okay with the Iranian-supported militias fighting the Islamic State - got it). No, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps are not nice people. Noted.

This deal does not address these issues. This was structured as a nuclear arms control deal, not a regional peace deal. On that limited score, it is actually a net win for the West, in my opinion. Yes, war is an option, I guess. The last one worked out so well, some folks might be ready to send another generation off to fight for their opinions on the matter.

Parting Shot

Oh, and one other thing. There is a great quote from Speaker of the House John Boehner talking to this deal that I must share:
“It blows my mind that the administration would agree to lift the arms and missile bans and sanctions on a general who supplied militants with weapons to kill Americans,” Mr. Boehner said.
He said this without irony. How many 9/11 bombers were Iranian? How many were Saudi?

Just checking.

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