Much Ado About Not Too Much

I guess it’s impossible to avoid the news of the day so I’ll comment on it. The Obama Administration has its framework agreement with Iran on Iran’s nuclear development program. Le Monde has a good backgrounder on the history of the negotiations, laced with healthy dollops of cynicism and skepticism (or it may be that things just sound more cynical and skeptical in French). For an outline of the terms of the framework agreement Russia Today’s “The Nuclear Deal for Dummies” appears to be a pretty good explanation. Here’s how The Guardian characterizes it:

Iran has promised to make drastic cuts to its nuclear programme in return for the gradual lifting of sanctions as part of a historic breakthrough in Lausanne that could end a 13-year nuclear standoff.

The “political understanding”, announced on Thursday night in the Swiss city’s technical university, followed 18 months of intensive bargaining, culminating in an eight-day period of near-continuous talks that went on long into the night, and on the last night continued all the way through until dawn.
In a joint statement, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, hailed what they called a “decisive step” after more than a decade of work.

Speaking afterwards, Zarif said the accord showed “our programme is exclusively peaceful, has always been and always will remain exclusively peaceful”, while not hindering the country’s pursuit of atomic energy for civilian purposes.

There does not appear to be a complete meeting of minds on what’s actually in the framework agreement. Iran’s chief negotiator has said that the Obama Administration is misrepresenting what was agreed upon. His interpretation is that the EU will completely lift its sanctions as soon as the IAEA completes its preliminary certification of Iran’s nuclear development program.

David Ignatius says that there’s a substantial amount of spin control on all sides and that’s probably about right. The prevailing wisdom appears to be that the framework agreement is about as good as it gets.

The editors of the Washington Post are skeptical:

The agreement is based on a theoretical benchmark: that Iran would need at least a year to produce fissile material sufficient for a weapon, compared with two months or less now. It remains to be seen whether the limits on enrichment and Iran’s stockpile will be judged by independent experts as sufficient to meet that standard.

while the editors of the Wall Street Journal are even more so:

The general outline of the accord includes some useful limits on Iran, if it chooses to abide by them. Tehran will be allowed to operate a little more than 5,000 of its first-generation centrifuges at its Natanz facility, and only there. It will not enrich uranium above civilian-grade levels for at least 15 years, though it will retain some of its unnecessary current stockpile.

Even better, the reactor at Arak will be retooled to render it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The underground nuclear facility at Fordo will remain open but be converted into a “nuclear, physics, technology, research center,” with no fissile material present and centrifuges under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

All this would be somewhat reassuring if the U.S. were negotiating a nuclear deal with Holland or Costa Rica—that is, a law-abiding state with no history of cheating on nuclear agreements. But that’s not Iran.

Consider the Additional Protocol, a 1997 addendum to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that was meant to expand the IAEA’s ability to detect and monitor clandestine nuclear activities. Iran signed the Additional Protocol in December 2003, about the time Saddam Hussein was pulled from his spider hole. The signature meant nothing: By September 2005 the IAEA reported that Iran wasn’t meeting its commitments, and Iran abandoned the pretense of compliance by February 2006.

Now Iran has promised to sign the Protocol again. But as former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen observed in a recent paper for the Iran Task Force, “contrary to what is commonly observed, the AP does not provide the IAEA with unfettered access.” Mr. Heinonen adds that the agency “needs ‘go anywhere, anytime’ access to sites, material, equipment, persons, and documents.”

The framework lacks this crucial “anywhere, anytime” provision, even as Mr. Obama calls its inspections the most intrusive ever. Instead it says the “IAEA will have regular access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.” Does that mean inspectors have to schedule an appointment? With how much notice? The obvious way to evade inspections is to start a new and secret facility that isn’t part of the accord. This is exactly what Iran did with the operations at Fordo.

You be the judge of whether the negotiations have been successful. Back in 2012 here’s what the president said about negotiations:

The deal we’ll accept [ed. with Iran] is that they end their nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place.

Those resolutions called for Iran to suspend its enrichment. In the framework agreement Iran gives up very little. They’ll keep all of their centrifuges. They’ll reduce the number they’re operating to just over 5,000. They continue enriching uranium. They’ll retain all of their stockpiles of nuclear fuel. In exchange Russia, China, and the EU will drop their sanctions. The United States will do nothing, well within its core competency, and that doesn’t require the president to seek approval from Congress which he wouldn’t get anyway.

To me this sounds very much like accepting the inevitable and calling it a breakthrough. The Russians and Chinese were already chafing under the sanctions and sending signals they were going to abandon them. The Chinese in particular are eager to get even deeper into the Iranian oil industry. The Europeans don’t want to lose their market share and, if the Russians and Chinese abandon sanctions, so would the Europeans.

29 comments… add one
  • jan Link

    “You be the judge of whether the negotiations have been successful.”

    It all depends on where you glean an analysis of this so-called “framework.” The Iranians are even indicating Obama’s team is misrepresenting the deal in their fact sheet, especially when it comes to the timing of eliminating economic sanctions. Even when compared to Obama’s 2012 benchmarks for the negotiations you excerpted, the deal should be dead rather then brazenly applauded by the administration’s pundits and purveyors of WH speech, like the current WH Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, does.

    But that’s not the case.

    One prediction, though, that seems very credible is that if sanctions are removed too soon, and the Iranian’s behavior of not following thru on a deal continues, internationally it will be very difficult to revive such broad sanctions again. China and Europe have their own self-interest in wanting to erase sanctions with Iran. So, once they are officially removed by a U.S.-led agreement, there will be little that a weak American can do to demand others reactivate them, along with the U.S., should the Iranians pull their usual bluff.

    Another reasonable assumption to make is that this deal will only encourage more ME nuclear proliferation, while doing relatively little to impede Iran from completing it’s mission to be a nuclear capable force to be dealt with across the world.

  • The Iranians are even indicating Obama’s team is misrepresenting the deal in their fact sheet, especially when it comes to the timing of eliminating economic sanctions.

    Yes, I mentioned that in the body of my post. The U. S. team seems to understand that sanctions will be lifted gradually. The understanding of the chief Iranian delegate is that the EU will lift sanctions on materials required for nuclear development immediately after the preliminary assessment by the IAEA.

    It’s actually possible that they both could be right. Depending on what the meaning of is is, of course.

    I don’t think that makes any difference as to whether the administration in an agreement reached under this framework will have achieved the goals set out by President Obama three years ago. The most charitable interpretation is that the goals have been changed to bring them into line with what might be accomplished. That’s basically what I said in the body of the post, too.

  • steve Link

    They have agreed to the most extensive monitoring program of any county and they are giving up 97% of their uranium. Sounds good to me. Someone did a nice job holding the coalition together so we could get a decent deal. China and Russia could have bailed at any time, and they did not. Same with the Germans who were the ones selling them a lot of their nuclear stuff.

    Odd this you consider this inevitable. I thought no deal was most likely. I also assumed that neither party would get 100% of what it wanted. I have to assume you are a better negotiator than anyone I know if you expect 100% every time.


  • Odd this you consider this inevitable.

    I thought the breakdown of the sanctions regime was inevitable. Such regimes have tended to be fairly short-lived. One of the justifications made for the invasion of Iraq was that the sanctions regime was breaking down.

    The key problem is that everything is relative to declared stocks and known development sites. If you believe that the Iranians will declare everything they have and all their sites, it’s a good deal. If you don’t, it’s meaningless.

  • I have to assume you are a better negotiator than anyone I know if you expect 100% every time.

    I probably am but that’s irrelevant to the matter at hand. When you say “to be acceptable the deal must…”, that’s the floor not the ceiling. 100% is the ceiling. They didn’t even get the floor.

    I take the president at his word. Don’t you?

  • steve Link

    This deal essentially ends their nuclear weapon program. According to your links, they are giving up the advanced centrifuges, not keeping them. They are giving up 97% of their uranium. They are converting their plutonium producing site to a research facility. They have agreed to inspectors everywhere, including at their mines. You are interpreting “end their nuclear program’ as meaning no nuclear capability at all. That was clearly never the case by anyone participating in negotiations. The goal was to end the nuclear weapon program.

    Iran has already stopped enrichment to 20%, and IIRC has allowed inspectors to confirm that. They will only be allowed to enrich to fuel grade, about 3%.

    In order to make a weapon, they will need to make or buy new centrifuges. They will need to build a new facility, with inspectors in the country. Or, they will need to use the existing older centrifuges, which will be very apparent to inspectors. With either option, it will be very clear what they are doing and we will have time to respond, and we are way ahead since they won’t have the big stockpile they have now.

    So, yes, I will take the president at his word. He has stopped their nuclear weapon program.


  • jan Link

    This New York Post piece sees the framework a bit differently from Steve’s version for the following reasons:

    Many of the agreements plainly benefit Iran:

    Iran will continue its full nuclear program, keeping open all its sites — including Fordo, Isfahan, Natanz and Arak, the closure of which had been a key demand of the United States and its allies for the past decade or so.

    The heavy-water nuclear plant at Arak will be finished, despite Washington’s once-strong objections.

    Iran can upgrade its installations at Fordo but will focus the site on producing isotopes for medical and agricultural use. (Of course, Iran can switch the site back to producing weapons materiel whenever it chooses.)

    Once the final draft is approved by the UN Security Council, all sanctions imposed against Iran would be lifted. In the meantime, the P5+1 agree not to impose any new sanctions on Iran over the nuclear issue.

    Once the UN Security Council has passed a resolution canceling all its previous resolutions on the Iranian nuclear issue, a timetable would be established for the mutual implementation of the accords by Iran and other powers.

    Thus, the prospective deal would legalize much of what Iran has already done in violation of its past treaty commitments, and free the Iranians of the sanctions imposed because of those violations.

    What would Iran promise to do in return?

    Maintain its uranium enrichment at the current level for 10 years — after which it will no longer have to observe any limits. It can maintain 6,000 centrifuges in full operation, far more than Washington had once demanded.

    “Neutralize” the uranium it has already enriched to above 6 percent — to either convert it to fuel rods or exchange it for uranium fuel from abroad. The United States dropped its demand that the 6,000-plus pounds of stocks be transferred out of Iran.

    Join the Additional Protocols of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — granting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors much greater rights to go wherever they choose.

    Inspections, though, as to how spontaneous and unrestricted they can be have not been spelled out. Considering how secretive and unreliable Iranians have been in the past with similar agreements, why are there those willing to have such open-handed (naive) trust for what the Iranians now agree to follow?

  • jan Link

    So, yes, I will take the president at his word. He has stopped their nuclear weapon program.

    Of course, why not! He has never lied to us before!

  • steve Link

    Netanyahu said as far back as the early 90s that Iran would have nukes in 5 years. The neocons told us Iraq had WMDs. Pick your poison. The USSR and China killed far more people that Iran has ever done. Both engaged in wars of aggression. Both financed terrorism, just as we did. You don’t trust Obama. I don’t trust the GOP, and on foreign affairs, I think I clearly have the edge here, but not sure that matters that much. The issue is that the only viable alternative to a deal is war and occupation, that needs to be essentially eternal.


  • jan Link

    I know you don’t think sanctions have worked, Steve. However, Iran seems extraordinarily keen on getting rid of the sanctions, enough so to agree to what I think were pseudo negotiations, as they all the while cried out for death to their negotiators and supposed ally, Israel. In fact, being free of sanctions seems to be the “honey” not only drawing them to the table, but also keeping them there, as numerous sources have cited a troubled economy because of the sanctions. And, once lifted it will dramatically improve.

    Where do you think all the extra money will go? Will the people of Iran benefit more? Or will Iran have more money to throw at various terrorist organizations they support in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? If the U.S. had just walked away from the table, leaving the Iranians still affixed with economic sanctions, with possibly more layered on, would they have been more interested in getting the U.S. back to the talks, with a better agreement in hand, or would they have built a bomb and nuked everyone? That kind of stark set of options is equivalent to those of you wanting a deal, no matter what, in seeing that war would be inevitable if we didn’t settle on something…anything.

  • Andy Link

    This is a better deal than I expected, provided it holds. More later, but this is a good primer on the technical analysis for those interested:

  • Andy Link
  • steve Link

    jan-Actually, I think that sanctions seem to have helped get them to the negotiations. However, I know that sanctions mostly affect the less affluent people in a country. The govt and the wealthy are usually less affected. I also know that it is unusual to be able to maintain sanctions effectively for very long. Russia and China are ready to bolt.

    So, a perfect deal would mean that Iran gives up those other 6000 centrifuges. They buy their fuel from someone else. After everything else they have given up, which is a lot, to hold out for that and cancel the deal means, I strongly suspect, that Russia and/or China leaves. Iran, which has its own hardliners, decides there is no possible deal and goes back to20% enrichment, and still has a huge stockpile. AND, the biggie here, the world is less safe. Letting them keep those older centrifuges so the y they can make their own fuel, while being watched, is just as safe as eliminating them.

    Really, the more I think about it this is all about style. You guys, who are really just Israeli puppets in this, want the kind of deal that destroys the opponent. That lets you stand over the defeated opponent and crow over your victory. That may be good for electoral politics in Israel, but there is nothing for us in that kind of deal.


  • Guarneri Link

    “Really, the more I think about it this is all about style. You guys, who are really just Israeli puppets in this, want the kind of deal that destroys the opponent. That lets you stand over the defeated opponent and crow over your victory. ”

    Nothing says admitting to a crap deal than resorting to that kind of statement. That statement is nothing short of bizarre.

  • My view is actually quite different from that. And I disagree with Andy. I think the framework agreement just isn’t particularly meaningful.

    You either think the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons or you don’t. If you don’t think they are presently developing nuclear weapons, what do we gain from an agreement under this framework? I know what the Iranians gain. I don’t know what we gain.

    If you do think they are developing nuclear weapons, it’s even less meaningful because, since they have repeatedly denied developing nuclear weapons, it will mean we can’t believe them. If we can’t believe them and with their proven ability to maintain secret nuclear development, what do we get from an agreement under the framework? Nothing. They’ll just keep developing weapons. Either way it’s not meaningful.

    As to the Israelis, as I’ve said before I don’t really care much about them one way or another. I think that Israel’s importance to us is greatly exaggerated. I hope that Netanyahu and the Israelis don’t believe in what he’s been saying. I think it’s a lot of bluster and for domestic political consumption. I guess time will tell.

    You guys, who are really just Israeli puppets in this, want the kind of deal that destroys the opponent.

    Absolutely. I’m no “Israeli puppet” but I think our official position on Iran should be regime change. We never had a policy of regime change with respect to the Soviet Union. Our policy on China isn’t regime change, either. But that’s not actually relevant to the point.

    The point is what did the president establish as the minimum acceptable results? I don’t believe he accomplished them. I think that you do is bizarre.

  • steve Link

    Andy- Yes. The continuous surveillance starting at the mines means they would need to develop a completely parallel system in order to develop a bomb in secret. That would be incredibly difficult to keep secret. They would need to groom new scientists and techs to man them. Inspectors having access to sites deemed suspicious, not just to known sites is also a big step.


  • steve Link

    “You either think the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons or you don’t.”

    False binary. If they really wanted nukes they cold have had them years ago. I suspect that what they really wanted is the ability to make them should they decide at some point in the future that they need them. Like if we started talking about invading them for some made up reason. Before this deal, they could have done that, potentially, in a relatively brief period of time. Now it will take a year just to accumulate enough uranium. Add some time to build a bomb and test it. (Of course, they don’t really have an effective delivery system, but that is another issue.) They have largely given up the ability to make a bomb in any useful period of time.

    “I don’t know what we gain.”

    Confirmation. There is no way to know their true intentions. The regime could change and their intent could change, but their intent does not matter if we are able to monitor what they are doing.

    However, suppose that you believe that they are intent upon making nukes. You, as appears to be the case, think this deal is inadequate to stop them. You think that they will have the ability to build an entire nuclear bomb industry in parallel to the current system, in secret. If that is the case, then bombing is clearly out of the question. If they can hide a system effectively enough to make a nuke, we won’t know where to bomb. Regime change? Regimes that change can change again. See Egypt. Besides, as I suspect you know essentially all factions in Iran support a nuclear program (energy, medical, etc.). If you really believe they are going to make a nuke, and then use it against us, you have the moral obligation to argue for invasion and occupation.


  • Saying that it’s false doesn’t make it false. You either believe they are or you don’t. You don’t want to answer the question.

    My view, as I have said many times, is that if they develop a nuclear weapon and threaten us we should take action otherwise do nothing. Preventive war is immoral.

    There is no way to know their true intentions.

    If they’re hiding their intentions, how in the world does an agreement under the framework change that?

  • steve Link

    Drew- Which part is crap? Monitoring uranium in every step from mines to fuel rods? Inspectors having the right to look at suspicious sites? Giving up 97% of their existing stockpile? No longer being able to make plutonium? Be specific.

    Reading the right wing press, the big issue seems to be not dropping sanctions until we have 100% compliance. IOW, they have to accomplish everything on their side before we complete our side of the deal. Since we have regime change every 4-8 years, they have to hope we stick to our side of the deal. While knowing that 47 of our senators have said they won’t. (I would strongly recommend watching Pat Lang’s primer on negotiating styles in the ME and this will make more sense.)


  • steve Link

    I did answer it. They don’t want to build one, but if threatened they want to have that ability. North Korea, about as backwards as you get, managed to build them. Iran has many foreign trained scientists. They could have had nukes long ago if they wanted. Ergo, they don’t really want one. However, it is pretty clear that not having them means you are susceptible to invasion.

    “If they’re hiding their intentions, how in the world does an agreement under the framework change that?”

    Then they don’t matter. If the deal goes through as described, we are monitoring every step in making their fuels rods, accounting for all of their uranium. I don’t find it believable that they could develop new mines, centrifuges and new sites, all in secret. If they start something in secret, or if they kick out inspectors, then their intentions are pretty clear and we can make decisions based upon that information.


  • ... Link

    Skimming all the above commentary makes me happy about my decision to just not give a damn about this topic.

  • Breakout capability is useless from a defensive standpoint. It wouldn’t deter anybody from anything and if you’ve reached the point that you need nuclear weapons to defend yourself it’s already too late.

    What a breakout capability is useful for is for a first strike.

    I take the Iranian religious scholars seriously. Either they’re telling the truth and they believe that using nuclear weapons would violate their religious beliefs or they’re lying in which case, as you’ve acknowledged, agreements with them are useless.

    The third alternative is that their religious convictions are malleable and they can oppose the use of nuclear weapons today and support it tomorrow. I think that’s confusing Iranian religious scholars with American laymen.

  • Actually, enrichment isn’t necessary for a peaceful nuclear program. Just ask Canada.Nor would there be the need for the heavy water reactor at Arak which has no peaceful application. Or the clandestine cheating for years. The Iranians want the bomb, and the mythical Fatwa our president keeps yakking saying their religion prohibits nukes doesn’t exist.

    These are people whom had 12-year-olds don plastic ‘keys to paradise’ Khomeini bought in Taiwan and trained them to act as human minesweepers during the Iran/Iraq war. The difference in their mindset and ours is considerable, and anyone who judges Iran’s rulers by western norms as rational actors is kidding themselves.

    This is the regime our president has signed off on having nuclear weapons.

    As for sanctions, of course they don’t work fully when you have a president who waters them down from day one, hands out waivers like candy and avoids the one really crippling sanction, baring anyone trading with Iran from using the US banking system, the same one Bush used against al-Qaeda and one of the few things he did right. If that had been done at the beginning and adhered to, the so-called ‘deal’ would have been very different.

    This is by no means ‘much ado about not much.’ It illustrates a mind set in this president and his minions that is more dangerous that most of us realize. Obama’s remarks on the framework differ so completely from what the Iranians said that someone has to be lying. Since the Ayatollahs don’t have to bother with spinning since they’re despots, guess who the liar is?

    Oh, and as for the idiot who talked about ‘Israeli puppets?’ If you think this is just going to affect Israel, just wait a couple of years. Remember whom the ‘Great Satan’ is that Iran’s leaders still lead chants calling for death to.

  • @ Steve
    ” If the deal goes through as described, we are monitoring every step in making their fuels rods, accounting for all of their uranium. ”

    The Iranians announced today that they won’t allow IAEA inspections of any of their military sites including Fordow. They also announced that they will not permit monitoring cameras at any of their sites, and that the deal gives them the right to start injecting gas into their most sophisticated centrifuges — the IR-8s — which they say can enrich uranium 20 times faster than their current IR-1’s. According to no less than Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and his nuclear expert colleague Ali Akbar Salehi they plan on doing so ‘the minute the deal goes through’.

    Yes indeed….’monitoring everything.’

    Steve, have you ever thought of applying to work at the Obama State Department? You’re at least as smart as Kerry and Obama, so you’d fit right in.

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