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 â€œpolitical understandingâ€, announced on Thursday night in the Swiss cityâ€™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 Unionâ€™s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, hailed what they called a â€œdecisive stepâ€ after more than a decade of work.
Speaking afterwards, Zarif said the accord showed â€œour programme is exclusively peaceful, has always been and always will remain exclusively peacefulâ€, while not hindering the countryâ€™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 Iranâ€™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 â€œnuclear, physics, technology, research center,â€ 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 Ricaâ€”that is, a law-abiding state with no history of cheating on nuclear agreements. But thatâ€™s not Iran.
Consider the Additional Protocol, a 1997 addendum to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that was meant to expand the IAEAâ€™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 wasnâ€™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, â€œcontrary to what is commonly observed, the AP does not provide the IAEA with unfettered access.â€ Mr. Heinonen adds that the agency â€œneeds â€˜go anywhere, anytimeâ€™ access to sites, material, equipment, persons, and documents.â€
The framework lacks this crucial â€œanywhere, anytimeâ€ provision, even as Mr. Obama calls its inspections the most intrusive ever. Instead it says the â€œIAEA will have regular access to all of Iranâ€™s nuclear facilities.â€ 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 isnâ€™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 weâ€™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.