Whilst The Warwick Globalist has some technical issues with getting the new blog up and running I am using this one to comment on the Iranian nuclear deal. See here for an article I wrote for The Warwick Globalist’s temporary website on the relationship between the British establishment and the Gulf elites. There is a forthcoming piece on the relationship between the ‘realist’ international school of thought and international morality, a first blog on ‘theoretical’ issues in international relations.
Yesterday news came through that a preliminary deal had been struck between Iran and the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear programme. I’ve written fairly extensively on this blog before about Iran, the West and the nuclear issue, including a brief history of Iranian-Western relations, discussion of whether or not Iran’s nuclear programme actually has military dimensions, military options for the prevention of Iran acquiring a weapon, and diplomatic options for a peaceful resolution to the issue. I stand by what I said in those posts and they all remain relevant for understanding the background to yesterday’s deal.
There has been a lot of comment on the deal by people who seem not to have taken the time to actually read it, and seem unaware that this is only a preliminary deal aimed at creating the needed mutual trust between the parties with a view to a comprehensive settlement in 6 months time. That said, the deal is fairly impressive in its own right. The White House release on the details shows how Iran is to “[h]alt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical connections required to enrich above 5%... Dilute below 5% or convert to a form not suitable for further enrichment its entire stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium before the end of the initial phase” (enrichment to around 3.5% is the level needed for civilian nuclear energy purposes- 19.5% can be used for some civilian purposes such as fuelling medical research reactors, but it is also closer to the around-95% enrichment needed for a bomb). Iran has already been recognised as keeping its stockpile of 19.5% enriched uranium at below the level Israel considers necessary to make one nuclear device. The latest IAEA report puts its stockpiles at 196 kg, below the 250kg mark needed for a bomb. Additionally, Iran will “[n]ot increase its stockpile of 3.5% low enriched uranium, so that the amount is not greater at the end of the six months than it is at the beginning, and any newly enriched 3.5% enriched uranium is converted into oxide”.
Furthermore, Iran will “[n]ot commission the Arak reactor. Not fuel the Arak reactor. Halt the production of fuel for the Arak reactor. No additional testing of fuel for the Arak reactor. Not install any additional reactor components at Arak. Not transfer fuel and heavy water to the reactor site. Not construct a facility capable of reprocessing. Without reprocessing, Iran cannot separate plutonium from spent fuel”. This stops fears of Iran taking an alternative, plutonium route to a bomb at Arak. When it comes to inspections, the White House report describes “[u]nprecedented transparency and intrusive monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program”; Iran will “[p]rovide daily access by IAEA inspectors at Natanz and Fordow. This daily access will permit inspectors to review surveillance camera footage to ensure comprehensive monitoring. This access will provide even greater transparency into enrichment at these sites and shorten detection time for any non-compliance. Provide IAEA access to centrifuge assembly facilities. Provide IAEA access to centrifuge rotor component production and storage facilities. Provide IAEA access to uranium mines and mills. Provide long-sought design information for the Arak reactor”. This comes off the back of a deal Iran recently struck with the IAEA to expand inspections of many nuclear sites. When it comes to centrifuges, Iran agreed “[n]ot install additional centrifuges of any type. Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium. Leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, so they cannot be used to enrich uranium”.
Given the extensive surveillance and “unprecedented intrusive monitoring”, it will be hard for Iran to break these constraints and get away with it. Officials familiar with the deal told the Washington Post that “[t]he concessions not only halt Iran’s nuclear advances but also make it virtually impossible for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon without being detected”. It should also be noted that it was already the opinion at the beginning of the year of James Clapper, US National Intelligence Director, that “Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU (weapons-grade uranium) before this activity is discovered”.
It should also be noted that the relief Iran has received in return is minimal- maybe $6-7 billion in sanctions reductions (despite what an Israeli disinformation campaign in Washington tried to claim). The White House release boasts how it is “maintaining the vast bulk of our sanctions, including the oil, finance, and banking sanctions architecture”. Iran’s $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings will also be unavailable to their government. A US official told Foreign Policy that “Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six month deal than it is today”. The sanctions are already severely affecting Iranian people; a Foreign Policy piece details how the “results have been devastating for the Iranian population, triggering a collapse of industry, skyrocketing inflation, and massive unemployment. As the rich and politically-connected prosper under sanctions, Iran's middle class has disappeared, and even access to food and medicine has been compromised”. Given that this is expected to continue and perhaps worsen, it is surprising that Iran has given in to such stringent demands at all.
The reactions to the deal have been revealing. All along Netanyahu slammed the prospects of a deal, seemingly before he even knew what the final details would be. After the deal was sealed in the early morning of Sunday, Netanyahu described it as a “historic failure”, and the Israeli Economics Minister, Naftali Bennett, proclaimed that “[i]f a nuclear suitcase blows up five years from now in New York or Madrid it will be because of the deal signed this morning”. The deputy speaker of parliament, MK Moshe Feiglin, of a ruling coalition party Likud, claimed the deal was “tantamount to the Munich Agreement of the late 1930s”. These wild ravings push Israel more and more to the fringes of the international community and are isolating it even from its allies. It could count on its new friend France to do its best to scupper the deal early on in the process, but now the only allies Israel seems to have on this issue are the Gulf dictators, chiefly the totalitarian Saudi Arabia. The Defence Minister also reaffirmed that “[a]ll options are still on the table”, an illegal threatening of the use of military force, not that anyone pays any attention to international law.
Reading through the English-language Israeli press has been an interesting experience too- some more measured reactions from Haaretz and the US-based Forward are counterposed against some more dubious responses. The online Times of Israel, for instance, explained that the problem isn’t that the details of the deal are bad, just that Iran is “a cunning and deceptive adversary”, and that “Iran has never acknowledged that it is in fact marching to the bomb”. Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the biggest newspapers in Israel, said that one of the problems with the deal is that “[t]he Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will effectively be finished”- not true, but both editorials are even more odd in light of the fact that Israel itself has refused to admit to its nuclear arsenal and refused to sign the NPT, seriously damaging its efficacy.
The fact is that the only thing which would make Netanyahu happy would be a complete elimination of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, an absurd position, not least because Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes under the NPT. He knows this demand is never going to be met, so as Trita Parsi put it in Foreign Affairs, “[t]here is reason to believe, then, that Israel’s insistence on zero enrichment is aimed to ensure that no deal is struck at all”. Even some parts of the Israeli military establishment seem at odds with Netanyahu on this: Christian Science Monitor reported that an Israeli military official told them that the “intelligence branch does not think this demand is realistic”, and that the negotiations offered prospects for stability in the region. Every state needs to exaggerate the threat posed by its enemies in order to further its domestic agenda, and Israel is no different. Whilst Netanyahu asserts that “[i]t’s 1938 and Iran is Germany”, the vast majority of scholars one should take seriously consider the Iranian regime to be a ‘rational actor’, not the kind of actor which will fire nuclear weapons at Israel in what would be the clearest case of state-suicide in history. Netanyahu wants to eliminate any possibility that Iran could ever challenge Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region. If he were serious about eliminating the very-real scourge of nuclear weapons he would take seriously the possibilities for establishing a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East; but since that would entail Israel giving up their arsenal, he would prefer to use illegal force against Iran.
The US has done what it must in putting aside the more extreme of Israel’s demands, and we can only hope that the reports coming out that Netanyahu is, in private, willing to give the deal a chance, are true. Let’s hope that this editorial from Yedioth Ahronoth, which seems to suggest that Netanyahu is and should be willing to risk World War 3 over this deal, represents the fringes of mainstream thought in Israel.