The nuclear agreement reached between Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (United States, China, France, Russia, United Kingdom), Germany and the European Union (EU) is now a fact and should be given a chance to work, said a panel of experts at UCLA on September 16, 2015. They concurred that despite its flaws, the agreement was worth pursuing and that the alternative would have been no agreement at all.
Such was the general consensus of "Understanding the Iran Nuclear Deal," a panel discussion cosponsored by UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations, Center for Near Eastern Studies, Younes and Soraya Center for Israel Studies and Center for Middle East Development. The panel speakers were Aslı Bâli, professor of international law at UCLA School of Law and incoming (winter 2016) director, Center for Near Eastern Studies;Albert Carnesale, UCLA chancellor emeritus, former SALT I negotiator, professor emeritus of public policy and of mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Dalia Dassa Kaye, director, Center for Middle East Public Policy, RAND Corporation. Steven Spiegel, UCLA professor of political science and director, Center for Middle East Development, moderated the discussion.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by the aforementioned parties on July 14, 2015. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded a separate, confidential agreement with Iran that details the terms of the inspections that the agency will have the right to conduct within the country.
The JCPOA is an executive agreement, not a treaty; as such, it did not require ratification by the U.S. Senate. Pursuant to a law passed in May 2015, the agreement was subject to a two-month review period by the U.S. Congress. During that period, which expired September 17, 2015, the Congress had the right to express its approval or disapproval of the agreement. Although vigorously challenged by Republican lawmakers, the Obama administration put together a veto-proof majority of supporters in the Senate that three times blocked "disapproval resolutions" in that chamber. The U.S. House of Representatives chose instead to vote on a resolution to approve the agreement, which failed to garner a majority of votes.
What the deal is and is not
Albert Carnesale began his remarks by clarifying what the agreement is not. It is not, he said, about Iran's support for terrorism, American citizens held by Iran, human rights in Iran or Iran's recognition of Israel. Rather, it is an arms control agreement that complements the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement of 1970, to which Iran is a party. Not only does the JCPOA not include a withdrawal option, said Carnesale, its preface includes the sentence, "Iran re-affirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire nuclear weapons."
According to Carnesale, the deal would lengthen the "break out" time between when Iran takes action to produce a weapon and the moment it has enough nuclear material for one such weapon (from two to three months to a year) for a period of at least 10 years. "Think of it as warning time: from the time we see them doing something, we've got about a year to do something about it. As opposed to two months, when they could have gotten even closer," he said. In addition, the deal rolls back many elements of Iran's nuclear program, cuts its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to virtually nil, prohibits production of highly-enriched uranium, and greatly limits production of plutonium.*
In return for its compliance with these and other obligations, all nuclear-related international economic sanctions against Iran will be dropped over time, Iran will be permitted to sell oil, and the United Nations embargoes against the export of conventional arms and ballistic missile technology to Iran will be lifted after five and eight years, respectively. Carnesale specified that the rescinding of the latter two embargos is covered in UN Security Council Resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015. (Contingent on Iran's implementation of the agreement, Iranian frozen funds worth $100–$150 billion will also be released with no restrictions on their use.)
Having such a deal, insisted Carnesale, is far better than not having one. "My bottom line is that, given where we are, our objective should be to focus on what can we do to make sure that this agreement succeeds and that Iran adheres to it, and that we leverage it to enhance our interests and our allies' interests in the Middle East and elsewhere," he concluded.
A complicated rule will govern IAEA access to suspicious sites that Iran has not declared to be nuclear sites, he said. "But people are pretty confident about that, especially if the Iranians were working with nuclear materials there, because it's radioactive and hard to clean up," he remarked. "If they were doing other kinds of research, [it would not be] so easy to be sure that they were in compliance."
Responding to an audience comment that Iran was not to be trusted, Carnesale said, "We didn't trust the Soviet Union at all, but we had a host of arms control agreements with it that were very successful and whose verification conditions didn't come close to those of the Iranian agreement."
Dalia Dassa Kaye added, "This deal is not going to solve the mess in the Middle East. . . so let's have realistic expectations for what we can get from this deal — even if it goes well." She argued that it was, however, a very important arms control agreement in the interest of the United States.
Kaye pointed out that all non-economic sanctions against Iran remained in place, especially current U.S. sanctions related to Iranian human rights violations and other issues. Only the sanctions implemented in response to its nuclear program will be rescinded once Iran complies with the terms of the agreement.
The case for implementation
"We are not at the end of a very contentious process, we're really at the beginning," said Kaye, predicting that implementation of the agreement would be a complicated series of crises. Nevertheless, she urged Americans to give the deal a chance, rather than derail it out of mistrust of Iran and its motives in the Middle East. "I think it is important to test what Iran is going to do, to test whether it could have impact within the Iranian system, and ultimately, see if there might be limited opportunities for continued engagement with Iran," she said.
She noted that the United States and Iran had certain common interests in Yemen and Iraq, as well as in fighting ISIS. "But if the post-deal climate [will be] to consider Iran always the enemy, [that] will torpedo the potential benefits of the agreement," she remarked.
Kaye reminded the audience that just as the negotiation process had necessarily involved both carrots and sticks, so, too, would the implementation process. "If the Iranians feel that they are not getting sanctions relief and an end to their isolation, they will be really dissatisfied," she said. "The Iranians gave up a lot [in this agreement] — the hardliners think they gave up too much," she said, explaining that the final agreement had crossed many Iranian "red lines" by stipulating very robust measures for inspections of suspected transgressions.
Aslı Bâli argued that the two years of negotiations that preceded the deal had already put the world in a stronger position to slow Iran's development of nuclear arms. The talks, she noted, proceeded on the basis of an action plan that caused Iran to slow uranium enrichment while negotiations proceeded.
Perhaps most important, she added, the window for detecting a nuclear arms breakout has been expanded by the agreement and is now much longer. Moreover, the agreement permits unprecedented monitoring and inspections by the IAEA inside Iran.
She dismissed the criticism that the deal did not require Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear infrastructure, claiming that goal had been unfeasible from the start. Iranian scientists now have expert knowledge, she explained, and could recreate a nuclear arms program whether or not existing infrastructure was destroyed instead of mothballed.
Bâli conceded that once the $100–150 billion in frozen funds were returned to Iran upon its implementation of the agreement, these monies could not be taken back. But she pointed out that Iran had to take concrete actions before the first tranche of funds was even released. Should it break the agreement, she explained, the original UN economic sanctions — the text of which is incorporated into the final text — would automatically "snap back" (i.e., be re-imposed).
Challenged to defend the conclusion of a side agreement between Iran and the IAEA on the latter's inspections within Iran, Bâli explained that the IAEA was an autonomous agency, so the "U.S. could and did not lead those negotiations." (The U.S. is represented on both the IAEA's Board of Governors and Secretariat). The critical issue, she said, concerns how samples will be collected at the Iranian military facility in Tarchin. She was convinced that the protocol for collecting samples had been strengthened and was now quite comprehensive.
As for the IAEA's ability to gain access to military sites, Bâli remarked, "It is extremely rare that any country is willing to allow an inspection of their military sites, and this gives them 24 days to respond."
Tumultuous historical moment in the Middle East
"We are in a period of serious realignment in the Middle East," observed Bâli. "The region's former major powers are now in flux." Questions abound, she continued, as to whether Egypt will be able to control its borders, make progress on its economy and consolidate its government, or whether it will be bogged down in insurgency. At the same time, the drop in oil prices and the advent of alternative energy sources is shifting strategic energy calculations away from oil in the Gulf, which will ultimately weaken Saudi Arabia and the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
She argued that this realignment of powers in the region — not the fact of the nuclear deal itself — offered the United States an opportunity to re-evaluate its interests in the Middle East over the medium term. In particular, she urged the U.S. to re-think its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which she claimed had been "underwriting some of the greatest threats and sources of instability in the region.
"Rather than simply taking it as a given that we have a commitment to Saudi Arabia and that Iran is an adversary," she added, "I think that this a moment where there is enough change in the underlying fault lines in the region that we should re-open that equation and ask ourselves, as the United States, where our strategic interests lie."
Kaye disagreed that it was an opportune time to rethink U.S. relations in the region. "The problem is that political reality is working against [a new U.S. policy]. Ideally, our role [should be] to dampen sectarianism in the region, normalize Iranian-Saudi Arabian relations and tamp down proxy wars. But we already see a tendency to compensate for the deal [on the part of the U.S. administration] by confronting Iran in all other spheres and issues in the region."
Steven Spiegel did not emphasize the risks of the agreement, but rather, of the domestic political threat to it in the United States and its effect on perceptions of American power in the world. America, he said, is experiencing "an unusual, and in some ways unprecedented, complete lack of bipartisanship. That one party could vote against this deal without exception. . . is very dangerous to American interests and the American future," he argued.
"Confidence in the United States has eroded in a dangerous fashion over the last few years [in the region] and it's something that the Obama administration has not been able to overcome. The rest of this administration, and particularly the next president. . . will have to deal with that issue and deal with it very quickly," he added.
According to Spiegel, the task before the United States is to achieve a complicated balance wherein its actions signal to Iran that it means business, while restoring the confidence of other regional powers that the U.S. is capable of taking the actions needed to constrain Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons. At present, he remarked, "The Arabs are more concerned with ISIS than Iran." And he noted that the West and the U.S. would be judged not only by how they handle implementation of the nuclear agreement, by their response to ISIS and the refugee-migrant crisis as well.
* Among other obligations, Iran must reduce the number of nuclear centrifuges in use by half, cut its stockpile of uranium to 300 kg, and adjust its Arak heavy-water nuclear reactor so that it produces only minimal amounts of plutonium.