Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran are ongoing in Vienna, with reports on all sides, but trustworthy revelations on none. While onlookers wait with bated breath (there are at least a few of us out there) little information can be gleaned from various comings and goings of officials or word that might leak out. In fact, at this point, it’s more likely that leaks to the press have been devised by one side or the other to influence the outcome we expect to hear on or around the 24th.
So here we are. Pondering the implications of what could be a deal, a partial deal with an extension, an extension, a breakdown of epic proportions, or hey, some other unicorn… we’re tired and we really don’t know. (Though surely not as tired as the folks in Vienna.)
Here are a few key issues to think about while we wait for the real news to come…
The Associated Press reports that Iran may now be willing to come down to 8,000 centrifuges. Reports also indicate that Iran has agreed to ship its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia.
These two moves together could extend Iran’s “breakout time” to around eight months.
This is more than enough for the U.S. to respond to an Iranian move toward a bomb (something that under a strong verification regime, the IAEA should be able to detect within days).
Speaking of the IAEA…
According to David Albright, the “most striking point” in the IAEA’s latest safeguards report regards the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. In case you’re not familiar, PMD encompasses a bevy of outstanding concerns the IAEA has over Iran’s past nuclear activities, largely dating back to its activities prior to 2004.
Those who would place these dimensions at the top of the list of must-solve issues prior to inking a deal would argue that since some of those activities might still be ongoing, we must have an explanation before we proceed. What this contingent fails to acknowledge is that if PMD is allowed to become a sticking point (a likely situation, it seems, in Congress) it could mean the failure of a deal, or worse, the implosion of a precariously formed international coalition that sits like the boy with his finger in the dyke of the sanctions regime.
Perhaps this is worth it for something that might jeopardize our ability to detect future progress on an Iranian nuclear weapon. But this is not the job of 2004’s inspectors or even today’s. This is the job of those inspectors who will remain on the ground after a deal is signed, with increased access to Iran’s disputed facilities that ensures those inspectors are able to alert the international community the second a hair falls out of place.
Of course, without a deal, those inspectors will be home. And then we can all just hope.
We don’t trust Iran, and we don’t need to
The IAEA has verified that Iran continues to comply with the conditions of the interim deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA).
With regard to those two areas of past activities related to nuclear weapons development, or PMDs, Iran has agreed to continue to meet with the IAEA. It has not, at this time, provided any information or an explanation to the agency, and it missed an Aug. 25 deadline for giving the agency information.
This is a problem, but not one that is related to ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran. Because the PMD process is a separate track with the IAEA, Iran is not obligated to answer these questions prior to inking a deal.
What is more important is that P5+1 negotiators deliver a deal that keeps Iran’s nuclear program under lock and key. Over the past year, Iran’s nuclear program hasn’t just been stopped in its tracks, key elements have been rolled back, and what remains is under constant surveillance. A good final deal will expand the ability of the IAEA to keep an eye on each and every move Iran makes, ensuring that not only do we avoid an Iranian breakout, we avoid a sneak-out too.
So what does this all mean?
First, verification is important. The importance of the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to keep or the details of past nuclear activities Iran is forced to reveal shouldn’t be discounted, but in many ways they’re the backup dancers in the main show. Any agreement must be assessed in its entirety.
Second, what we’ve achieved over the past year isn’t exactly chopped liver. We’ve come a long way, and it’s time to make this a permanent situation. The alternative is to go back to where we were: a strong sanctions regime with increasingly diminishing returns, an Iranian program just inches from the bomb, and the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack.
And if that sounds like fun, well, maybe we can find you a unicorn too.