Reviewing the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Iran nuclear deal continues to be misunderstood, and that misunderstanding could get increasingly perilous in the Trump administration. A mix of news items have prompted me to revisit the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran:

  1. Netanyahu embraced Trump a week ago, and the Republican Jewish Coalition, led by Sheldon Adelson, is considering purging the never-Trumpers because of Israel. Pence told the RJC this weekend: “We told the ayatollahs of Iran they should check the calendar, there’s a new president in the Oval Office. President Trump will never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, this is my solemn promise to you.”
  2. The Trump administration is reviewing the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump repeatedly attacked during the campaign. Meanwhile, Putin supports the Iran deal for economic reasons. So it is worth watching whether Trump’s anti-Iran politics will trump his pro-Putin politics. It is worth noting that RT, the media extension of the Putin regime, is promoting news right now that Iran is complying with the deal.

The Russians are a reminder of why the nuclear deal was necessary, even if not perfect.  The bottom line is that an international agreement put sanctions in place not because of terrorism, but because of Iran’s military nuclear program. Russia and China were the most reluctant. Once Iran announced to the world that it was willing to abandon the military enrichment program and to accept frequent inspections, the sanctions were doomed. Behind closed doors but speaking clearly, the Russians and Chinese told the Obama administration that they were going to end their participation in sanctions, which would end the effect of those sanctions and open the door to many other countries to drop sanctions, too. Russia and China wanted Iranian oil, and Iran’s willingness to end its military nuclear program was enough of an excuse for Russia and China to get that oil.  Moreover, Germany was also backing off sanctions. The Obama administration chose to be diplomatic in negotiating a new inspection regime, rather than publicly blaming Russia, China, and Germany. It would have been easy to score political points against these countries, but the result would have weakened or killed the deal.

The choice for the Obama administration was not the status quo sanctions regime vs. a deal. The choice was the China/Russia ending of sanctions with weak safeguards vs. an American-led deal with strong safeguards.  The Obama administration took a weak position and made it stronger.

Here are some additional sources on these points:

From an interview with Israeli security experts in 2015, from The Jewish Week: “[Was] there a realistic and better alternative to this agreement[?]

“We’ll simply never know for sure. Perhaps had a credible use of force been put on the table sooner and the Obama administration really challenged Iran’s regional policies in Syria and Lebanon, the Iranians would have been more pliant. But that would have required a much more risk-ready president when it came to the use of force and coalition partners who were also on board. At best both the Russians and the Chinese never saw the Iranian nuclear program in as dire terms as the U.S. did. And the Germans were eager to resume their trade ties with Iran as well. Israel was reluctant to use force on its own. And the Iranian regime would have continued on its resistance economy — pain notwithstanding — unless it could justify a good deal for itself. In a galaxy far away, a better deal might have been possible, but not here on planet Earth and not under these circumstances.”

This piece, “6 Biggest Myths about the Iran Nuclear Deal,” by a former Israeli brigadier general, answered one of my concerns about the Iran deal. Myth: “Allowing inspections within twenty-four days gives Iran enough time to hide/dispose of nuclear material.” Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain will be under 24/7 surveillance and monitoring. IAEA inspectors will have the right to visit any part of that supply chain immediately. If suspicious activity is detected elsewhere in Iran, Tehran must allow international inspections within twenty-four days. Disposing of nuclear material is different from disposing of illicit drugs or murder weapons: Nuclear materials leave traces that endure for thousands of years. The U.S. intelligence community and IAEA nuclear inspectors are fully confident they can detect nuclear activities well beyond twenty-four days.

Leading Israeli security veterans endorse the Iran deal. “Ben-Yisrael, who has twice won the Israel Prize for contributions to Israel’s weapons technology, told Walla! News that the Vienna agreement is “not bad at all, perhaps even good for Israel.” True, Iran still calls for Israel’s destruction. But, he said, from the nuclear perspective — which is what the negotiations were about — “it prevents a nuclear bomb for 15 years, which is not bad at all.” Halevy, the former Mossad director, elaborated on Ben-Yisrael’s point in a scathing Ynet op-ed . From the start, Israel “maintained that the Iranian threat is a unique, existential threat.” It wanted the international community to address the threat, and it did. “That was the only goal of the biting sanctions against Iran,” he wrote. Now, he stated, the government tries “to change the rules of the game and include additional demands from Iran in the agreement, like recognizing Israel and halting support for terror.” By threatening to block an agreement that addresses Israel’s “existential-cardinal” goal because it doesn’t address other, nonexistential issues, Halevy wrote, Netanyahu raises the suspicion that he doesn’t want a deal at all.

Why Iran’s Hardliners Fear a Deal

From a moderate Iranian academic recently: “So this is another revolution for Iran—and if the talks succeed in a deal it could be an enduring revolution. It will undercut the hardliners who have been using anti-Americanism as a powerful fuel to justify a wide range of policies both domestically and internationally and exploit Anti-Americanism to justify their mismanagement and wrongdoings. At the same time it will create a more appropriate climate for moderates and reformists inside the country who won’t fear engaging in serious conversations with hardliners on both domestic and international concerns, as they will no longer have to labor under the fear of being accused of being pro-American.”





Author: Jed Shugerman

Legal historian at Fordham Law School, teaching Torts, Administrative Law, and Constitutional History. JD/PhD in History, Yale. Red Sox and Celtics fan, youth soccer coach. Author of "The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America" (2012) on the rise of judicial elections in America. I filed an amicus brief in the Emoluments litigation against Trump along with a great team of historians. I'm working on "The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians," a history of prosecutors and political ambition (a cause of mass incarceration), and "The Imaginary Unitary Executive," on the myths and history of presidential power in America.

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