The Iran Accord: Not What You Thought

A detailed analysis of the Vienna deal shows that there is no basis for the dramatic scenario posited by Netanyahu.

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A technician checks valves at the uranium conversian facility in Isfahan, 450 km south of Tehran, February 3, 2007.Credit: Reuters

So far, Benjamin Netanyahu is winning: The notion that the agreement with Iran is “bad and dangerous” dominates public discourse in Israel. The tone was set by the one-dimensional approach and alarmism voiced by the prime minister and other commentators. In the weeks since the agreement was reached in Vienna on July 14, the media spin and the hasbara (public diplomacy) messages from the prime minister and the Israeli government have only intensified.

Netanyahu and AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, have launched an aggressive campaign to torpedo the accord signed by the world powers and Iran. In the meantime, and under the influence of emotional messages, the facts have remained “orphaned” in the corner. But a fact-based analysis shows clearly that the agreement is a good one, and that it will contribute significantly to Israel’s security.

It needs to be emphasized that this is an agreement for arms control and the prevention of nuclear proliferation, and does not involve other matters, which some have tried to foist on it. Hence the importance of the facts. The alarmists and the opponents are evoking complicated issues to formulate arguments aimed at swaying public opinion. They are building their case on the assumption that the public is not interested in hearing the complicated details. It’s the job of the analysts and strategists to explain what’s at stake.

Contrary to the claims of the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the agreement is not about a temporary, 15-year freeze. Rather, it blocks Iran’s road to nuclear weapons for as long as the world behaves according to the norms and rules of its most universal convention: the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prevents the spread of nuclear weapons. The NPT has been signed by every country on the planet but four (India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel). And the NPT does not have an expiration date. After a decade of ambiguity regard Iran’s intentions with its nuclear project, specifically whether it has a military component, the new accord ratifies that country’s status as a “Non-Nuclear-Weapon State” within the NPT.

The most crucial point of the agreement that it blocks the potential routes to the manufacture of fissile material for a bomb. Without fissile material (i.e., uranium enriched militarily to 93 percent, or plutonium), there can be no bomb. A nuclear bomb cannot be manufactured with low-enriched uranium of 3.5 percent, which Iran will be permitted to produce only under the stringent and constant supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

ARCHIVE - Technicians of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan, Iran, August 8, 2005.Credit: Reuters

A few facts: Once the heavy-water reactor core at Arak is dismantled, and with the permanent prohibition of the extraction of plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel rods, Iran’s path to a plutonium bomb will be cut off, and the possibility of installing a compact nuclear warhead on a missile blocked. As for the second possible route, a uranium bomb, the Vienna accord calls for a dramatic reduction in Iran’s uranium-enrichment capability. In this situation, Iran will not be able to achieve military enrichment to produce fissile material.

The deal with Iran also stipulates a drastic reduction in centrifuges – from 19,000 in the two uranium-enrichment facilities today, to just 5,000 (from an outdated first generation) in one facility, Natanz – which will be under continuous, 24-hour IAEA supervision. In order to block completely a possible rapid thrust to a nuclear bomb, the stock of currently existing enriched uranium is to be reduced from eight tons (sufficient for eight bombs in a theoretical calculation) to just 300 kilograms over a period of 15 years. The large surplus stock will be removed from Iran.

With factual data like these, it is difficult to see a rapid thrust to nuclear weapons.

The agreement also contains detailed prohibitions on research and development that could have a connection to weapons-related research that could be used to design and develop a nuclear weapon. The invasive inspection regime to which Iran will be subjected is without precedent in the history of nuclear arms. As in the Cold War pacts between the Soviet Union and the United States, this is not a case of an emergence of mutual trust and unexpected affection between the sides. What we have, rather, are stringent supervisory and verification mechanisms regarding the whole nuclear fuel cycle, thereby ensuring the durability of the agreement.

In addition to the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the assertive declarations of the U.S. president, American satellite technology (which can collect environmental samples of materials, in addition to taking photographs), will make possible any early detection of a significant breach of the agreement within a matter of days. Combined, these should serve as an effective deterrent to violation.

No ‘secret annexes’

To preclude any violations by means of clandestine processes taking place at undeclared sites, Iran will sign the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. That legal document, one of the products of the lessons learned from the Saddam Hussein era in Iraq, will allow inspectors to enter every suspicious site, including military facilities such as the Parchin base. In certain cases, the inspectors will be able to enter only on the 24th day after giving initial notice of such intentions, but this will not significantly limit their activity. Nuclear materials always leave traces.

Contrary to insinuations made by the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the agreement has no “secret annexes.” The document is completely transparent. The modus operandi to be followed by the IAEA and Iran (the “road map” for dealing with areas that have raised suspicions in the past) will be determined in the agency’s non-public professional realm, as has been the case for the past 50 years. The findings will be transmitted via the professional briefings to the United States and to the relevant powers.

This, for example, was the case with the IAEA’s unpublicized handling of the dismantlement of South Africa’s six nuclear bombs, leading to that country’s “return to the straight and narrow” and its co-option to the NPT. Similarly, the behind-the-scenes handling of violations by South Korea was followed by Seoul’s signing of the Additional Protocol in order to prevent a recurrence of such breaches.

A detailed analysis of the agreement with Iran shows that there is no basis for the dramatic scenario posited by the prime minister, in which Iran cuts loose from the frameworks of the agreement in the 15th year and stuns the world with “many atomic bombs” within a few months. Even after the accord expires, Iran will still be subject to the inspection mechanisms and the Additional Protocol of the IAEA to prevent the production of nuclear weapons. Like a diamond, these conditions are forever.

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano speaking to the press at a Vienna airport Tuesday upon his arrival from Tehran following talks with authorities about Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Credit: AFP

To remove any doubt, Iran – providing yet another layer to its NPT commitment, this time directly aimed at the United States – undertook in Vienna not to develop nuclear weapons under any scenario. This declaratory doctrine is of crucial importance in the nuclear realm.

Iran is not a “nuclear threshold state,” nor does the agreement legitimize a “threshold state” as official spokespersons and commentators in Israel maintain. The agreement legitimizes only a civilian nuclear program. By definition, a so-called threshold state is one that is outside the NPT and the IAEA’s supervision and inspection purview. A state in that situation can stockpile fissile materials for a bomb and cross the threshold of a nuclear detonation with the use of the fissile materials it has stored.

For example, India and Pakistan, neither of which are NPT signatories, stockpiled fissile materials and crossed the threshold with nuclear tests in 1998. Or South Africa, which succeeded in manufacturing six bombs secretly, as it was outside the realm of the NPT and not subject to IAEA oversight.

An analysis of the deal shows that Iran does not resemble those countries, and is not a member of the threshold club. Indeed, it is closer to Japan, Germany, Argentina and Brazil – member-states of the NPT each with a non-nuclear status, which enrich uranium for civilian purposes under IAEA supervision in accordance with Article IV of the NPT.

No more dominos

Apparently, Israel’s Military Intelligence – which is responsible for providing the prime minister with the National Intelligence Estimate to governmental authorities – believes the Iranian threat is decreasing in the wake of the agreement, and it is not echoing the alarmists’ facile slogans to the effect that “Iran is a threshold state.” Those with sharply honed senses recently heard a new term that Israeli intelligence has put forward for discussion: Instead of “threshold,” which evokes a clear line, a doorstep that is about to be crossed, they are now talking about Iran being “in the space of the threshold.”

This evokes something broad, flexible and amorphous, with remote boundaries and sometimes indefinite extension. “Threshold” and “space” are opposites, antonyms. The term is an oxymoron. Iran’s indeterminate threshold space, in the estimation of Israeli intelligence, is the opposite of what the politicians and commentators call a “threshold state” – one that is capable at any moment of acquiring nuclear weapons. The terms may sound similar, but the essence is different.

Secretary of State Kerry, left, and Iranian FM Zarif, after signing the deal. U.S. Jews are divided on whether the complex matter is worth supporting or opposing.Credit: Reruters

The agreement contains important positive implications for Israel’s security. Above all, it prevents Iran’s emergence as a new nuclear-weapon state in the Middle East. Nuclear weapons are in a different, higher league than all other weapons; they alone are definable as an “existential threat.” This potentiality is blocked definitively by the understandings reached in Vienna. They prevent a serious erosion of the NPT and help strengthen and consolidate the global regime for the prevention of nuclear weapons – of which Israel, which is not a signatory to the NPT, is one of the main beneficiaries.

As a by-product, the agreement should prevent the development of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the region’s transformation into a multi-nuclear arena. It also will put an end to the talk about a nuclear domino theory. With the first domino, Iran, out of the game, the other dominos will not fall either. Indeed, the candidates for “nuclearization” as per this theory – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – were among the first to welcome the agreement with Iran.

Likewise shelved was the media rumor about an “off-the-shelf Pakistani nuclear weapon” that would be transferred to Saudi Arabia as a deterrent against an Iranian nuclear threat. There’s no need for it.

The agreement spares Israel the need to cope with almost insurmountable dilemmas. Should the country continue to consider applying the Begin doctrine, which aims to prevent emergence of new nuclear states by means of a preventive military strike? The deal with Iran achieved the same goal by diplomatic means. A preemptive strike on Iran would be absolutely unlike the one-fell-swoop aerial operation to eliminate the lone Iraqi reactor at Osirak in 1981.

Beyond the operative challenges and the multiplicity of targets inherent in such an attack, an impassable strategic barrier exists. Even before the deal with Iran was struck, the United States would not allow a non-NPT state (Israel) to attack an NPT member-state (Iran) after the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded with a high degree of probability that Iran had ceased its suspicious activities related to a military project in 2003 and had not resumed them. And this will be all the more so due to the existence of the Vienna agreement, which ratifies which formalizes Iran’s status as a non-nuclear-weapon state.

The military implications of the UN Security Council’s recent passage of resolution 2231, which approved the Iran agreement, are the removal of the “file” of that country’s violations from the Security Council agenda (the sanctions themselves are to be lifted gradually over the course of the year), and, by implication, the removal of a possible call for the use of force against Iran based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

It’s possible that the agreement will put to the test a traditional and almost axiomatic Israeli belief: the doctrine of the IDF’s right to freedom of action in the Middle East. Strategically, though, Israel should be among those that have an interest in the endurance and sustainability of the accord. The Vienna agreement looks durable because it reflects a win-win situation for both sides. Iran was granted recognition of its civilian nuclear project – a status that was not universally clear in the past. The United States and the other powers received Iran’s commitment that it is not striving to develop nuclear weapons, accompanied by intrusive monitoring and verification measures. They will constitute a guarantee that there will be no diversion into the realm of the military nuclear option.

In some Israeli circles, it is actually the alarmist school that is in thrall to the conception that “the sea is the same sea and Iran is the same Iran.” Netanyahu’s declarations would seem to derive from more than two decades of the belief that “the facts don’t matter – Iran is secretly pushing toward a nuclear bomb.” The good grades Iran received from the IAEA over the past two years did not produce a change in the pessimistic situation assessment. But such nuclear determinism has not justified itself in the past.

Following the signing of the Vienna agreement, the prime minister, through his spokespersons and commentators, has tried to forge in the public consciousness a “nuclear weapons certainty” by means of nuclear determinism that anticipates the future 15 years down the line. A fact-based analysis of the agreement shows that this is an intellectual exercise with feeble foundations. What’s more, in the contemporary Middle East, 15 years is almost an eternity.

The question of “what Iran wants” cannot be addressed either abstractly, or separately disconnected from the facts about the nuclear capabilities that have been blocked in the accord (and analyzed here) or the means of deep supervision and verification that it puts in place.

In the Iran debate, it is helpful to recall the words uttered by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, early in the 20th century, at the beginning of each lecture he gave at the Ecole de Guerre, the French war college: “De quoi sagit-il?” (What are we talking about here?). In other words, to set aside the existential metaphors and look long and hard at the facts.

Shemuel Meir, a former Israel Defense Forces analyst and an associate researcher at the former Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues. He writes Haaretz’s “Strategic Discourse” blog (in Hebrew)