The 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran isn’t perfect. It has a lot of room for interpretation, does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program and does not explicitly forbid Tehran from marketing terror or supporting terrorist organizations. But there’s a huge gulf between these reservations and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s pronouncement that the agreement is “bad operationally and strategically.”
Kochavi’s analysis rests on three components: If the agreement was to be implemented, it would enable Iran to enrich uranium and develop centrifuges, allowing it to build a nuclear bomb, and as a result, lead to the nuclearization of the Middle East. Kochavi presumably needs to be reminded that the agreement has already been implemented. And for the more than two years that it was operational, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran complied with all of the restrictions the agreement imposed.
The IAEA’s conclusion concords with the assessments of both the American and Israeli intelligence communities. Iran began to violate the agreement in a measurable manner only about one year after the Trump administration withdrew from it, and with each violation it specified that if the United States returned to the agreement, Iran would return to complying with all its provisions. Iran’s violations were part of a strategy to get European states to pressure Donald Trump into rejoining the agreement; it is a tad ironic that it came after years of the West attempting to woo Iran into the deal.
When the Trump slammed the door on the deal, Iran had already begun to reap its economic fruits. States and international companies had signed contracts with Tehran for trade and investment, for oil exploration and for the rebuilding of infrastructure. Iran had no interest in violating an agreement that was specifically designed to relieve the pachydermic pressures on the country’s economy, and it is difficult to assess how likely it would have been to violate the deal as soon as its economy recovered, particularly in light of the renewed sanctions that violations would trigger.
Furthermore, the agreement gave the IAEA access to monitor the centrifuges – of which the number was significantly reduced – for a period of 20 years, including 15 with sophisticated and intrusive inspection measures. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to use the agreement’s formal name, is a 159-page document with five annexes that goes into the smallest details, spelling out not only the type of centrifuge that Iran may operate and the technical specifications of each one, but also how they may be used and where the excess machines must be stored. They restrict the amount of heavy water that Iran can purchase or produce, and require it to transfer any beyond that amount to designated foreign countries. Prohibitions on experiments with uranium or plutonium are specified at great length, requiring Iran to make significant changes to its Arak reactor to guarantee compliance.
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It is therefore not clear what Kochavi is basing himself on when he said that the agreement would allow Iran to enrich large quantities of uranium, or how, given the draconian level of oversight, it could build a nuclear weapon. Even the second claim, according to which the nuclear deal could very well drag the region into nuclearization, is not based on facts. In March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman set the entire region trembling when he declared that if Iran would obtain nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would follow in its footsteps. It would seem that this threat could have been used to strengthen the Arab nuclearization theory. But it is still quite a long way between Saudi Arabia’s declarations and its ability to produce a nuclear bomb or even enrich uranium.
What is interesting is that a few months after the crown prince’s statement it was reported that Trump had approved the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. In other words, if there was a fear that Saudi Arabia planned on going nuclear, the blame should be placed on Trump – and not Iran. Except for the Saudi statements, no other Arab country has announced intentions to develop a military nuclear program. The only country that has made its desires clear on this matter is Turkey. Ankara, according to a number of reports that, it must be said, came out of India, is cooperating with archenemy Pakistan to buy, or develop, a military nuclear capability. If such a program does exist – no evidence has yet been found – it is not connected to the nuclear agreement with Iran, but to Erdogan’s own aspirations. It is possible to assume that if Arab countries, including those that are members of the anti-Iran coalition, had viewed the nuclear deal as a legitimate justification for developing nuclear weapons themselves, they would not have waited.
The central question on the Iranian nuclear issue does not lie in the wording of the agreement. The working assumption that stood behind the deal was that it was impossible to rely on the good intentions of the Iranian leadership or its statements, like “nuclear weapons are incompatible with Islam.” The goal was to create as long a period of time as possible between Iran’s nuclear capability and the “breakout point,” the date when it could manufacture an actual weapon. The assumption was, on the eve of the JCPOA, that Iran was just a few months away from achieving nuclear capability. Even conservative estimates said this time frame had extended to at least a year after Iran met the conditions of the agreement and reduced its uranium enrichment capability. Actually, if the agreement had not been signed, and assuming that Iran did indeed want to become a nuclear power, it is likely that would already be the case now.
Iran has lied and deceived the West for years, and an agreement cannot rely on just a handshake and promises. But those demanding to put harsher pressure and to stick to the suffocating sanctions until a new agreement, with new conditions and limitations, is signed, are also saying they are willing to trust Iran to keep to any deal that it signs. Then why not keep the deal as it is, and continue to negotiate separately over the other issues that worry Israel and the rest of the world?