Few will have been surprised by the announcement by the State Department that it believes the Iranians have been using the black market to purchase components necessary for the expansion of their nuclear infrastructure. More remarkable, on the other hand, was the way the State Department’s Vann Van Diepen apparently casually explained that these moves are not explicitly in contravention of the existing P5+1 interim agreement that Iran is signed up to. Indeed, it is being widely reported that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement. Yet, this fact says little in defense of the Iranians and much to condemn Secretary of State Kerry and the EU’s Catherine Ashton for having been complicit in formulating a deal that is so ineffectual as to permit this kind of thing.
We have been repeatedly assured by the administration that they had achieved some great feat, a diplomatic triumph, in getting the Iranians to sign onto the interim agreement. Yet, surely it is now obvious to any serious observer that an agreement so flimsy that it permits Iran to purchase new parts for the very nuclear infrastructure that this deal is supposed to work toward dismantling isn’t fit for purpose. This is the embodiment of the bad deal that Kerry assured us we wouldn’t get. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” or so we were told. If this deal isn’t bad, then it certainly sets the benchmark for good pretty low.
Not only does the interim agreement permit the continuation of nuclear enrichment, albeit at a lower level, but the fact that it allows for the Iranians to continue acquiring new nuclear parts is a reminder that this agreement is still more permissive than what had been agreed to even by the UN. Indeed, since 2006 the Security Council has placed sanctions on those selling such parts to Iran. The P5+1 interim agreement on the other hand has failed to proscribe such activity.
Negotiations for reaching an agreement that would definitively end Iran’s nuclear program resume once again this week. Yet, in recent weeks both Baroness Ashton and the Iranian foreign minister have expressed their skepticism about the likelihood of a deal being reached for the time being. Speaking from Tehran last week Ashton said that there was no guarantee that a final comprehensive deal would actually be reached. More recently Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has not only said that the Iranians do not expect to reach an agreement this time around; he has even claimed that a final agreement isn’t on the agenda for these talks.
With both parties in these talks apparently so unconvinced that these negotiations are leading anywhere, one has to ask what on earth they are doing taking part in them. The answer is that both sides are in these talks because they have to be, not because they want to. The sanctions regime that the West spent years meticulously constructing eventually forced the Iranians to the table. But Kerry and Ashton are only at that table because they must be seen to be doing something. The idea that the military option ever really existed for the Obama administration now looks completely implausible. Rather, both the Europeans and the administration knew that the military option was being seriously considered by Israel and others in the region. As such they are obliged to go through these diplomatic motions as a means of diverting anyone else from carrying out a strike on Iran which they no doubt fear would drag them into having to take a side in a conflict they wish to avoid at all costs.
With the threat of military action being more terrible in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Obama administration than the prospect of a nuclear Iran, its hard not to wonder what their true calculus is here. Presumably they are playing some kind of waiting game. With the sanctions now unraveling, and little hope of being able to reconstruct them in time to have any useful effect the possible trajectories seem clear. Either by some miracle the Iranians will lose all interest in their nuclear project, or, protected by the diplomatic process, Iran will cross the threshold of weapons capabilities by which point a military strike will become unthinkable in any case. The main objective for Obama and Kerry is to ensure that neither Israel nor the Saudis act on their threats of military action. And after that, Obama knows his time as president will be up, and the mess he has left becomes someone else’s problem.