Back in 2010, I interviewed Gerard Araud, who is now the French ambassador in Washington, while he was still serving as France’s envoy to the United Nations in New York. We talked at length about Iran, and this was the first thing he told me:
The Iranian nuclear program has no civilian explanation whatsoever. You don’t start a civilian nuclear program by enriching uranium. It’s like if you buy the gas before the car.
Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany) world powers last week announced that a framework deal on Iran’s nuclear program has been reached.
In the days prior, as I watched the Iran nuclear negotiations in the Swiss city of Lausanne slide past an agreed deadline of midnight on March 31 into, appropriately, April Fools’ Day, it struck me that nothing had changed since Araud—who remains a trenchant critic of American concessions to Iran—uttered those words five years ago.
The Iranian nuclear program was never about the civilian use of nuclear energy. It was, and remains, geared towards the production of a nuclear weapon—hence all the lies and deceit practiced by the Iranian regime over more than a decade, and hence the succession of U.N. Security Council resolutions and anxious International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports underlining how Iran’s nuclear activities do not comport with those associated with a civilian program.
In fact, the glaring unresolved issues that held up the negotiations in Lausanne reflect this fundamental state of affairs, reinforcing the perception that the Obama administration will concede on almost anything in order to secure a deal. Iran hasn’t disclosed the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of its program, and will have even less incentive to do so if sanctions relief is offered regardless.
At the same time, Iran has been told that it can continue operating centrifuges at its underground Fordow facility, thus enabling it to further master the enrichment process. And as for their stockpile of enriched uranium, which the Iranians were supposed to be shipping to their Russian allies for safeguarding, well, apparently they won’t be doing that either.
At best, then, what we have here is a weak deal. The main goal is to carry on talking, as it has been since the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was agreed between Iran and the five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany—the P5+1—in Geneva in November 2013. As the former George W. Bush administration official Michael Doran, arguably the most insightful Iran analyst in the United States, told me last year:
The interim deal is for six months and can be rolled over by mutual consent for another six months and another six months, interminably. The Iranians are very good negotiators, so they will work to string this along for as long as possible.
Because it’s a weak deal, there will inevitably be contradictory interpretations of what has been agreed. The overriding point, though, is that the Iranian regime will enjoy a great deal of leeway, thereby gravely hampering any attempts at verification by outside agencies like the IAEA.
Speaking on a conference call organized this week by The Israel Project, Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director-general, observed, “You need to know how far [the Iranians] got, which are the important institutions and capabilities so that you pick the right things for the monitoring…By far the best starting point is to have a complete disclosure.”
If the pressure of biting sanctions and the threat of military action didn’t persuade the Iranians of the need for transparency, then a deal that allows them to maintain their nuclear infrastructure with little international oversight will be regarded in Tehran as a strategic victory.