Once again, Obama has announced a “deal,” when in fact what has happened is that Iran has gained more time, has made no meaningful concessions, and has effectively split the Western negotiators. This latter outcome is getting no attention as of yet, but is the most important.
The U.S. has made concessions, of course. The upshot of them is that Iran gains time. We have imposed a fatal condition on ourselves: going forward, we won’t continue pressing for Iran to shutter the uranium enrichment facility at Fordo, in a mountainside near Qom, or to cease building the plutonium reactor at Arak.
(Bret Stephens and many others point out that Obama specifically named both sites as facilities Iran needed to give up, to demonstrate truly peaceful intentions with her nuclear program. We’ve given them up as bargaining points instead.)
The State Department is presenting this as an agreement made in exchange for a detailed commitment by Iran to not enrich uranium at Fordo, and to allow inspections. Besides the fact that these terms are unenforceable, however, there is the inconvenient fact that Iran does not confirm that she has made this agreement.
Just like last time (see first link above), Iran has come out promptly to accuse the U.S. of lying about the deal. Iran’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, describes the State Department fact sheet on the “deal” as “spin.” This alone is singularly unpropitious.
The explanation is straightforward, however. Iran didn’t actually agree to what the U.S. State Department has put out today. John Bolton clarified this on Fox a couple of hours ago. Nothing has been jointly signed or published by the U.S. and Iran. Only one document has Iran’s explicit concurrence, and that is a joint statement with the EU.
Although the EU-Iran statement mentions both the Fordo facility and the Arak reactor, it differs from the State Department fact sheet in two key ways. One is that it does not contain all the fanciful detail, about these and other issues, included in the State Department fact sheet.
The other is that State’s fact sheet and the EU-Iran statement speak in two different ways about the process for lifting sanctions on Iran. This is extremely significant, more because the language is different than because of what the exact wording is in each case. The EU-Iran statement has the sanctions being lifted “simultaneously” with implementation of the as-yet-undefined compliance measures by Iran (which are to be worked out by June):
The EU will terminate the implementation of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions and the US will cease the application of all nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions, simultaneously with the IAEA-verified implementation by Iran of its key nuclear commitments.
The State Department says the sanctions are to be lifted “after” compliance:
U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.
The State Department document also has an important rider not found in the EU-Iran statement.
If at any time Iran fails to fulfill its commitments, these sanctions will snap back into place.
The preceding summary not only matters, it’s the make-or-break aspect of this whole episode. Iran managed to pen a joint statement with the EU. It is vague and ultimately unenforceable, which is the only kind of statement Iran would agree to. But Iran and the EU negotiators now have something they’ve put all their names on, and the U.S. is not a party to it.
I have no doubt that John Kerry and the U.S. delegation did present what’s in their fact sheet to Iran during the negotiations. But Iran has left the talks without signaling agreement with the U.S. on anything.
And Zarif is at pains to quickly disavow any such agreement, which we should find informative. To cut to the chase, Iran is laying the groundwork for undermining the sanctions regime through the EU, regardless of what the U.S. does. The U.S. Congress may be a nut Iran can’t crack, but if the EU is split from the United States, just about everyone else that’s still enforcing the UN sanctions will follow the EU’s lead.
The split in the West is the top point to remember about the failure of this round of talks. It is virtually certain to be irreparable.
The other two main points to remember are, first, that Iran hasn’t had to give up any of her critical facilities. (Nor is the vaunted prospect of inspections a guarantee of anything – but, of course, if you don’t know that by now, there’s not much anyone can do for you.)
Second, Iran hasn’t had to close Fordo, the hardened and buried site in the mountain. This problem is usually put in these terms: it means that the agreement doesn’t make the Iranian nuclear program truly interdictable going forward. The site can’t be reliably spied on or feasibly attacked. Iran could get up to all kinds of skullduggery in there, immune from interdiction.
While this is an important consideration, we also want to keep in mind that Fordo is by no means the only hardened and buried site Iran has. Its main distinction is that it’s the one we know the most about. There are tunnels and underground sites at Natanz, Esfahan, and the Parchin complex as well; the IAEA just hasn’t gotten inspectors into them for years (if ever), and there is no reason to hope they will. There are also probably other underground sites we know even less about.
All that is really secondary, however. Iran has a path now to getting sanctions relief, and otherwise benefiting from a situation in which she keeps the EU and the United States divided, playing us off against each other. A divided West means there is no hope at all of enforcing a meaningful regime of inspections on the Iranian facilities. It also means, of course, that no multi-party sanctions can be reimposed once they are lifted.
A lot happened in Geneva in the last few weeks. But Javad Zarif is actually right, if undiplomatic. The State Department fact sheet doesn’t legitimately convey what it was.