The detailed nuclear agreement concluded recently between Iran and six world powers has found itself the subject of an intense debate. The White House has described the deal as a major achievement that blocks Iran’s four possible pathways to a nuclear weapon, the Iranians have argued that the deal represents an end to the age of illusions that others have long held about the Iranian nuclear program, Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the agreement as an ‘historical mistake’, and The New York Times has suggested that even the Arab world is at best divided over the deal. President Obama has defended the agreement, saying that the alternative to diplomacy is war.
Disagreement about the agreement has three focal points: the agreement itself, the nature of the Iranian regime, and what comes after. Let’s start with the agreement itself. There’s no doubt the deal places roadblocks in Iran’s path in terms of its ability to enrich uranium or manufacture and reprocess weapons-grade plutonium. But even a casual reading of the text suggests a hard-fought compromise. The brief Preface swims with tension between what the different parties ‘envision’, and the constraints upon various enrichment activities, for example, expire at the 8-, 8.5-, 10-, or 15-year mark depending on whether they relate to centrifuge type, R&D, centrifuge manufacturing, enrichment level or enrichment location.
Still, behind the pros and cons of the detailed provisions lies a broader concern that seems to underpin many critics’ concerns. The agreement not only accepts an Iranian entitlement to the full nuclear fuel cycle, but also unfolds a transitional plan to grow and sustain such a capability. That means Iran will, in time, have greater indigenous capacity to manufacture fissile materials for nuclear weapons because of the enrichment and reprocessing technologies that form part of that cycle. Iran gets to keep much of its equipment and infrastructure, gains from the gradual dismantlement of the sanctions regime, and in return for its commitment to an entirely peaceful nuclear program receives considerable help for its civil nuclear industry. The end result is that a more sophisticated Iranian nuclear program awaits us in the future—a condition that can only excite debate while Iran’s strategic trajectory remains uncertain.
And that’s why we have to put the agreement in a broader context. Iran is the big, pushy power in the Middle East. In a sub-region where strategic tensions remain high, where many of Iran’s neighbours are in turmoil, and where Shia–Sunni tensions are on the increase, anxiety about any substantial Iranian nuclear program—and what that might ultimately portend—runs deep. Whatever Iran’s behaviour in relation to the agreement—and the sheer quantity of fine print in the text suggests a litigious decade ahead—we should expect a degree of nuclear ‘matching’ by other regional players. And that must colour any overall assessment of the extent to which the agreement will make a positive contribution to regional and international peace and security. In one sense, the deal removes the need to consider more drastic solutions to the Iranian nuclear program. But in another, the world has probably set itself upon a path towards a more ‘nuclearised’ Middle East.
Finally, something should be said about what comes after. At the heart of the debate over the merits of the agreement lies one simple question: is Iran a determined proliferator? The question itself doesn’t have a neat answer. For some years Iran has shown itself willing to forsake an actual nuclear weapons capability in favour of enjoying a threshold nuclear power status—having close to hand the capacity to make such weapons if it needed to. Most of its recent strategic gains have not, in fact, derived from even that threat, but from the collapse of Iraq and Syria, and the promotion of other instruments of national power—including unconventional force—to advance its agenda.
Still, the question is an important one. Proliferation by regional powers (rather than great powers) seems to unfold gradually, over decades. In his 1995 work, Bridled Ambition, Mitchell Reiss argued that the five distinct emotional stages through which terminally-ill patients pass—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and eventually, acceptance—might serve as a model for the world community’s reaction to continuing nuclear proliferation. Some will say the model doesn’t fit the Iranian situation, since there’s no proof Iran intends to proliferate. But the worry amongst those who believe that it does harbour such an agenda is that we’ve just passed the bargaining stage.