Political analysts on the Iran Implementation Deal: A tale of two cities

Executive summary: Two distinct and opposing views are emerging from the response by analysts to the Iran plan of action agreed in Geneva last November: supporters of its first steps focus on achieving a future-oriented political accommodation in tandem with a strengthened verification architecture involving the IAEA. The opposing view is more skeptical and emphasizes the need of prior resolution of past concerns and suspicions regarding the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. This is the context in which future relations between Iran and the West is being fought over and may provide the basis for a longer-term solution. Atomic Reporters analyst Vasileios Savvidis reports.

On Monday, 20 January, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) between Iran and the EU3+3 came into effect on the basis of verification and monitoring modalities agreed between Iran and the IAEA. This was followed by a number of analyses reported in the media. We focus on a couple that highlight the diverging, even opposing, approaches scholars and policy analysts have taken as the agreement is implemented step-by-step.

Our focus is not on those analysts who dismiss the deal altogether but on those who accept the political reality that an initial agreement has been reached which is now being implemented with a view towards a comprehensive agreement in the near future.

The premise of Jessica T. Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in the The New York Review of Books, is that this is the first solid case of rapprochement between Iran and the United States since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. She offers three policy options facing the United States and its partners:  continue with sanctions as Iran maintains its nuclear hedging; take military action; or try to cut a deal like the JPA. In other words, she views the agreement within the broader political and historical context, fulfilling a political goal as a prospective game changer for achieving stability in the Middle East.

Mathews explains in depth why she sees merit in the agreement but she also acknowledges the great challenges posed by the new sanctions bill in the US Congress sponsored by Senators Kirk and Menendez, which in her view can damage the process. The fate of the deal will be up to all parties agreeing to ensure that the IAEA is in a position to verify and confirm initially and then subsequently on a regular basis that Iran’s nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.

In contrast, a report from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) avoids the political implications and jumps into the technicalities, seeking definitive technical answers to what transpired in the past decade in the Iranian nuclear programme – down to the last gram of enriched uranium produced by Iran. A loyal reader of AR defines it thus: “This level of micromanaging the Iran nuclear file is designed for failure. Not even UNSCR 687 prescribed this level of detail for Iraq.” The report appeared in the Wall Street Journal and in some other news outlets.

The main plank of ISIS is that Iran will need to dismantle most of its centrifuges – ISIS cites 15,000 – and make a series of other reversals that go beyond what has been agreed to in Geneva so far. While these proposals for drastic cuts in Iran’s enrichment capability were on the table for years, during the Bush Jr. years, they certainly were not part of the compromise reached in the course of the recent complex negotiations. Which raises the question, what is the practical purpose of judging a deal on criteria that were clearly off the table?

In essence, the ISIS approach sees Iran as a country bound to submit itself to a form of Inquisition, and expect nothing for the future unless all sins of the past are first absolved. Fine, but neither Iran nor its partners in the deal see things this way. There would have been no deal in the first place if it was seen this way by the EU3+3 part.

Also eye catching is the length of time required for a resolution by verification: “Iran has violated its safeguards agreement for more than 20 years, according to Olli Heinonen, the former Deputy Director General of the IAEA who is intimately familiar with the Iranian file in the 1990s and 2000s. So it would not be surprising if the IAEA needed two decades to ensure that Iran is fully compliant with all its non-proliferation obligations.” Olli Heinonen of was indeed an authority on the subject in the 1990s and 2000s but his findings don’t have an official status as such.  Be it as it may we fail to see why the length of the implementation time required for clarification should by definition be equal to the time during which safeguards violations had occurred. No further supporting argumentation is offered in the article on why this view is taken.

Mathews and other analysts, on the other hand, point out that the window of opportunity that opened with the election of Rouhani in Iran, combined with the Obama administration in the White House, is not going to last for long – both already are under heavy attack in their respective constituencies. The longer it takes for the final settlement to be reached the more likely it is that the whole process falls victim to domestic and regional political changes which are not be directly related to the deal.

The months ahead may also reveal that those who did not want or did not like the Geneva deal in the first place, instead of rejecting it altogether, risking exclusion from the debate, will cling to all those disagreements from the past down to the last minute technical detail. By setting impossible or impractical standards and timeframes they will be laying the ground for denouncing and taking down the entire process at a later, politically more opportune time.

Of course there will also be constructive analyses and criticism of the JPA focusing entirely on how to deal with past violations and how to settle suspicions concerning the ‘possible military dimensions’ of Iran’s nuclear programme.

For that matter see the post on Arms Control Wonk by Mark Hibbs and Andreas Persbo who address the challenge of how to choreograph the political accommodation between the parties involved – including the IAEA Board of Governors and the IAEA Secretariat – in a way that no party loses face and that the IAEA maintains its reliability as an impartial technical and political organization. Hibbs and Persbo in essence agree with the view that once a broader agreement is reached, even the most perplexing problems inherited from the past concerning the ‘possible military dimensions’ of Iran’s nuclear programme will be settled one way or another despite all political and institutional complications.

At this point let’s a add couple of remarks on the specifics of the Hibbs and Persbo piece as discussed with and communicated to Atomic Reporters by informed readers: The piece portrays the IAEA Board of Governors, the IAEA Secretariat and the Director General as being some sort of independent actors and it recommends that the IAEA Secretariat should consult with some of its powerful Member States on the conclusions to Iran’s nuclear activities, so as to avoid risk of disagreement, and that the UN Security Council should be involved in the determination to resume “routine safeguards” in Iran when the time comes.

In the field of ‘Applied Politics’ of course anything goes and we’ve seen many initiatives straying from institutional orthodoxy and becoming the accepted norm. And of course the UNSC has an all-encompassing institutional role to play in global politics. However, as pointed out by our readers by the rights and obligations of the IAEA under Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the JPA notwithstanding, it is within the sole jurisdiction of the IAEA Director General to decide when to move to “routine safeguards” in Iran, or in any other country under similar investigation, based upon the safeguards objectives and criteria of the IAEA. The UN Security Council has no role in this determination.

The Director General in practice would issue a series of reports on safeguards implementation in Iran, detailing progress made in resolving open issues and on normal safeguards implementation, leading to a report where an assessment is provided and the decision on that basis to move to routine safeguards implementation.  The IAEA Board of Governors could ask for further clarification but not reverse the Director General’s determination. A case in point is when in 2008 the IAEA Director General provided the broader conclusion to South Korea, after it had been found to be in violation of its safeguards obligations and working on undeclared plutonium separation activities. In response to that incident – the Director General reported on the verification activities carried out, how open questions had been resolved, and the basis for the broader conclusion.

To conclude this commentary.

Before a final settlement is reached issues concerning past transgressions will need to be addressed and sorted out both on technical and political grounds in ways that are satisfactory to all parties involved and with an official stamp from the IAEA, possibly from the UN Security Council.

But will the fate of the E3+3/Iran process be decided by reaching first an agreement to fix the present and on the future, to which the mending of the past will follow? Or will it be the other way around, subject to the rule of the “master caveat,” that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Regardless of the course to be followed, the IAEA will remain in the ‘hot seat’ as the authority with the last word on Iran’s compliance with its comprehensive safeguards agreement.

Atomic Reporters will be returning to this issue as we chart the course of the JPA.

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