Baker on the Iran Deal: It “Needs Work—Lots of It”

Within days of the April 2 announcement of the tentative agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, it was apparent that there are substantial misunderstandings about a deal the administration has hailed as “an historic understanding.” Clearly, much work must be done if there is to be a final agreement by the June 30 deadline.

Iranian leaders quickly disputed key points about the White House’s description of the terms of the agreement. Among them was Iran’s demand that all sanctions be removed once a final deal is signed. That is a far cry from the U.S. understanding that sanctions will only be removed over time, as Iran meets its obligations. This different Iranian position may have been aimed at Iran’s domestic audience. But if Iran holds to it, there should be no final agreement.

Arms-control negotiations are rarely easy, and there remain serious questions about more than the phasing out of sanctions. These include verification mechanisms (including access to Iran’s military bases for inspections); the “snapback” provisions for reapplying sanctions; and Iran’s refusal so far to provide historical information about its nuclear-enrichment program so that there is a baseline against which to measure any future enrichment. The proposed snapback and verification provisions, while still being negotiated, look like they will be particularly bureaucratic and cumbersome.

Experience shows Iran cannot be trusted, and so those four weaknesses need to be addressed and fixed. Yes, it would be good if we could have a verifiable agreement extending the current “breakout” period for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons to one year from the current two-to-three months. And for that extension to last at least 10 years.

Baker & Hostetler Partner David Rivkin on the Senate Foreign Relation Committee’s attempt to reassert influence over President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Photo credit: Associate Press.

As things now stand, however, if in the end there is no final agreement—and if the U.S. is seen to be the reason why—we could be in a worse position than we are today, because the United Nations and European Union sanctions would likely be watered down or dropped. The U.S. would then be left with the option of only unilateral sanctions, which are far less effective. So it is critical that the U.S. position on these issues be supported by most, if not all, of the other members of the P5+1 group, as the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany are called.

A great deal of negotiating is yet to come. That provides Secretary of State John Kerry, who has done a herculean task getting the talks this far, with an opportunity. In the coming weeks, he and other American diplomats should travel to the P5+1 capitals and convince their counterparts there to support non-negotiable positions on the four outstanding questions, positions that Iran must agree to if it wants to start reaping the substantial economic benefits a final deal can bring it.

Iran should not be rewarded for waffling and re-trading. Even before it began complaining about the tentative agreement, Iran has reneged on prior agreements. Two days before a March 31 deadline, for example, Iran backed away from its pledge to send a large portion of its uranium stockpile to Russia, where it could not be used to make weapons. Our P5+1 partners should understand that if we can’t trust Iran to stick to its promises during negotiations, we cannot trust that it won’t resume its nuclear-weapons program after a final deal is reached.

Only after we have the necessary support from the P5+1 should we resume our discussions with Iran. And then, only after the Iranians have been told in no uncertain terms that we have reasonable specific demands they must meet. Let Iran and the world know what those demands are. If Iran balks at such an arrangement, then it will be that country’s fault that the talks broke down.

On the other hand, if the U.S. is viewed as cratering the deal because of insufficient domestic support, it will be much easier for our P5+1 partners to diminish or drop sanctions against Iran. We should recognize that some of those countries are eager to resume their business relations there, just as Russia has actually done in recent days by agreeing to the sale of a sophisticated air-defense system to Iran.

I commend the president and his national-security team for trying to solve this difficult problem short of military action. A nuclear-armed Iran threatens the security of the Middle East and the world. A nuclear-arms race in that volatile part of the globe would be disastrous. Military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities should remain our last resort, as it would strengthen the hard-liners in Tehran and could have other unfortunate and serious consequences.

I hope that the administration will use the current dyspepsia in Tehran as a fulcrum to convince our negotiating partners to demand a deal from Iran that satisfactorily resolves the weaknesses of the April 2 framework regarding the phasing out of sanctions, the verification mechanisms, the snapback of sanctions in the event of an Iranian breach of the agreement, and the historical record of Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities.

-Originally published in the Wall Street Journal