Iran: An Imperfect Nuclear Deal Better Than None At All?

30 Sep, 2014    ·   4678

Ruhee Neog argues that the environment is ripe for a less than ideal deal

Ruhee Neog
Ruhee Neog

In the desperate scramble for a conclusive nuclear agreement, would an imperfect deal with Iran be better than no deal at all? An imperfect deal would imply a trade-off between political negotiations and technical verification, especially in the context of Iran’s so-called possible military dimensions (PMD). In this, how important is it to resolve the PMD issue? Would it be detrimental or useful for the conclusion of a final deal?

PMD here refers to covert indigenous work carried out in the past, whether design or research-oriented, towards an Iranian nuclear weapon. The environment seems ripe for a less than ideal deal, and as has been previously argued, for the sake of pragmatism, what is achievable trumps what could be the most ideal compromise between the P5+1 and Iran. There have been reports from both parties that the negotiations are moving forward very slowly; concern has also been expressed about not meeting the 24 November deadline and the subsequent future of a deal in that event. It has also been suggested by Iranian President Hasan Rouhani that Iran would be open to the idea of cooperating with the US in combating the ‘Islamic State’ only once some sort of understanding on the lifting of sanctions that is agreeable to Iran is reached. This could make the situation more urgent than it already is, and prove that despite pronouncements about conducting the talks in isolation and without subjecting it to the pressures of the external environment, the situation on the ground cannot be kept insulated.

Negotiations with Iran are being conducted at two levels; one is political in nature – with the P5+1 – and the other, technical – with the IAEA. In September, reports of Iran’s inability to deliver information on certain aspects of its PMD to the IAEA emerged, which led many to question whether this intractability would hold up the negotiations process. Indeed, it has been established that given the overarching political nature of the West-Iran rapprochement, the domestic political constituencies of the US and Iran will have significant leverage in okaying a final deal. Members of the US Congress have already expressed their displeasure by saying that it is imperative for the PMD issue to fully cleared by the IAEA before a deal can be struck. Iran, on the other hand, has rubbished the PMD claims, made public in an IAEA Board of Governors report released in 2011, by calling them “mere allegations.” In this environment, the P5+1 may choose to sideline the PMD issue to expedite the negotiations. However, given its increasing prominence owing to domestic political demands to see its full clearance, the P5+1 may not be able to eclipse it completely.

In the event that the IAEA and Iran manage to reach a compromise and details about the possible military dimensions of the latter’s nuclear weapons programme are revealed, to what extent would it be useful for a final deal? As Jeffrey Lewis argues in “We don’t want to see Iran’s Full Monty” (Foreign Policy), Iran “very likely” carried out some covert work on nuclear weapons in the past, which have since come to a halt. If Iran discloses these details, it could quite possibly derail the negotiations process. It will be a very hard sell for the Obama administration to convince the tough customers of the US Congress, who have already laid many obstacles in the path of the interim agreement, that a final deal that trades sanctions relief for a capped nuclear programme is in the best interest of the US, especially after Iran’s past activities come to light. Proof of weaponisation work can create an environment not conducive to rapprochement, and that these activities were conducted in the past will be irrelevant as popular sentiment quickly turns against Iran.

Therefore, while a detailed understanding of Iran’s past nuclear activities may be considered somewhat essential to guaranteeing a full scope verification agreement, a full disclosure by Iran has the potential to preclude any deal whatsoever. Stubbornly clinging to the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ maxim would completely obliterate the diplomatic momentum built since November 2014. All things considered, an imperfect deal would be better than no deal at all.